Public Relations

Leveraging the Lionesses

The success of the Lionesses at the World Cup prompted a wave of interest in women's football but how is it best to build and exploit that?

More than 11 million people tuned in to watch England play the USA in the semi-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July, making it the most watched broadcast of the year – dwarfing ITV2’s Love Island final, which managed a paltry, albeit record, 3.6 million viewers.

The Lionesses captured the nation’s hearts, just like their male counterparts one year earlier when they reached the World Cup semi-finals and 26.5 million people – 40 per cent of the population – watched the game live.

While the viewing figures for Gareth Southgate’s squad still dominate, the focus on the women’s progress was both unprecedented and enduring. A recent survey on behalf of Barclays, sponsor of the FA Women’s Super League, found that one third of adults are interested in women’s football, while 69 per cent believe they deserve the same profile as the men’s game.

‘It’s one of those things; we’ve been working on this for a long time, everyone’s been doing a huge amount of work and suddenly, it feels like it entered the public consciousness,’ says Laura Weston, PR and communications lead at Women’s Sport Trust. ‘The big difference was the viewing figures. That has been held against us for such a long time, people have said There’s not an audience for women’s sport, people don’t want to watch it. The last World Cup in 2015 was in Canada, it didn’t really work for us in terms of time zone. We still got good viewing figures, but it wasn’t really the breakthrough we needed. This time it worked in our favour. There is a definite shift.’

Indeed, many have described the championship as a landmark moment for women’s football. The England Lionesses have since gone on to sell more than 50,000 tickets for a friendly match against Germany at Wembley in November, with hopes that it will achieve record-breaking attendance for a home match. The opening two matches of the Women’s Super League (Manchester City vs Manchester United and Chelsea vs Tottenham) were both held in the respective clubs’ main stadiums, the Etihad and Stamford Bridge.

(Female teams were banned from playing at men’s grounds in 1921 by the FA, who believed the game to be ‘quite unsuitable’ for them.)

It is all part of a larger plan to maintain momentum for the sport. ‘The problem has always been that we have big international events like World Cups and we get a big spike in interest and then it dies down again,’ explains Weston. ‘I think the difference this time is that there’s going to be a lot more innovation around it, especially from the football clubs themselves.

‘They are really going to try their best to capitalise on the audience. They are almost putting a marker out there to see if they can translate those crowds into actual crowds at the stadiums. That’ll be the next big proof point.’

We’ve proven we’ve got an audience there so how can we now use that to get more brands involved and to support the domestic leagues of women’s sport?

Weston acknowledges the risk involved – larger stadiums with smaller crowds can mean less atmosphere – but says the sport is at the point now where they have to make a stand. ‘If you build it they will come, and hopefully, that will be the case.’ The Women’s Super League is less than ten years old but things are moving fast. This season Barclays announced a three-year sponsorship deal believed to be worth close to £18 million, plus a pledge to make football available to all girls in school by 2024, whilst international banking group Standard Chartered has extended its shirt sponsorship of Liverpool FC to the women’s team as well.

And for the World Cup itself, drinks company Lucozade Sports featured prominent Lionesses on its bottles, including captain Steph Houghton, whilst confectioners Mars sponsored the team and created the first statue of a woman footballer to be placed at the National Football Museum in Manchester. For Weston, brand involvement is key to the success of the game.

‘We’ve proven we’ve got an audience there so how can we now use that to get more brands involved and to support the domestic leagues of women’s sport?,’ she asks. ‘It stood to reason that once the World Cup happened there would be a lot of media interest, it was then just about landing the messages. How can we make sure that those brands really activate brilliantly?’ But it is certainly not about replicating successful initiatives from elsewhere.

‘There’s a whole thing around innovation in women’s sport and not just following what’s come before because it is different. You don’t want to just duplicate what’s happened in, for example, men’s sports sponsorship, which has become quite formulaic in a lot of ways. It’s about how we do it differently, make it work harder and really use sponsorship as a way of making sure there’s fair prize money, making sure that women and girls are inspired to play, making sure that grounds are filled.

