Wednesday, March 29, 2023

From pioneers to owners of their destiny: athletes want to manage the industry they have created

Women’s sport picked up cruising speed in 2022, overcoming the rhetoric of visibility or equal opportunities to be an industry unto itself, attracting sponsors and audiences of its own. This is demonstrated by agreements signed both with individual athletes and with teams, the negotiation of broadcasting rights alone and the independence of some male structures. In this development of the business model, multiple initiatives have emerged for the demand for equal wages and, albeit slowly, the athletes are reaching quotas of power.

As in sport in general, there are two vectors of change that explain growth. On the one hand, there is women’s football as the engine of development in Europe. The attendance records recorded, both at the Camp Nou (91,553 spectators in the ‘classic’ and 91,648 against Wolfsburg in the Champions League) and in the final of the Women’s Euro 2022 (87,192 people) show the existence of a consolidated ‘target’ that above all responds to the convening power of the big brands, such as FC Barcelona.

Sponsors and ethics

Success on the field and in television audiences, since England summoned more than 17.4 million viewers through the BBC. While the German team was watched by 18 million people (65% of Compartir) in his country, with a peak audience of 22 million. Figures higher than those achieved by the ephemeral passage of the German men’s team in the World Cup in Qatar, boycotted due to complaints against the violation of human rights in the host country. Here a tactical aspect comes into play, ‘sportswashing’ and ‘purplewashing’, which states like Saudi Arabia want to do through women’s football.

The tourist office ‘Visit Saudi’ has applied to be a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup which is held from July 20 to August 20, along with other brands such as Visa or Coca-Cola. This commercial alliance, which has not been officially presented, has unleashed a barrage of criticism. “Inappropriate”, “strange” or “scandalous” are some of the adjectives used by stars like the Americans Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe, who spoke out against the sponsorship, which might not come to fruition.

This is the demonstration of two phenomena: how the referents of women’s sport have power in agreements and how values ​​are an entry barrier for a growing number of players. Although building trust in investments requires an environment such as the one conducive to professionalizationa process completed in Spain with the F-League last year. According to a report by Strock Consulting, sponsorship agreements for the 2022/23 season grew by 11.3% compared to the previous year, despite the initial uncertainty in the broadcasts or resolved conflicts such as arbitration.

The power of unionism

By brands, The Caixa is the one that has signed the most agreements with Spanish teams, followed by Mahou, Coca Cola, hummel, Joma (they are the main technical partners) and Teika (company of ‘vending’). These associations are the transfer to the national market of a global expansion, as stated in the report The Path of change on women’s football, prepared by FIFA and Deloitte. The document states, for example, that 77% of the leagues managed to have a sponsored name in 2022 (in Spain it is Finetwork).

Although the same as in the men’s structures, the great ships of women’s football, those with revenues of over a million euros, account for half of the sponsorship contracts. However, FIFA already considers that women’s teams are a global phenomenon, especially thanks to the power of American or Asian franchises, as well as the emergence of Latin America or Africa. The Japanese clubs are the ones that generate the most income, with an average of 1.65 million euros while the Spanish are already in the middle class: 628,000 euros, surpassing, for example, the French.

Although from the highest body they detect a great inequality between clubs in the same category, something that men’s football also suffers from and that FIFA proposes to correct with an equitable distribution of future audiovisual rights. The players themselves have organized themselves. “Having a common voice that speaks on behalf of the players can be a powerful instrument to improve the conditions and well-being of female soccer players. Players have a stipulated minimum salary in 63% of the leagues that have an association or union and in only 17% of the leagues that do not have official representation,” the report reflects.

Management positions

The soccer players want to be the owners of their destiny and that generates tensions with the establishment that still exist in organizations. One of the most representative cases is the rebellion of 15 players from the Spanish team against their coach Jorge Vilda. Canadian internationals have denounced cuts and unequal treatment compared to their peers. The planting of the Olympic champions has led to the resignation of Nick Bontis as president of the Canadian Soccer Association. More recently, the case of Wendie Renard, captain of France, gave voice to the structural changes demanded by the players.

“I can’t stand the current system, which is far from the highest level requirements,” he expressed in the announcement of his withdrawal from the selection due to the practices of the selector Corinne Diacre. These examples explain that a new panorama such as the one faced by women’s sports requires reform at all levels. Hence the importance of the players taking the lead, as has happened in the F League with Beatriz Álvarez, but also ownership, like Renee Montgomery, former player of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), shareholder of the Atlanta Dream.

The WNBA, an example to follow

The entry of the Montgomery investment group also meant a change of order, because it ended with the management of Kelly Loeffler, a former Republican senator from the United States who had opposed the expressions of solidarity of the players with the movement. Black Lives Matter. Montgomery’s movement has dragged other compañeras, as the mythical Sue Bird, who will enter the structure of the NJ/NY Gotham FC of the NWSLthe highest category of American women’s soccer.

Although if there is a team that expresses the change in order it is Angel City FC, whose founders include Natalie Portman or Serena Williams, who despite their retirement continues to be the great reference that changed the sport practiced by women. The WNBA is the competition set by marketing experts as an example to follow in the new phase of women’s sport. The main basketball league has created a universe of its own, with established stars like Diana Taurasi and other emerging ones like Sabrina Ionescu.

A story between generations and cultures with which to reach mass audiences. “Advertisers must redirect campaigns from the focus of overcoming inequality to generate self-confident athletes. Competitions are in a position to exploit their entertainment power. Concepts such as brotherhood, because that homogenises the athletes and makes it difficult for fans to internalize their stories“Reflects Matt Readman, Head of Strategy at Dark Horses, an agency specializing in sports marketing.

“Football without more”

Readman puts the aforementioned Serena Williams as a paradigmcapable of building her story through success, or Ronda Rousey, a UFC fighter, who starred in various advertising campaigns under the claim “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Strong” (“Don’t hate me because I’m strong”). Two authentic social phenomena that demolish stereotypes. Like Alexia Putellas, a figure who has allowed the independence of Spanish women’s football, which already has references.

The goal in all instances is to create your own path, without depending on the schedules of men’s sports. This self-determination is already assumed by its protagonists. Alexia herself defended after winning her second Ballon d’Or that she and her teammates practice “soccer without more”, an expression that, far from being a subtraction, implies removing the “feminine” corset, broadening the definition to a sport practiced by women where they want to be protagonists and managers of their destiny.


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