During a summer packed with incredible sport, perhaps nothing has captured the nation’s attention more than the FIFA Women’s World Cup. While it was the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) who took home the trophy, it was a tournament which felt like it had a lot of winners. Fans, who flocked to enjoy a wonderful tournament broadcast on free-to-air television (England vs USA in the semi-finals was watched by an astonishing 11.7m people in the UK). Players, who made the most of a great platform to show their incredible talent and personalities (the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Ellen White are household names, at least for now). And finally, brand and broadcast partners, who like any global football tournament, took the opportunity to communicate with an active and engaged audience.
Across the tournament, several members of the H+K team were in France experiencing the tournament both as fans and working for clients. To capture the best of the tournament, we asked the team to answer the big questions:
What was your biggest overall takeaway from visiting the Women’s World Cup in France?
David Hughes, Senior Account Director, attended China vs South Africa in Paris
The difference between being in Paris for a men’s tournament (as I was in Euro 2016) versus being there this time for the women’s. The tournament felt isolated to the stadium and immediate surrounding areas.
Emma Wright, Associate Director, attended Scotland vs Argentina in Paris, England vs USA, Sweden vs The Netherlands and USA vs The Netherlands in Lyon
The World Cup has been great, but it’s time to stop looking at TV viewing figures and patting ourselves on the back for the excellent progress we’re making because it’s still not enough. FIFA said 14 of 52 games were sold out but it certainly didn’t look that way. The next step is to convert the “come on girls” fans at home into people who hop on a Eurostar and support the team. FIFA and The FA could have made that easier for people, but the desire needs to be there.
Jill Peng, China Business Lead, UK, attended China vs South Africa in Paris and USA vs England in Lyon
I was underwhelmed by Paris as I saw no sign of a major sport event taking place in the city nor experienced no celebration of the tournament outside of the stadium, in comparison to what I experienced in Moscow last year where the city turned into a huge fan zone. Lyon was different. The stations, the streets and the stadium were flooded with fans, especially American fans who almost took over the city, and finally one felt like ‘this is the World Cup.’ Although hosted in France, it felt like this World Cup belonged to the US team and their fans. And Megan Rapinoe.
Sinead McGeever, Senior Campaign Manager, attended Canada vs The Netherlands in Reims
I was struck by how excited everyone was. A mix of different fans with local French attendees choosing to support the underdogs certainly meant there was enough noise for both teams. It felt like an incredibly joyous occasion, a celebration really, with football, namely women’s football, coming out on top.
James Fenn, Senior Content + Publishing Manager, attended China vs South Africa in Paris
While the city of Paris may not have been dominated by the Women’s World Cup (and in fairness it’s a city not easily distracted), this felt like a tournament well set up to gain attention. The stadium looked great, the action on the pitch was of high quality and crucially, it was aired on free-to-air television in the UK. As a result, broadcast figures were strong. As a cricket fan, it was impossible not to compare to the men’s Cricket World Cup going on at the same time on Sky, that had viewing figures a tiny fraction of Women’s World Cup. It was evidence once again that to really gain national attention for a sport desperate to grow, free-to-air television is an absolute must.
From a sponsor/brand perspective – what did (or didn’t) stand out?
Very little brand activation. Other than standard FIFA partner branding, I saw very little else on the ground. Felt like lots of partners were happy to take the ‘standard’ rights FIFA afford them via their partnerships but less were willing to physically activate in the way many would in and around the city for men’s tournaments. Didn’t even see any traditional media buys around key transport hubs etc.
For me, a lot of the marketing still needs to be a little less in the CSR category and a little more flag waving, face painting, playing Vindaloo on a plastic trumpet. The way Yorkshire Tea jumped on Alex Morgan’s tea celebration is the sort of thing we need to see more of. Good humored, reactive, classic World Cup marketing. The other big challenge for women’s football is making the players household names. Megan Rapinoe, at age 34, was on a one-woman crusade to make sure people don’t forget her when she hangs up her boots. She literally sprinted out of the changing room to get to the post-match press conference after the final and you know brands will be in just as much of a rush to work with her now.
I’m biased but I do think our Wanda flagbearer piece deserves a round of applause (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2VU7hhxouc&t=33s). The brand is not as outspoken as some of the others, but this piece of content celebrates girls, dreams and love for football. It stands out also because it doesn’t come from a top-ranking football country, but a country that simply loves football.
From a brand perspective, there wasn’t a huge amount going on in Reims. There was very little going on outside of the stadium with minimalistic fan parks for both teams’ fans. Given Reims hosted six games, I found this surprising and expected to see more tournament sponsor presence around the town and outskirts of the stadium.
It felt like most brands focused on an emotive statement of intent at the start of the tournament, but then did much less of impact as the tournament went on. It was unquestionably a huge uplift in brand interest from previous major women’s tournaments, but there is still much more to be done for some brands.
What do you think the future holds for women’s football after France 2019?
Whilst the tournament has undoubtedly been a success for raising the profile of the game, my concern is that there is a lack of investment to immediately build on the momentum back home. TV rights have been crucial to growing the men’s game but under the existing deal for the WSL, BT Sport and BBC only cover the production costs and don’t pay directly into WSL coffers. This must change and hopefully the ratings we saw across the tournament help raise their value, but this remains to be seen. Recent initiatives by Chelsea to offer free access to games is positive, however, by offering free tickets does this help build value for women’s football? Or by making it free does it sell the event as something that isn’t worth paying for?
Domestic leagues have a huge decision to make on how they support the women’s game. PR disasters like moving West Ham’s Premier League game to put it on TV and causing a clash with the women’s team’s FA Cup final don’t make it easy for fans. Where and when domestic league games are played will be crucial to keeping momentum going between tournaments. Look at the showpiece games that took place at Juventus and Atletico Madrid – each selling around 60,000 tickets to watch their women’s teams. Football fans are creatures of habit, put games at places they are used to going, at times they are used to watching it and they will show up. Otherwise we’ll get to summer 2021 and we’ll be back to square one.
Some say the game has changed, but I haven’t seen enough evidence. What I did see is that stars, even superstars, were born at this World Cup. I believe it needs the stars who shine on and off the pitch to keep a wider audience interested in the game. Hopefully the momentum will continue, and brands invest more in women’s football and the female football stars.
I hope that this heralds a new era for women’s football. It certainly felt different and media attention surrounding the tournament seems to have bigger and better than ever. However, we have been here before when it comes to women’s sports and we will require momentum and commitment if we’re going to make long term improvements to grow the game.
The key for me lies in the stars of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and how they manage to stay in our collective consciousness. Right now, more people in the UK could probably name five female footballers than perhaps ever before. The likes of Megan Rapinoe and Ellen White are legitimate stars. They can be the ones who drive interest and attendance for the domestic game between tournaments, but will we remember them in two years? Olympic sports often struggle with this, we know the names and faces for three months but then forget them between cycles. Brands and broadcasters can play a crucial role here – ensuring that the stars of France 2019 stay at the front of our minds.