Women’s Sport – The Massive Opportunity for Sports Marketers
We often hear conversations in the sports media regarding the lack of support that women’s sport receives from federations and leagues. With International Women’s Day happening recently, these conversations reached a new peak. Over the last year or so, sports marketers have begun to place a greater emphasis on women’s sport as a growth area. Some sports organisations are closer than others to turning professional women’s sport into a reality, but in most instances, it is generally still significantly behind the support that men’s sport receives. Today’s post will discuss why the tide is changing, where the opportunity lies for sports marketers and explores some of the positive developments for women’s sport.
The State of Women’s Sport
Inequality of Support
Surprisingly, pay inequality is generally not at the center of the argument regarding the status of women’s sport. Instead, women’s sport getting the same facilities and support as men’s sport within the same organisations is central to the argument. England had an extreme example because in 1921 the FA banned women from playing on official football pitches and this ban lasted until 1971! Thankfully, the world has developed significantly since that time, but such bans still exist around the world. It is unusual that gender inequality continues to exist in sport given the progress in women’s rights in other fields in recent decades and that sport is often actually a driver of social change.
A common argument for why female athletes are not given the same facilities as male athletes is that sustaining women’s sport is not financially viable. This argument is often legitimate at club level since (excluding the top professional leagues) many clubs don’t generate much revenue and the men’s teams generally generate the bulk of this revenue so it is often imperative that they safeguard this revenue stream. However, I don’t believe that the issue lies at club level. It is at federation or league level that the drive to provide equal support to female athletes should be happening. The federations and leagues are the ones with a mandate to develop the sport and bring it to as many people as possible, and there is a massive opportunity developing in women’s sport.
Speed, Strength and Physiology
The lower speed and strength are also arguments against women’s sport when comparing to men’s sport. This may be, but does this really make them any less exciting? Many fans who viewed either the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 or just about any female event at the Olympics will tell you they are just as exciting as the men’s version of the events. I would argue that in most cases it is not the sport itself that is less exciting. Instead, I believe that it is perceived to be less exciting because there is a lack of media coverage surrounding the sport. Therefore, in many cases, it is not the actual product (i.e. the speed and strength of the sport) that needs to change, but rather the media coverage and interest around the events needs to improve so that people actually attend the event.
Women’s Sport Opportunity
As a marketer in any industry, and sport is no exception, your job is to seek out the largest opportunities, to develop a product that meets that opportunity and then to create a need for your product. It is difficult to justify investing a portion of the marketing budget in women’s sport with the way things currently stand, however, looking to the future, women’s sport is growing faster and has more potential for growth than men’s sport. Therefore, women’s sport is becoming a major opportunity for sports marketers.
Key Reason’s for the Women’s Sport Opportunity
- To state the obvious, women make up 50% of the world population
- This relates to potential viewership and potential participation (i.e. talent pool)
- More leisure time:
- This is not restricted to women, but due to industrialisation and significant technological advances, younger generations are working less hours than their predecessors and so they have more time to partake in leisure activities than ever before.
- Growing interest in sport amongst women:
- Major sports leagues around the world are reporting that growth in the female fan segment is significantly higher than amongst men.
- In modern society it is far more acceptable for women to participate in sports activities compared to the past.
Audiences and Participation
It is interesting to note that all four of the major North American sports leagues have TV audiences that are at least 30% female. In the EPL, a record 26% of stadium attendees in the 2014/15 season were female. This trend is not just present in viewership figures, just have a look at the growth of participation in women’s football across Europe according to UEFA:
Overall, it is natural that there is less interest in women’s sport than men’s sport today given the comparative marketing investments into each of them to date. To put things into perspective, women’s sport makes up just 7% of all UK sports media coverage and a similar number in Australia. It is the job of sports marketers to understand the market and to generate the interest in women’s sport that will allow it to prosper in the same way as men’s sport.
Another factor to remember that just as there are women who are fans of men’s sport, the opposite is also true and as a result the potential fan base is substantial.
