Women's sport is netting fans - but it's still losing the sponsorship game

The popularity of women's sports like football and cricket is booming, but their sponsorship budgets aren't. Claire Arnold asks how the gulf can be bridged.

by Claire Arnold
Last Updated: 11 Sep 2015

Whilst it is encouraging to see women’s sport gaining ground, its market position in the industry remains miniscule compared to most men’s sides. Wide viewership, lucrative TV rights, and the deep pockets of corporate sponsors mean massive budgets for the blokes. But questions such as ‘how can women’s sport capitalise on its popularity’, ‘what does this mean for investors and marketers’ and ‘how can it support players and coaches’, need to be addressed.

Just last month, Ronda Rousey’s bout in the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship at The Octagon was the top-selling pay-per-view fight of 2015 thus far. Earlier in the summer, the Women’s World Cup final counted 25.4 million American viewers, the most for a ‘soccer’ match ever, echoing similar success in Japan where 9.3 million people tuned into the semi-finals. 

The England women’s football squad reached the semi-final in Canada for the first time this year, while Nicola Adams grabbed headlines again by winning flyweight boxing gold at the European Games in Baku. Nor is the growth in interest limited to the professional level. The England and Wales Cricket Board recently revealed that some 63,000 women and girls over the age of 14 are involved in cricket, even though overall participation in the sport is slipping. In 2014, 615 clubs in England and Wales offered cricket for women and girls, up from just 90 in 2003. Now, even in countries that largely ban women (a few exceptions exist) from attending matches, participation is increasing. Women’s football in Iran is the standout example.

But commercially the same old song and dance holds true: the market position if women’s sport remains miniscule compared to the male equivalent. In cricket, Waitrose signed a three year deal in 2013 with the England Cricket Board to become the men’s national side lead supporter for somewhere between £10 million and £20 million. Meanwhile, last year the women’s team finally managed to attract a title sponsor, Kia, but for a ‘mere’ six-figure sum over two years, despite the fact that, as Richard Hobson of The Times recently commented, [women’s] cricket is more prosperous than ever. The ECB extended contracts to 18 players last year, making those fortunate few the only fully professional women’s cricketers in the world.

However, the governing bodies and clubs of female sports do have an advantage: endurance. These organisations are used to low capital flows, small staff numbers and zero to limited corporate sponsorship. They can be poised to develop quickly and efficiently, sidestepping some of the major pitfalls their male counterparts experience. But they can also get trapped in well-meaning efforts insufficiently supported by budget and the right scale of ambition.

The challenge is to establish partnerships between sponsors, governing bodies, and coaches that both appeal to, and help, grassroots participation and elite sporting success. This can only be achieved by having a proper operational strategy, as there needs be the necessary talent in place at the leadership level; the sporting talent in place to deliver results; and a timeframe that can straddle the ups and downs of the sporting season.

The danger faced by women’s sport is to be excited by the attention it’s getting without focusing on having the strategy in place to make the most of it. Women’s sports will tap into more corporate funding from organisations looking for 'value for money' as well as branding and CSR exposure, possibly without defining winning strategies and growth plans over the longer term.

Women’s sport has the opportunity to shape these relationships to mutual advantage balancing the opportunities for both elite and grassroots participants and importantly for women coaches. Improving on the mistakes of other organisations while continuing to improve the quality of services for players coaches and fans will require sustained focus on data to underpin long-term vision, while taking care to not let the excitement now, in the short-term, become a missed opportunity.

The momentum around women’s sport will continue. New fans will emerge from not only a new generation of female supporters exposed to women’s empowerment, but also those of all ages looking for high-level athletic entertainment. The trend is upon us and it makes good business sense. #womeninsport

Claire Arnold (@ClaireArnoldUK) is executive chair of leadership consultant Maxxim. Hear her speak at MT's Inspiring Women in Business Conference in London on 19th Nov. Book your ticket now!

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How to stop your culture going back to normal after COVID

In this video, Capita's Melanie Christopher and Greene King board director Lynne Weedall discuss how...

This isn't just a health crisis, it's an equality crisis

Inspiring Women in Business winners: In the “new normal”, we must make sure that female...

How to build an anti-racist business

You don't need a long history of championing equality to make a difference.

What are Simon Roberts’ big 3 challenges at Sainsbury’s?

The grocer's new CEO has taken the reins at a critical time.

Should CEOs get political?

The protests that have erupted over George Floyd’s murder have prompted a corporate chorus of...

“You literally have to rewrite your job description”

One minute briefing: In hard times, your network becomes more important than ever, says Prezi...