Four Insights on How Brands Can Connect with Women in the Changing World of Sport

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A look at the numbers around women and how they are represented in sport and sport marketing can be discouraging. According to a recent documentary by an American sport research foundation, 40% of all athletes are women, yet they receive 4% of all media coverage. Here in the UK, media stories about men’s sport outnumber those about women’s sport by 20 to 1 in the national newspapers. And on Forbes list of the world’s highest paid athletes, only 2 out of 100 are women, tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. And somehow, despite these dismal numbers, it seems that we’re experiencing a shift. As we watch the “athleisure” apparel market explode into a $35 billion business, brands like Lululemon and Under Armour are proving that there’s lots of money to be made by marketing sport and fitness to women.

It was in this environment that five of us in the world of sport marketing sat down together at Advertising Week Europe for a panel discussion entitled “Do We Really Believe That “This Girl Can?” The lively talk explored the evolving role of women and girls in sport, how the very idea of “sport” is being redefined by women, and ways brands can better connect with female athletes and spectators alike.

Here are four key insights from the discussion:

1. Relatability matters

Many of today’s most successful female sporting brand ambassadors are not your traditional athletes, with women like Gisele Bundchen and ballerina Misty Copeland bringing huge success to Under Armour’s recent female-focused campaign – to the tune of 60% year over year growth for the brand. Panellist and Women’s Health Magazine editor Katie Mulloy chalks this up to a matter of relatability, stating that the singular focus of female athletes who spend hours each day crafting their bodies and honing their talent don’t always hit home with the casual fitness enthusiast. “These athletes are demigoddesses that have a combination of incredible genetics and sporting talent, combined with a lifestyle that’s completely dedicated to this way of life and creating this body… No normal woman can do that day to day. It’s not relatable and it becomes more intimidating than inspiring.”

2. The definition of “sport” is changing

When it comes to the way women participate in and relate to sport, the definition is much wider than the established football, cricket and rugby (or in the US, American football, basketball, baseball) line-up marketers use to reach men. Yoga, dance, and even fitness programs like Crossfit and Parkrun are some of the ways brands are connecting with women through athletics and physical fitness. These opportunities don’t usually fit the traditional sponsorship model however, so brands need to think of new and creative ways to leverage them.

3. Participation and community are key for women

According to Panellist Christopher Carroll, Former EMEA Marketing Director for Under Armour, there is a fundamental difference in the way men and women think about sports. “Men spectate to these iconic, lighthouse events like Premier League, World Cup or the Olympics. Doing and participating is what resonates with women… I think men and women, in terms of motivation for sport, they approach it differently. The passion is equal, but how and who they engage differs.”

I’ve gleaned similar insights from coaching my daughter’s under-15 Rugby team. When she goes into the clubhouse after a game, she doesn’t want to talk about sports, she wants to talk about friendship. The boys are talking about what just happened on the pitch, but the girls have moved on to a different conversation. The passions that go with participation are different. Brands can’t just build around what has been traditionally successful in a male environment.

4. The challenges for women in sport are systemic 

With only 2% of sport sponsorship dollars in the UK going to women-only events, it’s clear that there is a deeply rooted problem at work, one that has nothing to do with a lack of interest in women’s sports from the general public.

As an example this week’s Sport Accord Convention, a meeting of leaders from sport organizations from around the world, the delegation is overwhelmingly male. It is a visible example of the lack of women in leadership and boardroom positions in sport governance and it’s time we all took a hard look at how to change the conversation.

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