How can women’s sport be marketed more effectively ? PART 1 : DEFINING THE PROBLEM

Thoughts on the commercial future of women’s sport. (All images and text copyright John Coxon (media services )  not to be reproduced or quoted without written consent.)



As a freelance journalist and sports photographer my own focus, professionally,  since 2004 has been both on elite women’s sport and  equally sport involving para-athletes (athlete’s with a disability) and both sectors suffer from disparity of opportunity, under-representation in the media and from continuing patronisation and at worst stereotyping with  women viewed not as people or athletes but sexual objects and para-athletes patronised , the focus on their disability ,  rather than them as  athletes who also have a disability.

I don’t make a profit out of sport myself  but for example voluntarily support , through  my professional skills, for  a not for profit global e zine and website as co-editor and my own contributions as sports journalist /photographer. In order to gain access to elite events, as an independent freelance , I need media accreditation and to date provides me with that.  I share passionately in the ethos and mission of this website’s founder members  , both sportswomen themselves and chose to be proactive as a media advocate with a non-sinister bias in favour of sportswomen  and all women’s sports.  (I am an ex special education professional of many years standing so have an empathy and heightened awareness of disability issues and a natural advocate of disability sport.)

NOT TAKING IT LYING DOWN -BECOMING PROACTIVE was founded by two women, at their own expense ,  to be proactive in redressing the lack of sports media parity for women  a mission I want to be a part of.  But even though such efforts are increasing especially on line, simply ensuring more women’s sports are reported whilst helping does little to change the situation in real terms and even it struggles day in and day out for its own funding and is reliant on the charity of a small group of volunteers.  In terms  of negative attitudes to women and women in sport which I believe are interwoven, challenging existing values and perceptions is a tough call, leading you wide open, as a man,  to all sorts of accusations,  but easy too to get into emotive argument leading to being dismissed as a tub thumper and being way too PC. Despite equal opportunity and sex discrimination legislation  and the minor shifts that has achieved, women in sport could  be waiting many more years  for significant change  unless women  organise and campaign for change .  It is precisely the current cultural  position that women still find themselves  in that  perpetuates the apparent lack of interest in being active and participating in  sport. It is well documented that weight loss not the quest for health and fitness is by far the commonest  reason why the minority of women who do are active, workout.   Giving into it is not an option .

Women’s sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF)

With only a few months till we host the Olympic games , we are  a nation where half the population, women and girls , 80% of whom take no part in sport or take enough exercise with the real prospect that within the next twenty years, the majority of the female population will be overweight.  The Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation are one such organisation who work principally to inform and work creatively   to bring about change in culture . The mission is  ” To create a nation of active women; from dancing in the living room to celebrating gold, we want to make sport and fitness an everyday part of life for women and girls. To do this the WSFF   are working to tackle the things that are currently putting them off…a culture which prizes thin over healthy, sport and fitness delivery which doesn’t always have women’s needs at its heart and a sport sector which puts men way out in front in terms of profile, investment and leadership.

To make being active more attractive for women and girls we do three things:

not merely sport based committed  to increase physical activity

, it is  They recently reported their findings on the commercial future of women’s sport and those findings make shocking reading but also point the way ahead and flag up the possibilities that could be developed in this Olympic year as a springboard. Their focus is not on labouring over sexual politics over much but setting  bench mark and looking at the situation positively, objectively  and looking for ways to harvest the unique potential of women’s sports  as an untapped high integrity marketable investment.


When looking at the market , commercial potential of women’s sport we cannot  not ignore  the background of  the existing social climate, the current position of women and attitudes to them in general in society. Given the historically overt virtually global sexualisation of women in advertising, it is hard to challenge existing conditions for women without being branded as a kill joy or exaggerating the problem. I am more than happy not to duck that one – sexism still rules openly or covertly. Only recently Ryan Air were slated for sexual innuendo in their  advert which was offensive to women cabin crew and one of the crew used social media and petitioned for action, a petition i was more than happy to support. (RED HOT FARES AND CREW)

The ASA banned this sexist Ryan Air Ad following a petition signed by 11,000 complainants.


FIFA  (The International Football Federation’s)  self-anointed, autocratic  supremo,  Sepp Blatter  at a stroke,  back in 2004,  alienated  30 million registered female footballers world wide for starters.  Quoted in the Guardian article  (Soccer chief’s plan to boost women’s game? Hotpants)  he famously said women should have skimpier kit to increase the popularity of the game. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” he said.”They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?” not withstanding that his ignorance includes not knowing that women do not play football with a lighter ball,  it is a fact  that on the international stage, the UK ‘s leading sportswomen, including the national England women’s football team ,  regularly outperform their male counterparts.

