Written by Jacqui Purchase and Clint Paterson

The significant increase in media coverage around women’s sport of late cannot be denied and is extremely exciting for us here at Levergy. The fact that the global sporting business fraternity are also starting to hold significantly more conferences and high-profile panel discussions all dedicated to discussing the potential and general rise of women’s sport is further evidence that the interest and potential opportunity around it has never been as high. As we head into Women’s Month, we thought there was no better time to take a deeper look at the exciting rise of women’s sport and give some of our thoughts on the matter.

From a global perspective, the rise in women’s sport is well underway and has been gathering momentum over the last few years. While SA may still have quite a bit of catching up to do, the recent performance of the Momentum Proteas at the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup as well as the women’s hockey team at the World Hockey League has done wonders for the current state of women’s sport in SA and hopefully the start of something great.

With more and more media platforms dedicating space, time and effort to women’s sport, the reality is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for brands to ignore the opportunities this space can offer. International broadcasters such as BBC, BT and Sky are all trying to outdo each other in this space and all have dedicated platforms focusing on women’s sport. We also recently saw Rugby World Magazine for the first time in its history dedicate its front page to Women’s Rugby as a buildup to the upcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup.  From a local perspective, we’ve seen SuperSport broadcasting more and more women’s sport with coverage of the Brutal Fruit Netball League and more recently the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup and FIH World Hockey League.

Outside of elite sport, brands and media are also realising they can no longer ignore the millions of women engaging with health and fitness. Brands are embracing a different marketing approach and almost ‘red carpeting’ ladies into these events by focusing on participation and embracing empowerment. An example of this is New Balances’ “Girls night out” which celebrates, fuels and connects active, social women.

So while things are certainly moving in the right direction and the signs are great, the reality is that there is still a long way to go with regards to catching up to the men, especially when it comes to the commercial elements such as media exposure and sponsorship. We believe that the most important thing right now for women’s sport and all its stakeholders is to ensure continuity and that we build on from the current narrative. It happens too often whereby we see fantastic platforms built by women athletes, teams or tournaments only for it to wither away shortly after.

However, relying solely on exciting and successful individual or team performances and tournaments is not sustainable and will not be able to ensure continuity or growth on its own. We believe that in order for women’s sport to continue to grow and reach new heights both on the field and commercially there needs to be clear long term plans and initiatives put in place.

With the above in mind, we’ve highlighted 3 factors which we think are key to this.

  1. Exposure

Out of sight, out of mind. Exposure is essential in driving awareness and key messaging which in turn drives overall interest and participation. It’s also a known fact that in the commercial world of sport, exposure is the key driver for commercial value. Therefore rightsholders, sponsors, brands and other key stakeholders need to ensure that they not only create and provide relevant and appealing platforms and content for broadcasters and general media, but that they also build strong relationships with key media to ensure ongoing coverage, exposure and key messaging

The recent activity around the Momentum national women’s cricket team is a great example of how all stakeholders have come together in building the profile of the team and women’s cricket in general. The broadcast deal with SuperSport where the public could watch the team perform at the World Cup was a huge step up from the past. Additional initiatives such as the development of double-header T20 games with the men’s games, the official World Cup squad announcement all backed up by the “We know what we’re made of – #AlwaysRising” campaign, which included the first TVC we’ve seen in SA created specifically for the women’s cricket team. (Click here to view the TVC) all played a major role in creating talkability, raising awareness and changing perceptions around the team and cricket in general.

  1. Messaging / Communication

Not all women are sports fans so the messaging cannot just be about performance or overcoming adversity. There needs to be a focus on changing attitudes and perceptions about women’s sport. The value of sport and the impact it can have must be communicated in a broader way which is relatable to all and not just sports fans. Not all girls/women will have the ambition to be the next Dane van Niekerk or Portia Modise. It’s what playing sport or being active in general can do outside of the field and the far-reaching results it can have that needs to be communicated. We need to be telling stories of how cricket, football, netball, hockey, rugby etc. has impacted the day-to-day lives of young girls/women. How it can build confidence and enrich social lives.

Sponsors and brands also need to rethink their marketing communication in this space. In the past, brands mainly sponsored women’s sport for sex appeal (sex sells, as they say) and while the results may be effective, the reality is that gains are short term. What’s becoming more important to consumers is the impact brands are making in the sport, whether it means changing societal norms, changing perceptions, raising awareness etc. A great example of this is the Total Sports Women’s Race which focuses on breast cancer awareness and encourages women to run for more than a personal best.

Brands that want to play in this space should also not see sponsorships as a quick win, but as the start of a wider movement towards integrating women’s sport into their overall marketing strategies.

  1. Participation Growth

In cricket alone, there has been a significant increase in the number of women’s cricket clubs around SA since 2014 with over 79 clubs actively involved in women’s cricket. The central contracts for women Proteas have increased and the teams’ fan base is growing at a rapid pace. This can be attributed to the team’s performance, the Momentum sponsorship and the increase in broadcasted games thanks to SuperSport

But in order to ensure sustainable participation growth in women’s sport, the focus cannot be on the elite athletes alone. As previously mentioned not all women will aspire to play or participate at that level and hence the importance of communicating the benefits of what playing sport can do and the far-reaching results it can have is key

According to Nielsen sport there is a direct link between taking part in sport for women and their subsequent level of interest in sport. Across diverse markets, a high level of sports participation translates to a 76 percent chance of an enduring interest in sport compared to a less than 50 percent chance for those that do not play sports.

When it comes to barriers to participation, Nielsen Sports states that “men talk about tangible obstacles such as fitness level, age, location and while women list these too, they are more likely to cite emotional barriers such as fear of failure and embarrassment”. Therefore, brands and rightsholders need to focus on reducing the barriers to increase participation in sport, thereby increasing interest. A great example of this is the Sport England “This Girl Can” campaign where the focus was on driving an attitude change to sport amongst women by confronting the fear of being judged.

Another aspect increasing participation is the increase/shift in role models. The new phenomenon of “strong is the new skinny” is starting to show more and more. Influencers such as Letsego Zulu are making marks on the SA health and fitness industry with her pop up fitness classes, revolutionising the typical gym workout and encouraging women of all shapes and sizes to get active. However, a warning in this regard would be that brands that engage with female athletes and influencers need to ensure the credibility of the athlete as well as the brand. See a great example of the use of Nike’s female athletes in the “You’re made of what you do” campaign “Click here”

In closing, we believe there is no better time for women’s sport than now and the opportunity that exists for sponsors, brands and rightsholders to be thought leaders and trailblazers and to change the face of female sports for future generations is what really gets us excited.

On that note, here’s two campaigns from 2016 that really inspired us and will hopefully inspire you too.

Rethink role models – Samsung

Introducing the Red roses – England Womens Rugby Team