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From the Lionesses to the Red Roses, Let’s Hear Them Roar

Advertising Agency
London, UK
Improper chats to players and industry experts on the changes in women's competitive sport and how brands can support them

Exciting things are happening in the world of competitive team sports: women are being seen and heard like never before. Improper decided to talk to the players and industry experts to hear their thoughts on these changes and find out what brands can do to support them.

The Lionesses’ historic victory in July felt like a transformative moment. It was not just a sporting achievement, but a socio-political one. It proved women can play a captivating, skilful game of football that is enjoyed by everyone. Now, step forward Women’s Rugby. Currently, the Red Roses are favourites to win the World Cup. Their opening match against Fiji last Saturday was a powerful statement, and for the last 26 matches, they have not been beaten. This momentum is unprecedented and interest in the sport is increasing. Women’s rugby is thought to be one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. England Rugby reported that female players have increased from 25,000 in 2017 to 40,000 in 2021 with 130 more clubs and 565 new teams. And it doesn’t end there, figures show that women are participating more in sports across the board. 

According to Suzy Levy, a trustee of the Women’s Sports Trust, this is largely due to increased visibility. Record-breaking crowds have been watching women play sports, with almost 33 million people in 2021 – more than ever before. She explains: ‘We often talk about the concept that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. It’s not just a good saying, there is a clearly definable link between them’. So, the more visible women are, the more they participate, the more they participate, the more visible they are and so the positive cycle continues. As there is no shortage of talented women wanting to play, or of people wanting to watch them, it follows that women should be enjoying the same support and salaries as men, right? 

Unfortunately, no. There is still a long way to go.  

Helena Bunce, who played for the Worcester Valkyries, says that when you compare the men’s game to the women’s game, they are still worlds apart. She found that support was ‘variable’ and that ‘inequality weaves through every aspect of women’s rugby’ as ‘the kit was made for men and the coaches were all men’.  When it comes to the top level, ‘the Red Roses are now a professional set up which is incredible. But these women give up careers and in some cases parenthood - just to play rugby, and their income is significantly smaller. Yet game for game, competition for competition, the women are more successful’. Case in point, the current England team has a qualified firefighter, a teacher, and an occupational therapist. 

Looking at the grassroots level, only 43% of girls are offered the same sporting options as boys at school according to the report Women in Sport (2022). Helena started rugby because her school friend managed to set up a girls' team at the age of 14, there was some support, but the school did not promote the girls as much as the boys. She believes that the biggest barrier was the attitude to girls playing sports. Girls were seen as ‘not strong enough, not fast enough’ says Helena. A further consideration is how girls view themselves. Research shows girls lose interest in sports during their teenage years because of low self-belief and body image.

Given these barriers, it is amazing women have made it so far. When it comes to lifting them, brands have a crucial part to play – at every level. Suzy explains: ‘you need the entire sports system to underpin any sport - advertising and marketing is a key part of that system’. For example, TikTok came on board as the first-ever sponsor of the women’s game which meant coverage for all six nations for every fixture. More sponsorship leads to more coverage and more opportunities for fans to watch. As a result, ‘more fans and more athletes are born’ says Suzy. Another positive cycle.

Brands can also have a huge impact in tackling issues around body image – a major barrier for girls participating in sports. The trailblazing campaign ‘This Girl Can’ aimed to break this down by showcasing women who did not look like the usual ‘active wear’ models. One of the tag lines from the campaign was ‘I kick balls – deal with it’. It showed that whatever your age, size, shape, or story – exercise is for everybody. Cleverly, it wove in intersecting identities too. This is incredibly important, as class, race, gender identity, and motherhood all play a part in limiting opportunities. When it comes to addressing these structural inequalities, the opportunities are limitless. 

So, for visual communities, where do we start? 

Start by breaking down harmful stereotypes. Gender stereotyping in sports has a long history. Historically, feminine ideals are at odds with the reality of sports. Sport for women was seen as ‘recreational’ and their participation was limited to ‘refined sports’ such as croquet or tennis. While we have certainly come a long way from women playing sport in their whale-bone corsets, this background leaves a long shadow. According to Suzy, ‘we need to remove the negative stereotype that a ‘lady’ doesn’t sweat, that she doesn’t have muscles, that she shouldn’t want to compete or win'. After all, sport is sweaty and messy. Playing involves grimacing, panting, and grunting. It requires ambition, determination, and drive. These behaviours and attitudes are not just reserved for men - and brands need to show that. 

Thankfully, many brands are. Improper’s creative director, Nicky Thompson, has worked on large sporting events for global sporting bodies such as UEFA, LFP (Ligue de Football Professionnel) and FIFA. Although used to coming across challenges in equal representation, Nicky believes there is a clear change in values and thought processes across the industry. She thinks we can go further: ‘we need to focus more on the universal emotion of sport. We need to see the pride and importance of international women's games being represented in the same way as the men's – this acts as a leveller. These women feel the passion and the pride, they live and breathe it, they are equal representatives of their country, and we should be equally as proud of them’. 

Helena also feels the changing tides with an increased focus on the sport - not the gender: ‘Young girls want to play a game where being a girl and playing the game isn’t a thing. You just play sport. End of’. The opportunities and implications of this are far-reaching and exciting for the future of sports. Suzy is hopeful: ‘Personally, I cannot wait for what the future brings in this not only amplifies our society, it has the potential to change our society, and in the case of women’s sport, change it for the better’. Nicky agrees: ‘Harnessing the support and elevating the women’s game gives women everywhere a more powerful voice. The sports platform has huge power in getting messages across and making an impact; for women, marginalised communities, and for younger generations. It is our responsibility as communicators to make sure that women in sport are seen and their voices heard’.  

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