The UEFA Woman’s EURO has finally gotten underway with England beating Austria to the cheers of 69,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium, in what feels like a real turning point for women’s soccer and its brand. With 450,000 tickets purchased already, the tournament, which is being hosted across eight towns and cities in England, is on track to be Europe’s biggest ever women’s sporting event.
As with all large tournaments of this type, the Women’s EURO 2022 will be a showcase for all manner of brands — not just sponsors and partners — but also for women’s soccer and the various national teams participating. Indeed, the event is the culmination of a decade of effort to improve the sport’s status and grow audiences.
But exactly how did the various teams, broadcasters, sponsors, and sports organizations take an underrepresented sport — one that was often so readily dismissed — and turn it into a winning brand. And what more needs to be done to keep growing women’s soccer?
Let’s find out.
Why Women’s Soccer Is Underrepresented
Despite being the world’s most popular sport, soccer — or football as it’s known outside the US — has historically been dominated by males, with the female game largely overshadowed and underrepresented.
And this disparity in popularity begs a puzzling question, why does women’s soccer receive so little attention compared to men’s? Is it something that the sport’s branding could fix?
A common, and deeply flawed, answer to this question is that women’s soccer receives less attention simply because it isn’t as good — because the athletes involved are inferior to their male counterparts. But this just doesn’t add up, as sex-based categories exist in order to give female athletes the space to compete away from comparisons with male players.
In tennis, men’s and women’s games draw equal attention from audiences and the media alike — while champion’s prizes are often the same for both sexes. However, in Serena William’s own words, “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes…the men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it’s just a different game.”
If comparative quality was the true cause of women’s soccer living in the shadow of the men’s game, we would surely also expect the same disparity to exist elsewhere. But athletes such as the Williams sisters, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Ronda Rousey, Paula Radcliffe, and countless more prove otherwise — having all garnered widespread support, media attention, and sponsorships deals across a range of sports.
Indeed, some believe the disparity is an issue of sexism — that female soccer is sold short by the media, who invest less in the marketing and coverage of female games, with “fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays” and production values that simply don’t match men’s sports.
Women’s soccer also suffers from a historic disadvantage — at least in England — because the English Football Association essentially banned the female game, barring their matches on members’ grounds between 1921 and 1971. Prior to this, women’s soccer had actually been flying high, having taken off during the First World War as a means of raising money for charity.
In fact, a 1920 match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and Saint Helens drew a record crowd of 53,000 spectators and raised huge sums of money for unemployed and disabled ex-servicemen. A year later the ban was imposed, citing that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”
The process of rebalancing the disparity of popularity, funding, and media coverage between male and female soccer is ongoing, but much has been done already to improve the women’s game over the last decade.
In England, the sport was essentially starting from scratch after its 50-year ban, so it’s no surprise that when women’s leagues were reestablished, the process of rebuilding was a slow one. The largest barriers to the sport’s growth were insufficient funding, which meant many players were only semi-professional.
The establishment of the Women’s Super League in 2010 and the Gameplan for Growth established in 2017 both helped pick up the pace of recovery. Indeed, the Gameplan’s targets of doubling participation by increasing the number of teams and doubling attendance for international and league games were met by 2020.
In 2018, the Women’s Super League went fully professional, allowing players to dedicate themselves completely to their sport. And, in 2019, Barclay’s Bank became a sponsor, investing £15 million into the sport — following up with an extra £30 million when the deal was extended for a further three years in 2021.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is seen by many to be an important turning point. A record-breaking 1.12 billion people tuned in to watch Megan Rapinoe lead the American national team to victory over the Netherlands. Following that, the BBC and Sky Television in the UK, both decided to boost their investment in the sport, in a new deal that has been “described as the biggest for any women’s football league in the world”.
Not only will women’s football matches be much more prominent and accessible for viewers to watch but broadcasters have promised to invest more in marketing, promotion, and commentary to bring the sport’s production values in line with men’s soccer.
The Role of Brand in Women’s Soccer
Women’s sport is now on track to generate “more than £1 billion per year by 2030” and in many countries around the world, women’s soccer is the fastest growing sport. As well as increased investment, a key contributing factor to this growth has been the development of women’s soccer as a brand.
It’s no surprise that the biggest turning points for the sport have been international tournaments where the high-stakes drama of every game has been hyped up by broadcasters. It’s exactly this drama that Kathryn Swarbrick, commercial and marketing director at the English Football Association, wants to infuse into the brand of women’s soccer.
For her, the Super League’s recent deal with Sky TV presents an opportunity to:
“monster this whole thing up, so really driving awareness of the WSL, building a profile of the players, of the clubs, and also creating the kind of content that will excite fans on the pre- and post-match commentary, and the story-telling around the WSL more broadly.”
