This weekend has seen the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France and it feels like we could genuinely see a tipping point for the women’s game. With the exception possibly of Grand Slam Tennis, sadly mainstream media coverage of women’s sport has often been restricted to blue-ribband events such as the Olympics.
It’s testament to all of the battles fought by Billie Jean King that tennis is one of the few sports which has routinely managed to break through this barrier but, for the most part, our top female athletes have often struggled to get the airtime they deserve, particularly in team sports.
However, with the phenomenal success of both the Team GB Ladies Hockey squad and, more recently the England Roses netball team, broadcasters have woken up to the fact that women’s sport can provide just as much drama as the men’s game. Indeed the England Roses last gasp winner against Australia was voted moment of the year in the Sports Personality of the Year awards in 2018.
This year could it seems signal the turning point for football. Slowly but surely, women’s football has been increasing in popularity in the UK but, if we’re honest this has been a long time coming. Whilst ‘soccer’ has long been a key mass participation sport in the US, many of England’s top clubs have been slow to capitalise on its potential. Whilst Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City have all invested significant resources in the women’s game, other members of the footballing elite (hang your heads Man Utd and Spurs) have been slow to give it the support it deserved until last season.
Yet the potential from an audience perspective is clearly huge. Attendances at the end of season show piece have risen from just over 15,000 five years ago to over 35,000 and attendances continue to rise in both WSL1 and WSL2. Our players are also in demand overseas; Gone are the days where Kelly Smith was a lone trailblazer overseas with English stars such as Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan plying their trade with some of the biggest clubs in the world. Whilst one could argue some of our leading clubs have been slow to do their bit, many brands have been quick to see the potential, particularly on a global scale.
Alex Morgan and her fictional footballing prodigy Kim Hunter were central to EA Sport’s most recent instalment of the ever popular FIFA franchise and they were not alone in being quick to spot the potential of icons like Alex Morgan in building connection with female football fans. There is no doubt, Alex Morgan is a truly global phenomenon. The only footballer aside from Mohammed Salah to be named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, she has had her own movie and can nod to over 5.8m followers on Instagram.
There’s much more to Morgan though than an impressive social media following – with a political degree from Berkeley she has campaigned for PETA and is currently in the midst of a lawsuit against US soccer for equal pay alongside other stars such as Carli Lloyd (move over Billy Jean King). Oh and she also has the small matter of 162 caps, 101 goals and 40 assists for her country.
With the likes of Morgan in the US but also the likes of Sam Kerr in Australia and Marta in Brazil, it’s no surprise that brands are keen to connect with the women’s game. . But the benefits of connecting with women’s football extend beyond these big names. Football is now the leading participation sport in the UK with over 2.5 million registered players (according to the FA) with surveys suggesting that 80% of those who play say it makes them feel more confident.
However, there’s something in the air that suggests the 2019 World Cup could genuinely see a watershed moment. The set piece Nike ad has long been part of the marketing build up to any World Cup in the men’s game so it was fantastic to see them air their Dream Further campaign last week. It’s a great campaign and one which remains true to the ‘Just Do It’ ethos of the brand whilst also reflecting the need to break down barriers within the women’s game.
One could argue this is natural territory for Nike. The excellent Dream Crazier launch campaign is had already laid the ground work for such a set piece at the World Cup. However, we've seen other brands enter the fray such as Budweiser and Three.
Perhaps even more positively, we’ve seen big brands look to cement a longer term involvement with women’s football outside of the World Cup itself. Earlier this year Barclays announced a £10m sponsorship deal with the WSL and BTs recently announced brand partnership with the FA crucially covers all 28 England teams, including the Lionesses.
It remains to be seen whether Phil Neville will emulate his sister’s success in a major tournament or whether, like Gareth Southgate’s men’s team, England will add yet another tale of ‘so near but yet so far’ to our footballing legacy but, whatever the result on the pitch, you get the sense that this tournament will lead to a victory in both profile and participation off it.