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Their costumes came in for a good deal of attention; one or two added short skirts over their knickerbockers.... When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women's football will attract the crowds.” 

So said the Manchester Guardian reporting on Britain’s first official women’s football match, which was played in London’s Crouch End, on 23 March 1895. The fixture between the North and South of England Ladies was the brainchild of one Nettie Honeyball (real name Mary Hutson) who founded the British Ladies Football Club with “the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured.”

ABOVE: Honeyball relaxing in her kit


The match attracted a curious crowd of 10,000 spectators and condemnation from blustering gentlemen of the press getting their panties in a bunch over exposed knickerbockers and the general “unwomanly” behaviour of the women. The Blackburn Times said ladies playing football was “disturbing”, and suggested, “Let them look to their hop-scotch and skipping-ropes, and leave cricket and football to the boys.”

Nettie pressed on undaunted and was joined down the years by other such plucky legends as Lily Parr, a 6ft-tall, Woodbine-smoking, hard-shooting winger who was part of the huge flourishing of women’s football during World War One. This June, Lily became part of a welcome wave of campaigns around the Women’s World Cup, that has reignited debate about gender inequality in sports and seen brands falling over themselves to get involved. 

ABOVE: The statue of Parr, unveiled at Manchester's National Football Museum.


A statue of Lily (the first in the UK of a female footballer – there are 110 of male players) was unveiled at Manchester's National Football Museum, as part of Mars’ #SupportHer campaign created by AMV BBDO to champion today’s Lionesses. It serves as reminder of stories that need to be told, such as the 1920 Boxing Day match between Lily’s team, the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC (named for the Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd munitions factory in Preston where the players worked) and St Helen’s Ladies at Everton’s Goodison Park that attracted 53,000 spectators, the largest football crowd England had seen. The FA got jittery, felt the “masculinity” of the game was being compromised and in 1921 banned women’s football from their grounds. 

The ban lasted until 1971. 

Fast forward to 2019, and though England’s Lionesses, along with 23 other national teams, have freely roared around France, stories have emerged about battles still faced by female footballers around the world. Globally, only ten percent of soccer players are female – the majority being from high-income countries. 

Girls in the Game, a film created by Portland agency Nemo Design for the Soccer Without Borders project, highlights the discrimination and even violence faced by refugee, immigrant and disadvantaged young female players. 

Last year’s documentary Freedom Fields profiled the Libyan national women’s football team who failed to qualify for the World Cup – hardly surprising when the players, discouraged by the state and targeted by religious extremists, had to train in secret locations under armed guard. 

Soccer Without Borders – Girls In The Game

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So the fortunes of women’s football have risen and fallen like Mexican waves, but this summer as we reflect on what has been the biggest Women’s World Cup ever, it seems to be riding the crest of that wave. 

After being underfunded for years, it received unprecedented financial backing. 

The prize money doubled since the 2015 Women’s World Cup to £24m. Barclays three-year sponsorship of the Women’s Super League is thought to be worth £10m – the largest single investment in British women’s sport by a business. 

Boots has signed a three-year deal to sponsor all five of the UK and Ireland’s national teams and Visa matched what it put into the men’s 2108 World Cup with its sponsorship of women’s FIFA and UEFA competitions. 

FIFA had a record 206 holders for broadcast rights for the Women’s World Cup, including the BBC, and the Corporation was repaid with healthy viewing figures including an astonishing 11 million who tuned into the semi-final against the USA. The total UK viewing figures for the tournament was a record-breaking 28.1m on TV and online. This nearly doubles the 12.4m set during the 2015 Women’s World Cup. 

Visa – One Moment Can Change The Game

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This surge in engagement seems to have been led by fans, with viewers’ interest piqued by steady improvements in the quality of many team’s playing, in the 2015 Women’s World Cup and other tournaments: “There has been a desire for more coverage of women’s football and sports for quite a while, it’s just that now mainstream media is acknowledging that request and providing the airtime,” says FCB Inferno’s EVP, Sharon Jiggins.  

Brands and media have just been playing catch up: “Some of us have been fans for years, but in order for women’s sports to take centre stage a few things have had to happen – including discrimination becoming a hot topic.  It’s meant brands have woken up to the fact that it’s a smart move culturally and business wise to get on board.  As soon as the big brands start to wave a flag, you know you’ve cracked it,” says Grey London’s CCO Vicki Maguire

Women’s struggles are at the forefront of the conversation because they need to be heard, celebrated, championed and not forgotten.

“Brands getting behind women’s football now are going to be seen as the ones that helped shape the sport for the best, for launching the rebirth of a sport,” says Simon Dent, Founder of sports-focussed ad agency, Dark Horses

And with the increasing popularity of cause marketing, brands have also been eager to align themselves with a movement that extends conversations around equality started by MeToo and Time’s Up. But did the feminist narrative that drove a lot of the Women’s World Cup marketing become repetitive? Maguire thinks not: “I, for one, like the fact that women’s struggles are at the forefront of the conversation because they need to be heard, celebrated, championed and not forgotten. Once we own that narrative, that story, then I think we can breathe out and let our characters play out in their own right.”