Women sport is often inaccurately dismissed as weaker, less skillful and less interesting than male variants, and the ( male dominated ) media continues to  patronise women  in sport and so often the popular  press focus on elite women in sport is on looks rather than their achievement. Notoriously , as example, “comic” weasel misogenist Frankie Boyle insulted Olympic Swimming champion Rebecca Adlingnton on Mock the Week ( Guardian 2009 )  saying she resembled “someone who’s looking at themselves in the back of a spoon” and additionally compounded the offence by making presumptions about her sexuality in view of her boyfriend being conventionally “good-looking” from which he “deduced that Rebecca Adlington is very dirty.”


Ellen Hoog, Dutch hockey international

In international field hockey, following the defeat of former World Champions, Holland  to Argentina in 2011, one reactionary Dutch male sports commentator  sought to make the outrageous claim that two seasoned player’s had failed to perform because their training focus had been distracted courting  media attention and  capitalising on their “babe” status. Individual athletes are of course free to take advantage of their celebrity status and derive income from it with for example product endorsement , individually negotiated. But we need to looking at the situation of each  sport , as a whole, that women are involved in and how best to market them and attract sponsor funding.  To do this the commission provides accurate independent facts and they make stark reading.


(Click image above to enlarge and read detail )


Women’s sport is  overlooked, under valued and under-capitalised and indeed  governing bodies, boards  of sport are overwhelming dominated by males in executive roles.  ( see Tani’s analysis of the Lord Davies report into this issue)

Women sport not only attracts only a small percentage of media coverage  in an industry dominated by men by over 90% ( no accident not a single woman on BBC sports personality of the year nominated by a jury , the majority of whom were  blokes ) but also attract only a small percentage of sponsor funding , 0.5% according to independent research from TAVAS  – sponsorship insights, World Sponsorship  Monitor, (TWSM register.)   In 2010, their cut was a mere 0.1%. Men’s sport got 61.6% in the same period, while mixed sports got the remainder  ( but the men’s side of that got disproportionally more  financial support.



In their report, “Big Deal” , the commission on the Future of Women’s sport, ( the commission created by the WSFF – Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation) entitled “ The Case for Commercial Investment in Women’s  Sport” draw a comparison between the top ten UK sponsorship deals for team sports  by gender split which shows the extent of this disparity.


The global company Investec currently hold the UK record in terms of women's sport sponsor funding (England Women's Hockey all levels) )

Investec’s  recent investment in England Women’s Hockey is a record amount  , an estimated 2.2 million,  second is the FA’s Women’s Super League  , with four inaugural partners each putting in  between £100K -£300K each, Continental Tyres , Umbro, Vauxhall  and the Yorkshire Building Society  and third is the Henley Regatta , the  World’s biggest women-only rowing regatta  where  partners Investco Perpetual and PricewaterhouseCoopers  put in 100K -300K each.

The very nature of the disparity of opportunity and the present paucity of investment by companies in women’s sport offers companies a golden , completely unique opportunity, to display social responsibility and integrity.  I’d add that , for example, elite sports women bring an added dimension both as women as role models and greater depth in terms of credible personal qualities beyond say industry “models” who have been traditionally used to advertise products or company services  on the strength of a cosmetic stereotypical “look” and or body image.

world record breaking para-swimmer Ellie Simmonds

Of individual athletes, women in sport, in comparison say to  a number of high media profile male footballers  (whose portfolios captialise on their sporting achievement and attendant celebrity  with contracts related to products both within their sport and beyond) women enjoy far less  income  as a look at the UK’s top ten sponsored athlete’s shows. Top of the sponsorship league is Equestrian sport’s Zara Philips  funded by Samsung ( £100-£300K) then Swimmer Kerry Anne Payne  ( £100-£300K) from  Speedo,  Cycling’s Victoria Pendleton  ( £100-£200K) from Hovis,  Heptathlete  Jessica  Enis  £50-£100K from  BP & British Airways  and Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds  £50K – £100K from  BMW.

So, bearing in mind the record breaking investment for women by Investec in English Women’s hockey , compare that to Chelsea Football Club and their staggering  £140 million  sponsorship deal with Adidas, Spurs at  £48 million  from Under Armour  and the £20 million  NPower invest in the Football League. At major events incidentally, the report confirms, 70  % of viewer’s  are male sports viewers. According to the commission’s research 61% of respondents wanted more TV coverage of top women’s sport.


The underfunding of women’s sport has wider health , social and economic implications. Where elite teams and events are sponsored that provides greater development potential and opportunity for greater participation at grass roots level  fed from the top down. Lack of financial help means that there is a greater paucity of female role models and it is responsible for the absence of a female sporting culture in the country.  Women’s events are under promoted and so women & girls  cannot be inspired to be physically more active where competitors are not presented to the public as fit and healthy sporting role models.  the cost to the nation, its NHS , of illnesses associated with lack of adequate exercise is billions and sport can play a vital role in reversing these frightening trends.



More on Tanni here  Tanni Grey Thompson OBE


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