Women In Sport

In the build-up to the Women’s World Cup, we’ve been talking to women in sport (from footballers to powerlifters), covering themes such as media misrepresentation, the cultural baggage attached to participation and the relationship between male and female sport…


Last year we wrote a piece on how football is making new, often unexpected, connections within culture – a figurative ‘moving of the goalposts’ from established football traditions to areas of progression; a culture where an iconic basketball brand, Air Jordan, can comfortably partner with a Parisian football club – or where a fans’ relationship with a player is becoming as important as their relationship with a club.

Football is moving at a faster pace than ever. New competition over rights, and new ways to watch (OTT, tech innovations). But almost 30 years on from the first Women’s World Cup (depressingly late in itself), football still moves at a pedestrian pace when it comes to female representation.

Off the pitch the beautiful game retains an unhealthy obsession with beautiful women (pop ‘female football fans’ into Google to see for yourself). And despite Premier League attendance being a quarter female, there’s still an assumption that female fans will have a less sophisticated understanding of the game.

On the pitch, it’s fair to say the game still has to work harder than it ought to attract attention. In a month’s time, the 2019 Women’s World Cup officially kicks off. Its journey has not been the smoothest.

From scheduling controversies (the tournament final will compete with both the final of the Copa America in Brazil and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the US); opportunities to view (the final will also be a morning game in the US and an afternoon game in Europe – with the evening slots being prioritised for men’s regional cup finals); and typical clumsiness in language from the FIFA president – describing the potential for women’s football to grow as “…this virus of women’s football will spread from France, over the whole world” – it’s been no effortless run down the wing.

A global audience of 750 million watched the last Women’s World Cup, with far more US viewers tuning in for its final than did for the men’s equivalent the year before. On paper, at least, the future looks bright for the sport

Boxing, Football, Powerlifting - Female Athletes

As a business built on a major obsession with culture, and in the build up to such a huge sporting occasion, we felt this a good time to explore the mindsets of female athletes.

We’ve created three short films on the subject. Naturally, our first port of call was talking to footballers, but also of interest were sports where social and cultural constructs around what is considered masculine or feminine might be strongest. The sports we covered, therefore, were football, boxing and powerlifting.

Jaehee is a boxer from Brooklyn, New York

“Women are supposed to turn their aggression inwards, in the form of backstabbing, spreading rumours, or restricting their eating. Women in boxing are therefore still seen as outliers.”

Grace is a footballer from London who plays for the Icelandic team, Selfoss

“If I could change one thing in football, it would be to have boys and girls playing together as they’re growing up. That would have such an impact on the progression of women’s football.”

From Sweden, living in London, Moa is a powerlifter

“I used to be quite body conscious. But powerlifting has taught me to focus on my performance.”

Cultural Challenge

There’s clearly a wider cultural issue at play. Female sports, competitors and teams are invariably viewed as an inferior alternative to everything associated with the men’s game. The success stories, if looked at through the conventional lens and compared to men’s sport, often do not come to life or inspire as they should. There’s a requirement, therefore, for those with influence – from sports governing bodies through to comms agencies – to reboot the narrative; to disrupt those conventions in how women’s sport is portrayed. 

There’s a huge gender-split, too, around participation – with stark differences occurring between girls and boys aged 7-12 and then persisting thereafter. The maxim ‘I cannot be what I cannot see’ could not be more apposite. Again, the need is there to change the story around participation – to work harder at understanding the needs that can be met and how best to convey these benefits.

Financial Challenge

And there’s complicity brand-side. Recent figures show that female sports account for a mere 0.4% of total sports sponsorship.

How women’s football (and sport generally) is measured is a problem. Where men’s football is geared around mass exposure, women’s sport should be measured on engagement (more communal, more loyalty; smaller audience but more dedicated). This represents a huge opportunity for brands – but instead, most are guilty of opting towards a CSR perspective which hugely undervalues women’s sport.

Where Next?

Barclays Bank’s recently announced record-breaking sponsorship package with the Football Association is a big step forwards – in the UK, at least. And in our own work, for sports and apparel brands, media and tech, we’ve witnessed a growing interest in engaging in the diverse themes of women in sport – at all points from grassroots fitness initiatives in Mumbai, to future-proofing global digital sports platforms, to ensure resonance among young female audiences.

There’s lots of work still to do, but at least the conversation is underway and signs of action are following close behind. To discuss with Crowd DNA how best to explore opportunities and build strategy around women’s sport, do get in touch.