The changing face of women’s football

Ahead of the hotly anticipated World Cup this summer, we look at whether brands are taking a fresh approach to marketing the women’s game, and the lessons they can take away from the success of campaigns like This Girl Can

Women’s football is undoubtedly having a moment. While the success of England’s Lionesses at tournaments including the 2017 Euros and the SheBelieves Cup in the US last year is giving the game greater exposure, much of the legwork is also being done at grassroots level.

Fan-led platforms such as ThisFanGirl are bringing together a previously disjointed community of women football fans and helping to hero their favourite players, while football and fashion zine Season was launched in 2016 to help counter the male, pale and stale state of modern football culture, and has so far dealt with issues ranging from religion to diversity within the game.

The energy and enthusiasm surrounding women’s football is something that Copa90’s Chief Business Officer James Kirkham has noticed more and more among its own audience, as the football-focused media brand has increased its coverage over the last few years, and brought in more women presenters such as singer and Fulham Ladies player Chelsee Grimes to front this up.

“Seven years ago Copa90 was born and it was disrupting football media in its entirety, but it wasn’t about the women’s game or women in football,” says Kirkham. “There’s a lovely normalising that has occurred and … something quite frankly intangible in the air. A historic moment is coming, maybe it’s already happened, but if not it’s certainly brewing.”

Season zine Issue 4’s cover, featuring Ocean Lewis photographed by Katie Bagley

The stats also seem to be moving in the game’s favour. Copa90 recently surveyed over 2,000 football fans aged 16-24 for its latest report. The findings are revealing; more than 50% of the fans – both male and female – said they want to watch and learn more about women’s football. The report also highlights that young fans are looking to football organisers to do more to raise the profile of the women’s game; 44% feel that it doesn’t feature on their radars often enough, and 26% don’t even know where they can access game coverage.

While traditional bodies like UEFA have been predictably slow to respond to grassroots interest, the organisation recently stepped up its game with #WePlayStrong, its ongoing campaign to shake up football’s uncool image among young girls and encourage more of them to take up the sport.

UEFA enlisted the help of 700 teen footballers from across Europe for the campaign when it launched in 2017, but has also recognised the importance of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat and celeb endorsements from the likes of singer Rita Ora and Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown to help its message actually reach young girls. At last, its efforts seem to be paying off; 73% of teenage girls who have seen the campaign say they would like to start playing football, according to the organisation.

The team behind #WePlayStrong, FCB Inferno, also happens to be same agency who orchestrated Sport England’s hugely successful This Girl Can campaign, which was noted for its refreshingly honest portrayal of exercise and inspired almost three million women to be more active in its first year alone.

Nike has designed kits for 14 of the national teams competing in this year’s World Cup

The impact of campaigns like This Girl Can has arguably helped paved the way a raft of more creative approaches to marketing women’s sports which eschew the lazy stereotypes of the past, Kirkham thinks. “We needed to go through the narrative of things like This Girl Can and Always’ Like A Girl to get to where we are now. We needed to get over hurdles and show the lunacy of terminology like ‘you hit like a girl’. I’m not saying it’s perfect now – far from it – but it feels like there is a far greater normalising,” he says.

It’s not surprising that sports brands like Nike are naturally responding to the building momentum around women’s football. The company recently signed a three-year partnership with UEFA Women’s Football ahead of the World Cup this summer, and has designed kits for 14 of the national teams competing in the tournament, including the Nigerian kit that first went viral during the men’s World Cup last year, and a particularly vibey polka dot away kit for host nation France.

Nike has also been celebrating women’s sports in all their glory in a series of ads it is releasing in the run up to the World Cup. Fittingly voiced by Serena Williams, Dream Crazier shone a spotlight on female athletes who have broken barriers to get to where they are, including one of its most recent signings 13-year-old soccer player Olivia Moultrie, and has racked up almost nine million views on YouTube since it launched in February. Another recent spot We Have Always Done It, directed by Eloise King, offered a fresh take on the body positivity message sweeping women’s advertising.

Along with the obvious candidates like Nike, brands that have long been embedded in the world of men’s football are finally putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to the women’s game. Barclays, who has sponsored the Premier League for 17 years now, recently announced its sponsorship of the FA Women’s Super League, and is also investing in the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships, a nationwide scheme to help develop girls’ access to football at school.

