Sports marketing for an age of equality: sponsorship, sexism and how to get it right

Sports marketing for an age of equality: sponsorship, sexism and how to get it right

This summer’s sporting events have shone a light on a sharp contrast between the traditionalism of Wimbledon and the meteoric, stereotype-stomping rise of women’s football. What do brands need to know about taking part in sports marketing, and how does this change the practice of sponsorship?

Rising stakes for women’s sports

This year’s Women’s World Cup put female athletes in the spotlight and succeeded in making women’s football more popular than ever. An estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide meant 2019 has been a record-breaking year for the women’s game, according to FIFA.

And when fans sit up and take notice, sponsors follow suit. Brands are recognising the increasing power female teams hold and the loyalty they attract, as evidenced by the new trend towards ‘unbundling’ sponsorship rights.

Where previously sponsorship for a female team would have been packaged together with the corresponding male team, unbundling sees the female sides being sponsored in their own right, by companies prepared to pay specifically for a space on the women’s team shirt.

Rather than being lumped in as an added extra, the sponsorship rights for women’s teams are now being appreciated as having a separate and qualitatively different commercial value of their own. 

Nike, Barclays and Visa are a few of the blue-chips who have entered long-term stand-alone sponsorship deals with women’s clubs. Deloitte found that around 60% of leading female teams have already ‘unbundled’, and that’s likely to go up to 100% in 2023.

A fresh voice at Wimbledon

Meanwhile, another season at Wimbledon ramps up to its all-important finals. And if women’s football is breaking new ground for gender equality and inclusivity in sports, Wimbledon is, historically at least, the polar opposite. The biggest tennis event on the planet is still steeped in traditions of financial privilege, social class and conventional gender roles.

The debate around sexism at Wimbledon has been rumbling for many years, with notable speakers like Andy Murray pointing out the issues with unequal treatment of male and female players and a culture of chauvinism around the game in general. We’ve heard of women’s matches being rescheduled to make way for men’s, commentators inappropriately appraising male players’ girlfriends and wives during matches, and discrepancies in the remuneration of male and female players.

In the light of a new visibility and credibility for women’s sport, there’s a real risk that these issues could take a dire toll on the Wimbledon brand.

However, while not directly addressing sexism, the AELTC (All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs the tournament) is bringing in a few changes to modernise the Wimbledon brand and give it more of a sense of inclusivity. In marketing the 2019 event, they made a conscious choice to be future-focused Instead of leveraging the brand’s past and prestige. The 2019 campaign, ‘The Story Continues’, takes the viewer on a journey through Wimbledon’s landmark moments and the world events contemporaneous with them, leading up to the present day and drawing an enticing dotted line towards the future. Notably, the gender balance between the stars in the ad is fairly even, with 7 male and 5 female players – including Steffi Graf and Serena Williams – being featured.

The new campaign was developed alongside a rebranding exercise focused on updating the Wimbledon design language and tone of voice for the first time in nearly a decade, prompted in part by a growing gulf between a younger and more natural social tone of voice, and the overly formal language used in other channels.

How do you go about sponsoring women in sport?

If you’re a brand looking to take advantage of the rising visibility of female sports stars, or even if you’re just looking to refresh your brand in line with the changes in sports culture, right now there’s real potential to benefit.

Research from shows that from 2011-2014 just 0.4% of all sports sponsorship deals were exclusively for female players or teams. And while Deloitte’s predictions of 100% dedicated sponsorship for the 2023 Women’s World cup indicate healthy growth in sponsorship levels, there’s a huge space where sponsorship could be and the market is still far from its saturation point.

So as a brand with an interest in women’s sports, what do you need to know, and what should your strategy be?

  • Find an authentic link
    As we’ve previously explored, brands can easily get it wrong when allying themselves to real-world events people care about. Few things evoke as much passion as sport, so it’s crucial for potential sponsors or advertisers to go beyond financial investment. A shared style, ethos or approach is recognised and appreciated by the public. An example is LIDL, which won strong approval for its sponsorship of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. There was a natural fit between the underappreciated nature of women’s football in Ireland and the supermarket chain’s ‘underdog’ status, according to a brand spokesperson.
  • Be an active partner
    A name on a shirt is only a small part of the story. Sponsors get the most out of their relationships with sports teams when they collaborate at a deep level and focus on engagement and advocacy, not just their own visibility via ads and emblems. Energy company SSE, which sponsors women’s football in Scotland via the Scottish FA, put its name behind a specific project - Girls Soccer Centres, which aim to get more players into the game from childhood and to cement football’s status as a mixed-gender sport. 
  • Expect audience diversity
    Women aren’t just playing more sport, they’re watching more too. Nielsen data showed that in 2014, women’s outnumbered men’s share of viewing figures for Wimbledon in the UK and Australia. And it’s a safe bet that the audience for the Women’s World Cup – a record-breaking 14.8 million on the BBC alone–included a broad demographic mix. Meanwhile, figures from Amdocs suggested that 23% of people tuning in to the Women’s World Cup worldwide would be doing so via social media, with that number going up to 53% among 18-24 year olds. The lesson for potential sponsors? Take nothing for granted and research audience share diligently. It may be worth considering a multi-pronged marketing campaign to reach your sponsorship’s full potential.

This is clearly a burgeoning field and is showing serious signs of growth - which is of course great in and of itself but also clearly a great time for brands to throw their respective hats in the ring. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more!