Advertising Week Europe has come to a close, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a discussion with some of the sharpest minds working in the world of marketing and sports today. As part of a panel called “Do We Really Believe ‘This Girl Can’?,” we discussed the evolving relationship between women and sports, where marketers can fit into the equation to support female athletes, and how they can leverage women’s sports and fitness culture to create connections for their brands.
Christopher Carroll, former EMEA marketing director for Under Armour, kicked off the conversation on a hopeful note, noting that the business case for brands around women and sports is very strong, with increased participation in sport, running, yoga and other physical activities creating new opportunities. Under Armour has seen 60% growth year over year after setting out to conquer the women’s fitness apparel sector, and Chris stated, “Women’s [sales] will outpace mens in the next four years” for the brand.
From there, the conversation moved towards the representation of female athletes in the media, where it was taken as given that female athletes are underrepresented in the press, but for different reasons. Alison Kervin, one of the only female sports editors working in the UK, lamented the business constraints of trying to cover anything other than men’s football, rugby or cricket, leaving little room for women’s sport in the pages of her paper, The Mail on Sunday. “Our circulation goes up on a Premier League weekend, and goes down when it’s not a Premier League weekend. It's an actual driver for people to buy it. You can slot women’s sport in every so often, but it doesn’t have the pull.”
Katie Mulloy, editor of Women’s Health Magazine, noted that, in the magazine world, cover stories featuring athletes, whether male or female, don’t sell. She chalked this up to athletes’ lack of relatability to the average person. “These athletes are like 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.”
But, however much women fail to relate to professional athletes, the panel agreed that they do see sport as a way for women to relate to each other, both on the field and online. I noted the habits of my daughter and her friends on her rugby team, who are on social media even while they’re training, and seem to value being on a team for the chance to build friendships, just as much as for the opportunity for physical activity. Liz Lowe, corporate responsibility and sustainability manager for Coca-Cola Great Britain, agreed, noting research from Leeds Trinity University that illustrated how teen girls often derive their roles within their friend groups through their participation in sports. It’s something that builds leaders and brings friend groups together.
“The idea of sport is a far-reaching concept for women,” explained Katie Mulloy, as we delved into the differences between how men and women view sport and athletics. Marketers are increasingly realizing that, for women, activities like yoga, CrossFit and even organized walking groups fill a role similar to men watching Premier League on the weekend. It’s an opportunity for engagement that has been largely ignored by brands until recently. Liz Lowe spoke of Coca-Cola’s involvement in grassroots physical activity groups within local communities and explained, “There’s a massive opportunity for brands to get involved and start to develop a different definition of sports and physical activity in people’s daily lives.”
While there’s still a very long way to go before female athletes to get the recognition they deserve from the media and the general public, the sentiment among many marketers is that women are taking sport into their own hands, and are re-defining it on their own terms. Increased interest in physical fitness and athletics from women today may not fit the traditional sport sponsorship model, and it won’t allow brands to use a one-size-fits all approach to marketing to them as if they were men, but it certainly creates fresh opportunities for brands and women alike.