Visa recently signed the first ever sponsorship deal dedicated to the women’s game in UEFA’s history, which it has committed to until 2025. The company has also sponsored 14 international players as part of its Team Visa campaign, including Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze from the Lionnesses squad alongside lesser known names like Ewa Pajor, whose home nation Poland doesn’t even have a women’s professional league currently.

“One of the things that inspired us from a marketing perspective was the stories of the players,” says Visa’s Head of Marketing for Europe, Adrian Farina. “At a young age many of these women decided to pursue a career that probably ten years ago had no money in sight. That level of authenticity isn’t something you find today in many areas where people look to role models. In women’s football you do find it; they are approachable, they connect well with fans, they’re very appreciative of people’s support.”

While you’re admittedly more likely to see creative work that makes an impact from the likes of Nike and adidas, Kirkham thinks that we shouldn’t knock the efforts of big corporates like Visa and Barclays, which have bought into the potential of women’s football early on.

“I think the commercial interest is huge, and maybe that sounds like a cynical starting point, but frankly I think it has been unbelievably important for the game that people have lent in with money,” says Kirkham. “It’s not just a little bit added in at the end of the project, or a token piece to keep their punters happy, it’s brands coming in with real intent.”

Nike’s kit for the French team for this year’s World Cup

With brands stepping up their efforts, this year’s World Cup has the potential to be a real turning point for getting the women’s game on people’s radars. Now in its eighth edition, the event this summer will be a stark contrast from the first tournament in 1991, when only 12 teams competed, Chinese TV held the broadcast rights so the rest of the world was largely unaware of it, and there was only a single sponsor involved.

“We just had a World Cup that was bloody brilliant, and really bucked the trend of people assuming it would be horrific and brands not bothering with it,” says Kirkham. “This summer’s event is almost the perfect antidote to those fears. The teams are doing well, and of course success on the pitch breeds success off it. Some people might think we’ve already reached a tipping point, and who knows there may be another tipping point, but I’m not sure it will ever have such a mass appeal, mass exposure moment of this forthcoming summer.”

Nike’s kit design for the Nigerian team, which first went viral during the men’s World Cup last year

With the raft of advertising opportunities surrounding the tournament and women’s football more broadly, Iris Creative Director Gabi Mostert thinks we can expect to see some genuinely exciting creative work in the pipeline. “The beauty of women’s football is that it hasn’t been put through the PR wringer yet. Players are free to share their stories and experiences in a brutally raw and refreshing way, without the pressure, expectations and politics of the men’s games,” she says.

“As agencies, we have the responsibility to go beyond empowering athletes but to rally, grow and mobilise a movement. It’s time we evolved the identity and role of women in sport and culture, and made it feel as cool, edgy and progressive as the women who play it,” Mostert adds.

Norwegian footballer Ada Hegerberg getting a photo op in with some of her fans

Kirkham also believes that unlike the oversaturated men’s game, where even on a practical level it can be difficult for brands to get anywhere close to the pitch if they don’t already have an in with the rights holders, women’s football is much more of a blank canvas creatively. “Whatever your hair brained idea might be, there’s a lot of scope in the women’s game to do it because the players, the teams and the clubs see it as an opportunity for exposure and so they’re willing to try. That willingness breeds innovation, and I think we’ll see some of the best stuff come out in the next year or two as a consequence of that,” he says.

Not having the equivalent superstars to the Ronaldos and Messis of the men’s game also means that advertisers can’t take the lazy approach of spending an absolute fortune on a player, sticking them in front of a camera, and expecting punters to buy it. Crucially though, Kirkham warns against marketing which simply jumps on the feminist bandwagon’s latest buzzword: empowerment. “I’ve seen a lot of briefs from brands already – not mentioning names – that take the approach of ‘it is our job as brand X to empower these women’, and my response to that is they are already powerful enough,” he says.

The Lionesses national team kit for the 2019 World Cup

All in all, Kirkham is hopeful for a future where women’s football will just be referred to as ‘football’, full stop, and where the ad world’s response completely reflects that reality. “There will be a generation of young girls out there who are 100% going to be switched on by all this momentum, and then you’ve got the young guys who are frankly brilliantly gender blind anyway,” he says.

“All of the audiences are on the incline and you can’t say which is the main target for advertisers, but that’s really what football should do, it should cut through gender, age and anything else. My position is that it can’t be the beautiful game until the other half of the planet is being properly rewarded, and I think that’s what is going on right now.”;