Brands can play a vital role in growing consumer interest in women’s sport, but it requires them to tell more modern and constructive marketing stories.

At Dark Horses we passionately believe that women’s sport will achieve genuine parity with the men’s game.

With sustained momentum, consistent growth and a record-breaking 2021 that saw 32.9 million viewers tune into women’s sport in the UK, it’s very much on the way. But how soon depends on how we market women’s sport in the critical coming years.

Here are seven guiding principles to tell more modern and constructive marketing stories within the world of women’s sport.

1. Focus on great entertainment, not a good cause

For many brands, women’s sport offers a great opportunity to tell a purpose-driven story. But this dangerously traps women’s sport within D&I departments. It becomes a proof-point of greater good. And whilst this may help tick boxes within a business, it undermines the perception of women’s sport as a pure entertainment product. It makes women’s sport feel like something fans should support, not something they want to watch.

Instead brands should keep the attitude of these campaigns but redirect it, away from overcoming inequality, and more towards the confidence and swagger of entertainers.

Women’s sport has to be presented as world-class entertainment to which all fans should be irresistibly drawn. Female athletes don’t need you to support their cause, they need you to support them on the pitch.

2. Focus on the individuals not the collective

When it comes to women’s sport, it is tempting to tell a story of sisterhood. Female athletes are often shown uniting together for something bigger than the game. This homogenises female athletes and makes it harder for fans to latch on to their interesting stories.

Fans care about individuality, about an athlete’s back story, their goals, their character and their personal lives. The best sporting rivalries come from opposite characters off the pitch, not just a great contest on it. The greater the difference between these individual athletes, the more delicious the drama is. Shows like Netflix’s Drive To Survive prove this.        

As much as possible we need to focus on the individuals within any group and dial up the competition and the rivalry between them.

3. Give women’s sport its own space to flourish

In an attempt to increase interest and attendance, we often make the mistake of keeping the women’s game close to the men’s. We organise matches alongside (usually before) men’s and lean on male athletes to draw attention.

This is all designed to shine a light on female athletes, but that light also casts a shadow that is difficult to escape from.

We need to give women’s sport its own space to flourish. Brands should look to prioritise women’s sport over men’s, rather than just having it as part of their portfolio. They should create content using female athletes as the heroes not sidekicks to the men.

If we, as marketers, don’t have faith in its ability to captivate on its own, why should fans believe?

4. Emphasise the here and now, not the future

Too much of our energy goes into star-gazing. We talk about the journey women’s sport is on and call out current athletes as trail-blazers, game-changers and role models.

This suggests women’s sport is an improving product not the finished article. Fans don’t want something that is getting better, they want the very best right now. For example, you would never see a tech company promote their latest model as a gateway to something better.

We must ensure we always focus on the here and now, rather than gaze into the future. We need to concentrate fans’ energy and attention in the present, not what is yet to come.

5. Position women’s sport as extravagant and elite

Money and sport have always had a complex relationship. Fans may feign disgust at the commercialisation of modern sport, but the truth is they’re irresistibly drawn to money. In men’s sport we sell big-ticket sporting events by amping up the finances at stake.

Some marketers do the opposite of this with women’s sport and glorify amateurism. It feels attractive because amateur athletes are more ‘like us’ and love the sport for the purest of reasons. But nothing erodes trust in women's sport like amateurism.

We need to make sure every touchpoint around professional women’s sport is as elite and prestigious as it can be. We shouldn’t be afraid of glitz and extravagance. It adds to the excitement and drama.

6. Lean into drama and controversy

There is often a desire to make women’s sport cleaner, fairer and more honourable.

In trying to purify women’s sport we inadvertently reinforce an outdated belief that women are more civilised than men. We then unfairly hold female athletes to higher standards, and condone their behaviour more readily.

It also negatively affects the sporting drama for fans. Wholesome is vanilla. It’s not exciting. Dangerously, it’s boring. Fans enjoy controversy. Some of the most talked about characters in sport have been the most infamous.

Don’t be afraid of a little ‘dirt’ when marketing women’s sport. It adds to the storylines and adds depth and dimensions to its characters.

7. Help female athletes reclaim the right to physical expression

Sportswomen are frequently presented in ways that emphasise their sexuality, not their athletic prowess.

This unhealthy obsession on looks has historically rewarded ‘graceful’ sports that conform to a traditionally feminine image, such as tennis, gymnastics and volleyball, to the detriment of ‘aggressive’ sports like football, rugby and boxing.

We need to encourage female athletes to reclaim their right to physical expression. Admire, celebrate and champion athleticism, strength and power in women’s sport. That means normalising and glorifying sweating, muscles, competitive aggression and most importantly, winning.