Positive Developments for Women’s Sport
In recent years, there is a growing number of sports organisations that are succeeding in bringing their women’s sport to a professional level. There is still significant pay inequality between men’s and women’s sport, but this is not an issue between the two. Just compare David Beckham to nearly any other footballer of similar capabilities and their pay packets. It is the nature of professional sport that the athletes attracting the highest TV audiences and sponsorships will get paid the most. Female athletes will need to generate more revenue than male athletes if they are ever to bridge this pay gap. This is where sports marketers can begin to change the women’s sport landscape.
- Women’s Tennis:
- All four majors provide equal prize money for men and women and have been doing so since 2007.
- FIFA’s appointment of Fatma Samoura as its Secretary General:
- A woman being appointed to lead the international federation for the world’s most popular sport is a positive move for sports governance and also for the development of women’s football. At the recent FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion, Samoura said “We are putting women at the centre” and declared that “no society can thrive while alienating 50 per cent of its population”.
- AFL Women’s League:
- AFL has traditionally been a “men’s” sport in Australia, but the recent launch of the AFLW has been nothing short of amazing in terms of crowd figures and media coverage. The competition was established in a new two month format with shortened matches. However, the best move was perhaps making the competition the precursor to the men’s season and thus ensuring the same rivalries but without the cannibalisation. Unfortunately, the salaries are still very low, but the AFL is committed to growing the game, and with the positive crowd figures, it is highly likely that salaries will grow.
- UEFA #WePlayStrong campaign:
- UEFA will be initiating its #WePlayStrong campaign in 2017 and is investing signficant money in women’s football following a huge growth trend in recent years.
I wanted to highlight Title IX separately due to its significance. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a US federal law that states:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
It basically means that in US college sports, women must have equal opportunities and treatment to men in terms of sports participation, athletic scholarships and use of equipment/facilities/coaching etc.
A debate exists on whether this is fair given the revenue generated by college football and college basketball is used to prop up other non-revenue generating sports. Title IX further complicates this with the requirements of funding women’s sports teams. To remain part of the system, college athletes cannot earn a salary or take on sponsorships and so elite college footballers and basketballers consider this to be unfair. Nevertheless, I believe that this level of ‘socialism’ in sport is important as each year it allows many hundreds of thousands of female athletes in the US to gain a subsidised university education in a country where education costs are extremely high. It also directly promotes and encourages women to play sport and could well be a key success factor of the USA in various women’s sports.
Combined Men’s and Women’s Sport
There are some interesting cases in world sport where men and women compete against each other. In sports where technique and dexterity are more important than strength and speed there are some great opportunities. Consider some of the following examples:
- Men and women have competed against each other since the 1964 Olympics and even earlier in some disciplines.
- Sailing was a mixed sport until 1988. It has since changed for most events, but the Nacra 17 discipline remains a mixed event to this day.
- Tennis/Badminton – Mixed Doubles
- The International Shooting Sport Federation is considering scrapping some gender specific events in favour of three mixed events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
How to Proceed as a Sports Marketer?
The first step is to drive your sports organisation to analyse the potential of women’s sport as this will vary greatly depending on the sport. The next step is to use the data and insights that you uncover to develop a strategy for how your sports organisation can generate interest in the women’s version of the sport and whether any adjustments should be made to give it every chance of success. Finally you will need to push your sports organisation’s leaders to set aside a decent marketing budget that will allow you to seriously promote your women’s sport.
Driving a change in attitudes through an organisation can be difficult, but if the opportunity is there, it is your job as a sports marketer to make it happen!
What do you think of the women’s sport opportunity? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Women’s Football Marketing Coordinator at UEFA
Ivan is a sports marketer with extensive Blue Chip FMCG experience and an MA in International Sports Management. He was born in Croatia, grew up in Sydney, Australia and has spent four years working and studying in Croatia, Ireland, the UK, Italy and Switzerland.