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World Cup shows how much work to be done in marketing women's sports

Brock University expert outlines ways to create gender equity in promotion and selling
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There still in much to be done in order to create gender equity in sport marketing, says a Brock University expert.

The lead-up to this year’s FIFA women’s World Cup which starts July 20 is making waves with innovative and progressive marketing campaigns, such as the United States women’s national soccer team’s roster reveal, and France’s television ad for their national team, says Laura Harris, a Research Associate in Brock’s Sport, Allyship and Inclusion Lab.

“Even in the lead-up to the tournament, we saw the world’s top women soccer players use their collective power to stop FIFA from using Visit Saudi as the tournament’s title sponsor, which would have been extreme sports-washing of non-ideal political messaging,” she said in a news release.

However, while it is important to celebrate the positive ways women’s sport is drawing increased investment as a genuine business and no longer a cause, it is also important to note that women’s soccer as a whole is still far from receiving equitable investment in relation to their men’s counterparts, Harris says.

A study she recently completed alongside Brock University Sport Management Professor Dawn Trussell revealed that athletes who are not the token elite with multiple lucrative partnership deals still rarely receive sponsorship contracts, and when they do, they tend to be based on the 
men's sport system.

Among the athletes included in the research, one with a two-year shoe deal had her sponsorship pulled in the second year when she moved to a better top-tier women’s team — all because her new team’s men’s equivalent wasn’t top tier themselves.

Harris and Trussell’s research also found women soccer players were tasked with creating most of their sponsorship’s marketing content, such as social media reels and posts, without receiving compensation for their work. 

While it will take “significant work” to address this systemic issue, she says there are several steps that teams, leagues, governing bodies and sponsors can take.

Women’s soccer teams and leagues can ensure their athletes become verified on social media platforms, removing a hurdle for sponsorship deals.

Governing bodies of professional women’s soccer can also enact and enforce policy to ensure that clubs that include both a men’s and women’s team receive equitable benefits from club-based sponsorship deals. Harris and Trussell’s research included instances where top athletic-wear brands would sponsor a club, but only the men received free equipment and gear, while the women still had to pay high costs to supply their own.

Harris says companies should also sponsor more women athletes. 

“Sponsors already partnered with a handful of women athletes can expand the breadth of those they sponsor to start acting on their statements of ensuring gender equity in professional sport,” she says. “Fans will take notice and support your business more.”

There are several significant gaps in the market, Harris says, for new brands to enter the sponsorship space, such as athletic wear, feminine hygiene, makeup and fashion.

“Many of the women in our research expressed desires to highlight their traditionally feminine interests alongside their athletic abilities and would love to partner with brands who empower women in sport,” she says.