Do you remember the days before Covid-19, when stadiums were full of fans and raw emotion? What kind of audience do you picture? Most people imagine male fans rather than a mixed audience. When marketing and advertising professionals think of sports fans, they traditionally think of men. But are there only men in the stands, in front of the TV, or the computer?
While it is true that men make up the majority of sports fans, research shows that the female fanbase is growing steadily. Globally, the gender ratio of fans varies between 38 per cent in soccer, which corresponds to about 280 million female fans, and more than 50 per cent in swimming. Of the 185 million National Football League (NFL) fans worldwide, 44 per cent are women. And as for esports, Nielsen estimates that women make up 21 per cent of all fans, with more than one billion female gamers.
We know that 84 per cent of sports fans are interested in women’s sports. In recent years, there has been increased recognition that many women are interested in sports in general. Therefore, it is important for brands and marketers, as well as clubs and associations, to delve deeper into the available data to ensure they do not leave out an important target segment.
US$24,000,000,000,000,000: that's how high the worldwide income of women is expected to be this year. Nearly twice this figure, US$43 trillion, is the amount that women control in consumer spending in 2020, and it is growing. But how do brands exploit this enormous potential? And have they already recognised the opportunities it presents?
The days of a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with fans are long gone. Women, in particular, but also more and more men, are tired of stereotypical advertisements and marketing campaigns that carry the bias and prejudices of the 1950s. We know that using available data about audience beliefs and behaviours leads to better engagement and conversion opportunities. But it must be done correctly. Baby boomers are more interested in traditional channels and offerings; millennials are more interested in social media, mobile apps and streaming devices; and Gen Z seldom interacts with a traditional television broadcasting environment. Many segments are watching sports on multiple devices simultaneously.
Although sport should appreciate the size of its target segment, its commercial value and predominant behaviour, it is still full of marketing campaigns that focus on and appeal to a predominantly male audience. Advertising that is aimed primarily at women is often either ‘pink-washed’ or fuels old school stereotypes. Women don't want pink team merchandise (Pinktober is a different story, supporting the cause of breast cancer awareness), they want a jersey that fits their body and suits them. Women want an inclusive, gender-neutral sports experience. It is quite simple.
Historically, advertising perpetuates an antiquated view of women. Of course, since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, men and women have been campaigning for gender equality in many sectors. However, the efforts of marketing agencies could be more pronounced in showing real inclusivity - both in their campaigns and in their boardrooms.
So what is stopping them and the sports industry from doing this? Firstly, homogeneity, especially with regard to top management and senior decision-makers in top agencies and the sports industry more generally. And secondly, a misunderstanding of what the female consumer wants.
Why is homogeneity dangerous in marketing?
Campaigns and projects should be conceived, designed and reviewed by a diverse team of people who are empowered to speak out and provide input. This heterogeneity must be maintained in the decision-making bodies so that there is a real awareness of the potential impact of a misplaced, or indeed positive, marketing message. A wide range of approaches and experiences is best to avoid later misinterpretations or failures.
Experience shows that leading a heterogeneous team can lead to friction as it involves discussions and arguments, but this friction, coupled with an open mindset, clear team rules and respect for each individual opinion in the team, will lead to better results. Strong leadership is essential. A campaign that is discussed from multiple perspectives and experiences will lead to significantly different - and usually better - results.
It is important that media and advertising messages reflect society as it is now and as we want it to be in the future, rather than as a few people see it.
And yet, the advertising industry is still very much dominated by men. Only 11 per cent of creative directors are female. This contributes to ongoing stereotyping, sexism and bias. I’m sure you all remember "The Axe Effect" ("The Lynx Effect" for those of you in the UK), which draws willing and half-naked women in hordes to any man who has generously sprayed himself with the deodorant. Or Bud Light's "Up For Whatever”, a 2015 campaign that was intended to evoke feelings of a spontaneous, fun evening with friends, but became one of Bud Light's biggest faux pas as it raised concerns about the promotion of an alcohol-driven rape culture, with messages on bottles that promoted Bud Light as 'the perfect beer to remove "no" from the vocabulary for the night.'
