Women’s football isn’t just football with ponytails

Authors: Zoë Dawson
  • Posted on: August 18, 2023

Brands are popping off with world cup content.

From Nike’s kind of funny, kind of inspiring What the Football ad and ITV’s The Pride has Arrived to the more unexpected, like this weetabix partnership… 

… the women’s game is everywhere. I even got an email in my inbox from Microsoft after the first semi-final save, titled ‘the Lionesses don’t let anything slide,’ which I thought was a 10/10 powerpoint pun.

And I love to see it. 

Sport is one of the most exciting avenues for advertising creative, and the men’s world cup has inspired fantastic work for years from every brand space under the sun. But this is women. On our screens, on our buses and on our cereal packets. Not just playing, but being celebrated in a way that players like Beckham always have been. It’s a giant leap for girls everywhere. 

With Australia’s world cup showing record-breaking attendance and double the 2019 cup’s viewership, it’s not surprising everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. But brands have an opportunity to go beyond the bandwagon and to drive change in sport and beyond. If they want to do it right, they need to do it with purpose.

Changing Football

Brands offer female players something they really need. Money. Compared to 2019, sponsorship at this world cup has increased by 40%. This is great for national teams and the individuals that make them up, especially when you consider that the average global salary for professional female footballers is only $14,000 (£10,800). But in the lead up to the tournament, there were teams around the world relying on crowdfunding – and even considering bankruptcy – to survive.

So what else can brands do, beyond splashing cash, to genuinely help close the pay gap between the men and women’s teams? 

I could talk about funding and policy and all that jazz… but I’m a creative! So of course, I think great creative has the potential to play a huge part. One of the reasons often cited for why more people watch the men’s game is (offensively) skill. “I’ll watch the girls play when they get as good as the men,” a guy once said to me at a game, and it’s a rhetoric that gets passed around a lot. This insight inspired what is – in my opinion – the best world cup ad of the year, from Orange with The French Football Federation.

The creatives behind it directly targeted, and tricked, the audience who believed the technical skill of the women’s game can’t keep up by using VFX to superimpose the faces of the men’s team onto the women who were really playing. It went viral because it’s insightful, it’s smart, and it’s perfectly simple in its creative execution.

After watching that, try telling me you think it’s legit that the world cup prize is $330 million less for women than it is for the lads.

Changing Futures

Inspiring girls with World Cup comms and sponsorships is great. But if brands really care about the future of women’s sports, they need to go beyond the big moments and find authentic ways to grow the culture of the game and empower the communities that make it.

There are opportunities for this up and down the football pyramid. With support from brands, both financially and in terms of visibility, grassroots football has the potential to grow great players and lifelong fans. And with the stories from the people at this level of the game, brands have the potential to create work that resonates with audiences that love the game. For girls, the tales of international football are aspirational, but the tales of hardworking talent at every level – and from diverse communities – are what make them want to get involved. Google Pixel has nailed this authentic relationship between brand and ball, giving visibility to communities like Victoria Park Vixens, Hilltop Football Club and Hackney FC, with well told creative storytelling. 

But brands hold a power for young girls that’s bigger than the pitch. Everyone likes to think that the future Lionesses are currently kicking a ball around the park or starting their first Sunday League Season, and a lot of them will be. But 64% of girls will have quit sport by the end of puberty. While boys are encouraged to play and keep playing, girls are left expected to make their own opportunities and fight to stay in the game, and if they don’t, there’s no safety net keeping them there.

It’s one of the reasons campaigns like This Girl Can are so important. A lot of girls quit sports because of shame. Body image and the way we think we’re supposed to look as women, but also the way we think we’re supposed to look when we play sport.

This Girl Can Campaign Ad

This Girl Can celebrates sweat, wobbles, periods, all of it. That may not be as sexy as the World Cup adverts, but it’s just as significant. If a brand plays a part in changing the way a girl thinks about sport – or even herself – more generally, it’s going to have a huge lasting impact.

Changing Fandoms

As the women’s game grows, its fanbase is being constantly created. By clubs, players, events, other fans, and – you guessed it – brands. With only 20% of the fanbase identifying as ‘hardcore football fans’ compared to 80% of the men’s game fanbase, brands have a unique audience who are more likely to engage with broader conversations around women’s sport and equality.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with hardcore football fans. It’s just that as a space, football fandom often doesn’t feel safe for women, LGBTQ+ individuals, those from racialised groups, people with disabilities… you get where I’m going. One of the most beautiful things about women’s football is that it’s creating a new space for lovers of the game. One that is more diverse, inclusive and encouraging than we’ve ever seen.

The Women’s World Cup has given us a number of firsts in the way of representation. For example, can we talk about the record number of out-LGBTQ+ players (13%), including the first player to identify as trans and non-binary? And the fanbase is just as diverse and full of unique perspectives and stories.

With huge existing audiences of their own, brands are bringing people into the fandom, and with that comes a huge responsibility. The stories they choose to tell, the way they depict individuals and communities, and the spaces they create for their audiences all feed into the wider narrative around women’s football, and who is watching. At the same time, the world cup gives brands a global stage to brands to speak directly to this diverse group of people –and they owe them something more authentic than a token sponsorship. 

We all want women’s football to continue growing, but it’s imperative that brands are part of retaining what makes it different to the men’s game. From over commercialisation to rampant homophobia and racism.

The women make the game

Women’s football isn’t just football with ponytails. It’s an opportunity for equity, for authenticity, and for a new world for football. So, as brands and as creatives, let’s take it for what it is, and give it what it deserves. For the right reasons, not just because it’s cool right now.