When the Football Association signed a three year partnership with Disney they decided to do things a little bit differently.
Too often sport and business partnerships can become merely a mutual exchange – and use – of instantly recognisable logos, or a high-powered branding exercise.
But this time round the two organisations agreed that their goal would be to boost girls’ participation in football.
At the same time they would pose questions about what it means to be a girl in the modern world, and, using Disney characters and the power of football, examine the concept of “what makes a princess?”
It’s an example of the imaginative steps women’s sport has had to take in a world where it is overshadowed in terms of money and audience by men’s sport.
“We wanted to target more girls to play, and Disney also wanted to reach more girls via their characters,” Marzena Bogdanowicz, head of marketing and commercial for women’s football at the FA, tells me.
This year for inspiration during its Girls’ Football Week the FA utilised the power of three Disney characters: Moana, Rapunzel from Tangled, and Judy Hopps from Zootropolis.
Via digital promotions, participation packs, and in-store marketing, the trio were used to help attract girls aged five to 11 to take part in the sport. As well as learning sporting skills, it also encouraged girls to build social skills and learn fun team-building exercises.
The FA said that looking at participation figures from the dedicated Girls’ Football Week in April this year, some 42,110 youngsters took part, a huge 110% increase on the year before. Meanwhile, some 1,037 volunteer organisers took part, up 72% on 2017.
“Football is healthy and positive, and we have shifted perceptions from the old model of what we want to see in a princess,” said Ms Bogdanowicz. “A princess is healthy, has confidence, belief, and is about trying your best.
“These are things we want to engender in young girls.”
She adds: “This is absolutely not just about using our two organisation’s logos. A badging exercise is not what this is about.”
The Disney partnership was initially for three years, having started in 2017. The two parties are reviewing the programme to see if there is anything that can be done better or differently next year.
Ms Bogdanowicz says that a campaign such as the FA’s and Disney’s can achieve visibility for the commercial organisations involved, increase participation, and bring about culture change.
“Football is our national game, but we are not at 50-50 participation yet. We can use football to change culture,” she says.
‘Females, families, first-timers’
And other industry executives and experts agree that if women’s sport in the UK is to capitalise in terms of participation, revenue generation, and awareness, its business model can’t merely be a smaller version of that found in men’s sport.
It has to promote different values to potential sponsors and advertisers, and emphasise that backing women’s sport can take them to new and different audiences.
For example, HSBC’s Breeze campaign with British Cycling inspires women to “ride for fun and fitness”, says the sporting body’s chief executive Julie Harrington. She says her organisation is committed to boosting participation among “females, families and first-timers”.
“Brands we talk to want to get away from the logo-badging exercises of the past and into deeper societal roles,” adds the former Football Association director.
Katie Sadleir, general manager for the women’s game at global sporting body World Rugby, agrees there is a change taking place in sponsorship of women’s sport.
“It is away from large commercial concerns just associating their names with big sporting events and teams, to wanting to get involved in wider social change,” she says.
“For example, there is the whole concept of using sport as a mechanism for creating leadership in girls and women, and brands which support that ideal will be seen to be doing something for a larger good beyond the sport aspects.”
World Rugby says it looking to develop a “strong and engaged portfolio” of sponsors and other financial partners committed to long-term investment in the women’s game.
Mrs Sadleir adds: “It is about making sure they will support the right balance of sporting and social criteria and objectives.”
She says women’s rugby experienced a successful World Cup in Ireland last year, and is hoping to make further progress at the 2021 event, with the host nation announced in November.
“We have seen our sport grow stronger and stronger,” says Mrs Sadleir, an experienced sporting executive who also represented New Zealand in the Olympics.
“The 2017 World Cup was the most attended and viewed ever. We were pleased to see that the attendance figures across the tournament were split 47% men and 53% women.”
World Rugby is looking for “broadcast visibility of the women’s game” as part of all commercial deals.
But Mrs Sadleir says that while growing a bigger TV audience is important, so is growing a younger viewing demographic.
“That means having a really good social media presence, pushing the sport through different social media channels,” she says.
“It is also very important when we talk to sponsors to show them that we have this young, social media, audience.”
Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, which funds grass roots sport, agrees that women’s sport should be treated as a spectacle on its own sporting merits.
“Despite the imbalance in media coverage, women’s sport can break into the national consciousness, such as with the netball final at the Commonwealth Games.
“People watching that cliff-hanger will not have been thinking ‘this is women’s sport’ – it was exciting sport in its own right.”
Meanwhile, organisation now seeking funding from Sport England or UK Sport, must show that they are “including increased skills and diversity in decision making, with a target of at least 30 per cent gender diversity on boards”.
“Sport is a business like any other, it competes with others in the same sector and with other leisure activities, in order to sell tickets and attract viewership and investment,” said Ms Price.
“And it is inefficient and old fashioned not to be diverse and include women, who can bring so much expertise to both sports governance and business.”