And who could forget the "brutally refreshing" campaign run by the Sprite brand, with lines like, "She has seen more ceilings than Michelangelo”, or, "A two at ten is a ten at two”? Or, just recently, Audi's ad showing a little girl in a dress eating a banana in front of a high-performance car. Another ad came from Peloton last year, called "The gift that gives back", which described the story of a thin woman who is on her way to becoming even thinner after her partner gave her a peloton bike. The ad was criticised because the woman’s partner apparently suggested she needed to exercise more and lose more weight.
In marketing, gender stereotypes have always been used to determine creative and buying strategies. Assumptions like "men watch sports, like cars and drink beer" while "women take care of children, cook and watch soap operas" have been around for ages. Human judgement and decision-making is distorted by a number of cognitive, perceptual and motivational biases, and people tend not to recognise their own bias. For this very reason, it is important that media and advertising messages reflect society as it is now and as we want it to be in the future, rather than as a few people see it and seem to want it to continue.
As Jean Kilbourne said: "Ads sell more than products. They sell normalcy.”
So we have to ask ourselves: what is this normalcy, what should it be, and what is the perception of this standard by the consumer?
According to an IPSOS study, 72 per cent of respondents felt that advertising did not reflect the world around them. It's not only sad, it's also dangerous for a brand, because we know that millennials have been paying close attention to authenticity and direction in corporate messaging and management. If message and corporate culture do not match, you risk losing the battle for talent, eyeballs and attention. In the same IPSOS study, 63 per cent of respondents said they did not see themselves represented in most advertisements. Well, even for me as a woman, very few campaigns reflect how I live and what I stand for. Am I so far from what a woman in the 21st century is like?
Significant reach, especially in sports, also comes with obligations. Let's just think of three of the biggest events: the Olympic Games, the Super Bowl and the Fifa World Cup. We are all aware of the presence of advertising messages and the impact of advertising around these and many other sporting events. The effects of marketing activities are far-reaching, profound, and usually unconscious; an ideal breeding ground for the dissemination of values and standards.
These events have an extensive global audience and the power to ratify or shape behaviour, to empower and inspire, and are therefore influential opinion leaders. Do we want to continue to stir up stereotypes, promote an antiquated role model, condone sexism and dismiss it as “boys being boys”?
I believe we can improve our marketing and become a role model, just as sport in general should be with its athletes. Social responsibility will become more important over the coming years and is increasingly expected by consumers – which ultimately impacts the all-important bottom line.
Look at the figures at the beginning again. Add the fact that more than 70 per cent of consumers' purchasing decisions are made by women, and that they often control the distribution of disposable family income for leisure activities, shopping and vacations, and you can clearly see that we are currently not addressing this huge potential properly nor adequately.
Sport and brands that sponsor it need to move away from a pure "eyeballs" approach towards collaborative creation of relevant and authentic content that is distributed through digital and social platforms. Women have a 41 per cent stronger preference for social media than their male counterparts. Combined with more sociably responsible companies actively fighting against outdated prejudices, we could create a win-win situation for sports, brands, and society in general.
Some brands have already begun to move in this direction, so let's celebrate these efforts and make sure that others are encouraged to follow - be it Nike’s “You can’t stop us” or “Dream Crazier” campaigns, The New York Times’ “The Truth Has a Voice” series, Bumble’s “Make the first move” ad, or Athleta’s “Women run it all”. We need more of those powerful campaigns, fighting biases and prejudices, which are authentic, honest and empowering.
We either get what we create or what we ignore. So sleeves up and let's create.
About the author: An expert in sports marketing and communications, Marisa Reich is the chair of She Sports Switzerland and former head of events and culture at Infront. Her previous roles include managing international communications for Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Run and the Berlin Marathon, while she has also represented elite athletes in track and field as an IAAF-accredited agent. She became a SportsPro columnist in October 2020, writing about issues surrounding women in sport.
Read Marisa's first SportsPro column - on why it’s time to end the sports media patriarchy - here.