‘Sponsorship has got to work very hard for women’s sport, but if we get those brands doing great activation, it will shift the category of sports sponsorship. You’ll see companies understanding that Okay, if we get involved with women’s sport, look at the positive things we can make happen. From a CSR point of view, it’s really positive, but also commercially it will work as well. Brands are all looking to have a purpose, to be authentic and this is a great way of demonstrating those values.’

Weston points out that people, but especially women, feel positively about brands who get involved with women’s sport ‘because they know what difference it makes’. She would like to see those brands that do sponsor women’s sports talk more openly about this; the engagement levels are high. ‘There are generally fewer brands in women’s sport at the moment, so you can get much more awareness. People recognise you.’

Clubs also recognise the importance of their brands, and the value of including their women’s team. ‘We’re starting to see clubs understand that they are one club. The women’s team isn’t an add on. It’s about them being part of the club and making sure they are at the heart of it. That sends out a positive message to the fans, it shifts perceptions.’

It’s not just the sport itself that is finding itself at the crest of a wave, so too are the players. Ellen White, England’s leading goal scorer during this year’s tournament, was the focus of a mural in her hometown of Aylesbury, whilst Lucy Bronze, who won the Silver Ball trophy in France, has been called the ‘the best women’s footballer in the world’.

Weston adds: ‘This is never about men versus women, but because sportswomen have often been through quite a difficult time, they also take on quite a lot of responsibility promoting women’s sport.

We’re starting to see clubs understand that they are one club. The women’s team isn’t an add on. It’s about them being part of the club and making sure they are at the heart of it. That sends out a positive message to the fans, it shifts perceptions

‘I remember when the football team went to the last two World Cups, you knew that they knew they had to get a great result, because it wasn’t just important for that person or the team, it would take the whole sport to a different level. That’s quite a lot of pressure to live with but they take it on board. They are very approachable and accessible, and they like to use whatever profile they’ve got to do good. That’s what will be interesting now; those women will be put on a different platform this time.

‘We’re going to be focusing a lot on the athletes themselves, how we can keep their profile high and how we can help them use their influence to make changes. Hopefully, they will become more like household names, which will make a big difference for girls. There’s a slight misconception that women and girls aren’t inspired by elite female athletes and it’s perpetuated that they think it’s too unobtainable. I’ll never be as good a runner as Dina Asher-Smith, so I won’t try. That’s not true.’

Weston points to another sport to prove this particular point. The Netball World Cup followed closely behind the football, and there was a 1,000 per cent increase in visits to the England Netball session finder on the final day of the tournament, compared to two weeks before it started. ‘We saw a huge rise in the number of women, myself included, who have gone back to netball through watching it,’ explains Weston.

‘That positive action based on watching elite sport is brilliant and I think, having been there at the Netball World Cup, the atmosphere was so positive and full of women and girls of all ages. Seeing so many girls watching live sport is so important. ‘Back to Netball [England Netball’s campaign which provides women of all ages with a ‘gentle reintroduction to the sport’] has been a really brilliant campaign that has happened over the last eight years or so. Obviously, it got this massive boost with the World Cup and that was built into the plans from the beginning. I was sitting next to the chief executive of England Netball at the World Cup and she said This is what it’s all about – inspiring people to get into it and play.

That has been Women’s Sport Trust’s ambition since its launch in 2012. It is an organisation that wants to make women’s sport more visible, viable, and unstoppable. ‘We’ve seen the ear markers of visibility and viability starting to really change at the beginning of the year – the launch of The Telegraph’s women’s sports section, with Anna Kessel as the women’s sports editor, and then the BBC starting its Change the Game campaign because it knew it was going to be a big summer of sport,’ asserts Weston.

‘The BBC has been brilliant and really open with us about its plans so we knew what was coming from that perspective. We also had the big announcements we had earlier in the year of sponsorships.’

But it’s true that the World Cup events this summer have laid solid foundations for women’s sport, and those who work within it, to build upon. ‘It’s when people start paying attention,’ Weston says. ‘Previously, it was the only time we really got press coverage. That has started to change now, and is probably one of the biggest differences. We’re seeing more female columnists and sports pages have started to be infiltrated by women’s sport at last. It’s going beyond the profile bit. There are so many good things happening, it definitely feels like a shift.’