That this is the key to growing women’s soccer shouldn’t come as a surprise to brand managers — regardless of the product or service, the role of a brand is to provide the emotional foundation of a business. For consumer goods, this often means focusing on the dreams and ambitions that consumers can achieve with the product in question. For sports and their respective teams, leagues, players, and tournaments, it’s about building that sense of rivalry and pride, fostering communities, legacy, and belonging — and telling stories that make each match feel like much more than 11 people kicking a ball around a field.
This approach is perfectly summed up by the BBC’s trailer for the 2016 men’s Euros. With hardly a single football in sight, the trailer plays more like a stylized promotion for the next big prestige drama, showcasing the tournament's cast of iconic and legendary characters to a dramatic soundtrack from the French electronic duo Justice.
Before the final whistle is blown, let’s contrast this trailer with the BBC’s latest promo for the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022. Doing so allows two things to become instantly apparent. First, there is a huge difference in the level of detail, effort, storytelling, and production value — clearly, the men’s Euro is afforded a much bigger budget to pull off its ambitious concept.
The second factor is a marked difference in tone. While the men’s Euros exudes a sense of prestige and importance, builds the characters of its broadcasters and players, and plays up the tournament’s stakes — the promo for the women’s EURO is somewhat focused on justifying its existence, with its core “my place is doing what I do best” message.
But this shouldn’t be the case, contrary to the trolling naysayers who claim that nobody cares about women’s football, a 2021 survey of 5000 soccer fans found that if “women’s football is easily accessible on TV” then viewership could increase “by 300% - 350%”.
Obviously, the growth of women’s soccer is a story worth celebrating, and while the sport continues to find its footing, it's understandable that it confronts prejudices and addresses criticisms head-on. But for the women’s soccer brand to really step out of the shadow of men’s soccer, its marketing campaigns and the excitement-building content that Kathryn Swarbrick referenced would benefit from a focus on building its own sagas, legends, and — of course — heroines.
Where Can Women’s Soccer Go Next?
The future looks bright for women’s soccer — not least in England, where there is real optimism that the women’s national team can finally turn the page on the sport’s unequal treatment in the past and bring home a trophy — something the men’s team haven’t done since 1969!
And while increased investment gives a good opportunity to improve participation and provide more opportunities for the sport to grow at the grassroots level, what can be done with the brand of women’s soccer to keep it growing?
Let’s take a quick look at some essential next steps:
1. Up the Ante
Kathryn Swarbrick’s reference to “monstering” the whole thing up is the perfect summary of where the sport needs to go next. With new broadcasting deals, the Women’s Super League in England has an opportunity to build quality content that raises the emotional stakes of each game.
The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. While purists may be satisfied with the on-pitch action alone, to attract a broad cross-section of the public, the league’s marketing campaigns need to up the ante and use storytelling to raise the stakes.
2. Build Loyalty
It’s no secret that sports teams rely on loyalty. What else would keep fans turning up, often in horrendous winter conditions, to watch their team lose time and time again, if not loyalty. For sports brands, however, it takes a lot more than a newsletter and a loyalty program to get fans to feel like their part of a community that they can’t turn their back on.
While these tactics are still recommended, building loyalty within the Women’s Super League will likely be a gradual process, as teams earn victories that attract audiences and build emotional connections that last. To speed up the process, the Women’s Super League should use the power of its broadcasting deals to amplify the most emotional moments wherever they happen.
3. Step Out of the Shadow of the Men’s Game
In the future, women’s soccer needs to define itself on its own terms and move away from constant comparisons with the men’s game. This can be done by embracing the personalities of its star players and hyping up the game’s most nail-biting moments.
But there are other elements to celebrate that make the women’s game unique which could be brought to the fore. For example, the sport has a more family-friendly reputation, with the EURO tournament “proving a hit with women and children” — that quality football can be enjoyed without the intimidating and toxic behavior that sometimes plagues the men’s game could become a key USP for the brand to capitalize on.
It’s likely that the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 will be another step forward for women’s football, but there are still improvements to be made.
According to Siobhan Chamberlain, former England, and Manchester United goalie, “the game’s at a turning point”. But, while the national team is adorning billboards and starring in commercials, she believes this attention also needs to turn into “can we get more bums on seats? Can we get more people in stadiums?”
Creating unmissable live events is no easy feat, but with the backing of broadcasters, funding from sponsors, and this unique moment to shine in the public eye, women’s soccer has a firm foundation to pursue yet another decade of growth. And we’ll be watching closely to see the impact made by this year’s UEFA Women’s Euros.