Guinness – Sisters

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Such campaigns, allowing characters to play out in their own right, have already appeared. This March, to celebrate Guinness’s sponsorship of the Women’s Six Nations rugby, AMV released Sisters, a touching tale of siblings and rivalry that profiled Harriet and Bridget Millar-Mills, who played for opposing England and Scotland national teams in 2013. 

Dan Tubby, one half of the Tubby Brothers, who directed the film explains their gender-neutral approach: “As directors we want to focus on that human story, whatever it is. The sisters are primarily rugby players – and regardless of gender, rugby is a sport that requires grit, determination and skill to play at an international level.” 

He does also acknowledge that “inspirational struggles” are equally essential for young people to know about: “the messaging around empowerment and positive messages of achievement are good to see – including some epic work from Nike, which is important because where Nike goes others tend to follow.”

And let’s face it stories about strivings make for great advertising. Nike has long been at the forefront of such campaigns with its powerful Serena Williams ads. In February, Dream Crazier, from W+K Portland, directed by Somesuch’s Kim Gehrig and narrated by Williams, was a stirring skewering of how female athletes expressing emotions or ambition are labeled as ‘crazy’.

A prescient sentiment considering the victorious USA captain Megan Rapinoe’s speech post final:” "We're crazy, that's what makes us special." 

Nike – Dream Crazier

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Recently, Nike China’s offering out of W+K Shanghai, Further Than Ever, featured a roll call of top Asian female athletes who’ve overcome social pressures to put family first in order to pursue their sporting goals. 

Directed with brio by Academy’s Ian Pons Jewell, the spot features such women as Can Zongju, who was warned “no man will want to marry a female boxer” but pursued her dream and became the greatest boxer in Chinese history. 

Nike – Further Than Ever

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Powerful tales such as these have a reach that will extend beyond this summer’s footie tournament, as Kate Stanners, Saatchi’s Chairwoman and Global CCO points out. “There is a universal audience interested in these players’ human stories in a way that transcends sport.” 

What’s been advantageous for advertisers is that business have been able to align with this growing interest in new female sporting celebs. Trumpeting the fact that it acquired the rights to every single game in the French tournament, the BBC’s Change The Game campaign trailer featured a host of top female football players, along with South London rapper Ms Banks performing a reworking of the track Remember the Name

BBC Sport – Change the Game

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This underlined how in the run up to this World Cup, despite the huge increase in pre-match ticket sales – nearly a million sold before the first game – much of the public didn’t know who the Sam Hill was going to be playing. 

Commerzbank – Their Game. Their Beat. Their Bank.

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This anonymity was used to droll effect in a video created by the German football association DFB and team sponsor Commerzbank that soon went viral when tweeted by broadcaster DW Sports. The video featured the players stating: “We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names.” “I like the German team approach, [it was] a little angry and communicated a strong message of female empowerment,” says Stanners. 

The film ends with, “We don’t have balls. But we know how to use them.”  Indeed, these are women who should be championed for their… cojones. Some might even argue that they show better possession of balls than their male counterparts.

So, in celebrating such ballsy women, the 2019 Women’s World Cup advertising has been a welcoming continuation of Nettie Honeyball’s and Lily Parr’s bid, 130 years ago, to rebel against outdated feminine stereotypes. 

Yet, ironically, on UK TV this summer, while goal-orientated female footballers played the beautiful game on one channel, on another, the reality show Love Island’s squad of wholly ‘ornamental’ lasses were flogging the beauty game, with a set of goals that were more erotic than athletic. One can only hope that any girls who tuned in (the average viewer profile was 16-24-year-old females) ultimately choose Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris, Megan Rapinoe et al as role models. 

In its refashioning of Baddiel And Skinner’s blokey footie anthem Lucozade’s rousing Three Lionesses ad deftly referenced female athletes’ long history of being patronised to hell rather than patronised financially: “So many jokes so many sneers, all those ‘well done girls’ wears you down through the years…” 

Lucozade – Three Lionesses

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Created by Grey London, the spot ends with the tagline, “We are all made to move”, continuing the message inherent in 2015’s This Girl Can

FCB’s Jiggins, who has run the Sport England account since that trailblazing spot, is heartened that the campaign’s legacy lives on: “These campaigns have changed the narrative in the sense that society knows that women’s stories should be told by real women. And more women are feeling empowered to give judgement the finger and do whatever exercise they like, stereotypes aside.”

Knickerbockers be damned, the gloves are off.

Although football didn’t quite come home to Blighty in the way the Lionesses may have hoped, in the UK we’re celebrating the triumph of our victorious US sisters and are determined to strive for a level playing field between male and female players. 

Back to Rapinoe’s rousing speech on picking up the winning trophy last Sunday: “I think we’re done with: ‘Are we worth it, should we have equal pay, is the market the same?’ Yada yada. Fans are done with that, players are done with that. I think sponsors are done with that. Let’s get to the next point. How do we support women’s federations and women’s programmes around the world?” 

Her words echoed the mood at the stadium in Lyon which rang out to chants for “equal pay” and boos for FIFA president Gianni Infantino. 

Knickerbockers be damned, the gloves are off. 

Carol Cooper continues her look at women in sports advertising in part two of this article, published next week.

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