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Why England’s victory tore up our women’s sport rule book

Dark Horses thought it had the perfect playbook for how brands should support women’s sport. But after England’s win at the Women’s Euros, strategy director Mark Lloyd explains why the agency is writing a new one.

Women’s football was the great unknown for years. Little has been done to understand its appeal or what role a brand could play in this growing space. Media coverage and predictions for the future pointed to a gold rush in sports marketing, but we all forgot to pack our shovels.

With little else to draw on, women’s football became a metaphor for social change and a shortcut to the broader gender empowerment movement.

England

England’s win at the Women’s Euros changed the game for brands

As a result, many brands stayed away, citing a lack of “credibility” and harboring concerns (disturbingly real) about promoting a gender empowerment message without having their own houses in order. Those brands that engaged saw women’s football as a new avenue to brand purpose. Campaigns were offloaded to D&I departments and budgets paled in comparison to those allocated to other marketing endeavors.

But in those chaotic few seconds between Chloe Kelly’s overtime winner hitting the net and a nearly full pint of room temperature lager soaking my entire back, everything changed. Women’s football was no longer such a great unknown. Its appeal as a spectacle was obvious. We all just felt it.

As the celebrations continue, what seemed like the automatic entry point for brands six weeks ago suddenly seems completely out of sync with the mood surrounding esports. After Sunday, it feels like paying Harry Styles to write the music on hold for your company when you’re just using women’s football as a vehicle to advance a charitable agenda. Sure, it works well enough, but it also takes the emotion out of the experience and completely misses the point.

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Here at Dark Horses, that has us scratching our heads. Ahead of the tournament we published The 7 Deadly Sins of Women’s Sports Marketing, written after a couple of years working with the FA team at the Lionesses and Women’s Super League, as well as two of the main sponsors of Euro 2022, Just Eat and Tiktok. At the time, we were excited to share our insights with the industry. But what seemed relatively enlightening a month ago now feels mundane and even obvious thanks to the performances of this England team.

We talked about the sin of “unity,” the temptation to treat all female athletes as a homogenous group of monochrome togetherness that is a common trap for brands. They may be united in their goals (and hangovers), but these athletes, each with their own story and personality, have evidently become heroes in their own right.

The sin of ‘scarcity’, of portraying women’s football as more approachable and amateur than its male counterparts, is another avenue we marketers should avoid. But Alessia Russo slapping physics in the face in front of a bumper audience on the biggest stage possible makes that argument a little redundant. Of course, this team isn’t just a “down-to-earth bunch of girls” — it’s an impressive unit of world-class athletes.

We advised brands to avoid the sin of “lust” and celebrate sportiness over aesthetics. But Chloe Kelly’s celebration put an end to what @lucymirandaward eloquently described:

And as for “chastity”? The very real temptation, especially after the fan antics surrounding the men’s Euro 2020 final, to see women’s football as sane and without edge? Well, we can thank Jill Scott for making that point a rudimentary observation as she gave her German colleague a lesson in English, all in beautiful super slow motion, and so became a national icon.

Without going through all seven, you can see that we still have work to do to create a new way of looking at women’s sport. Thank you Sarina.

But the good news is that women’s football brands should now see a way forward and break away from the sins of the past. That means those already in the game can diversify their performance away from the brand purpose – which should result in more brands seeing more opportunities to enter women’s football. This can be individual deals with players, starting with the Lionesses, or a greater willingness to invest in club competitions throughout the year.

With the new Women’s Super League season less than six weeks away, the brands that have watched tentatively from the sidelines for so long should heed the call of Leah Williamson and Ian Wright and look within to see what role they could play in the next chapter of women’s football.

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