Women’s sport calls for more support

There were some headline-grabbing statistics on offer when the Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport released a report on commercial investment.

Between January 2010 and August 2011, the report says, women’s sport received just 0.5% of all UK sports sponsorship: men’s sport received 61.1%.

“In just a few months, the eyes of the world will be on London 2012 – the only occasion in our lifetime that we’ll be a global showcase for women’s elite sport in this country,” said Baroness Grey-Thompson, Britain’s most successful Paralympian and chair of the commission.

“It’s disappointing that more brands and rights-holders haven’t seized the opportunity to benefit themselves and women’s sport, and help create a lasting legacy.”

Were this just about sponsoring elite sportspeople, you might think the country has more to worry about. There are obviously wider implications here, though.

As the report points out: “Women and girls make up half the nation’s population. Eighty percent of women and girls in the UK are not playing enough sport or doing enough exercise to benefit their health. The lack of opportunity to play sport and a culture in which female role models encourage women to be thin rather than healthy are key barriers to women being physically active.”

The report uses TV viewing figures and audience surveys to show there is a demand for higher profile women’s sport and that it is highly regarded – England’s dramatic defeat at the hands of France in the quarter-final in the Women’s 2011 World Cup in July drew a peak audience of 3.2m on BBC 2 and the Wimbledon women’s final on BBC 1 averaged 2.8m viewers.

There are a few exceptions in the sponsorship stakes. Hockey England recently signed a five-year deal with Investec, reportedly worth £2.2m and covering women’s hockey from grassroots to the Great Britain team, while football’s new FA Women’s Super League has a clutch of sponsors with a joint value of around £700,000 each year.

But these pale into insignificance next to reported deals within men’s football – Chelsea’s £140m contract with Adidas and Tottenham Hotspur’s £48m deal with Under Armour  – and those huge figures for Premier League football clearly skew the figures massively.

The report also cites deals between Henley Ladies Regatta (sic) and both Invesco Perpetual and PricewaterhouseCoopers, worth between £100-300,000 each, plus personal deals with similar values for former showjumping world champion Zara Phillips (Samsung) and world open-water swimming champ Keri-anne Payne (Speedo) – the best for individual sportswomen.

The absence of a British female tennis player from the top 100 of the world rankings must also be a factor. Andy Murray signed a £1m deal with Highland Spring in 2007, reported to be the biggest shirt sponsorship deal in tennis.

There are a some key hidden numbers, though, in the 38.4% of sponsorship that the report places into the “mixed” category.

That third portion of the pie chart includes all of the major deals for Olympic sport: Siemens sponsorship of rowing (signed in 2006 and reportedly worth £3.2m over six-and-a-half years), Skandia’s sponsorship of Olympic and Paralympic sailing, Aviva’s deal in athletics, BritishGas with British Swimming and Standard Life’s deal with all of Great Britain’s representative basketball teams.

The report simply says: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that the men’s side of mixed sports enjoyed the vast majority of this investment.” Given its emphasis on 2012, though, it would have been useful to look further.

British Cycling agreed a “multimillion pound” five-year deal with Sky just before the Beijing Olympics, which covers teams of both genders.

However, Sky is reportedly spending a further £30m over four years on its men’s road cycling team, ignoring a low-cost opportunity to sponsor a women’s team, at a time when leading teams such as Cervelo and HTC-Highroad have hit the wall.

This is not an issue that is being ignored, partly because major companies can’t afford to. The director of a company that organises one major event told me recently that potential sponsors are all acutely aware of the need for “corporate social responsibility”, which demands they only support events that share their diversity agenda.

This is as close as the UK gets to the “Title IX” legislation that has been so successful in promoting women’s sport in the United States, requiring publicly funded bodies such as universities to support gender sports equally, and effectively requiring universities to plough the same amount that they put into their football teams into women’s sport too.

There are clearly no quick solutions. In fact, were sponsors simply to jump on the London 2012 bandwagon there is a danger of them jumping straight off again, which is why some of the “mixed” gender, longer-term deals are more heartening.

The report makes the following calls:

Rights holders, notably governing bodies, should strengthen their commercial capabilities, create high quality business cases, develop strong relationships with sponsors and broadcasters [and] present their events and competitors in a media-friendly way.

Sponsors should invest in understanding the women’s market and collaborate with rights holders to support elite success and develop more high-quality events that will appeal to broadcasters and fans.

Broadcasters should work in partnership with rights holders to create entertaining television and capitalise on the demand from sports fans.

Government should prioritise public money for sport to achieve the most valuable social outcomes, recognise the importance and potential of women’s sport and use “seedfunding” to create events and initiatives that will attract commercial investment.

Fans have their part to play too. If they turn out to watch events and turn on the TV regularly when women’s events are on, then simple economic necessity will surely drive sponsors in that direction.

UPDATE Wednesday 0945 GMT: With perfect timing, London-based global asset management company Newton this morning announced it is renewing its sponsorship of the Women’s Boat Race for another year, although the figures were not released.

As former Cambridge cox Rebecca Dowbiggin pointed out on Twitter, there is an interesting line in the press release, saying: “The sponsorship aims to aid the development of the clubs as they continue to build sustainable high performance programmes, equal in magnitude to those offered to their male counterparts.”

That raises the exciting possibility of the race moving from Henley to the Tideway at some point in the future, which would be a massive victory for those seeking equality in profile. Many, though – including former Cambridge blue and world champion Annabel Vernon – would like to see the women’s event retain its own unique place in the calendar.

Xchanging’s sponsorship of the men’s event runs out after the 2012 race.

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