Women's World Cup attracts new fans - and helps advertisers clean up football's image

Family-friendly ads starring female players are cashing in on the boom in the women's game

Visa is one of the big names sponsoring this summer's World Cup, which comes at a time of booming interest in women's football. EPA
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Advertisers are using the Women’s World Cup to appeal to a new football audience, as TV spots for gambling, drink and flashy cars are replaced by audiobooks, healthy food and family-friendly content.

Brands want to be associated with a boom in women’s football and sponsorship from big names such as Visa and McDonald’s means they think it will last, experts said.

Major brands have invested in slick adverts that show England’s Alessia Russo dribbling through a supermarket for Adidas and youngsters imitating Australian superstar Sam Kerr’s trademark back-flip for Nike.

An inventive video by French mobile network Orange showed what appeared to be pulsating scenes from the men’s game – only to reveal that the footage was an AI ruse and the thrilling football was really being played by women.

During this week’s round of 16, international skincare brands L'Oreal and Eucerin and women’s deodorants Sure and Dove put their products under TV viewers' noses at half time.

Some of these would be far less likely during a men’s game, where viewers are assumed to like betting – then to mysteriously want a payday loan an advert or two later.

But this is not a Barbie caricature of what women want. Brands have realised that the World Cup has an all-the-family audience and there are campaigns by holiday website Booking.com, Marks & Spencer’s food and breakfast cereal Weetabix.

Meg Templeton, director of global brand partnerships at content creation business Footballco, said the company’s research found that “literally everyone is excited about this tournament”.

The breadth of the audience "has been a little shocking to brands" who thought it would appeal mainly to women, she told The National.

“But the audience in general is super, super broad and big now, and growing.”

Growing audience

The interest from brands has been reflected in impressive World Cup viewership. The average attendance in the group stage was 25,476, an increase of 29 per cent compared with the 2019 tournament in France.

Australia’s final group game against Canada drew a TV audience of 2.4 million in the host nation, higher than any of their matches at the men’s World Cup in 2018 or 2022.

Advertisers in England are cashing in on a surge in interest since the Lionesses won Euro 2022 last summer.

Attendances at the Women’s Super League, the top division in England, more than doubled in 2022-2023. The Women’s FA Cup final sold out Wembley for the first time with 77,390 watching Chelsea win the trophy, a world record for a women's domestic game.

Marks & Spencer’s adverts encourage healthy eating under the slogan “eat like a Lioness”, in a campaign featuring Lauren James, Georgia Stanway and Alessia Russo. There was also a photoshoot with the England team in M&S blazers.

Younger Generation Z viewers are particularly keen on content focusing on individual players and “people have a bigger affinity for brands that therefore support those players”, Ms Templeton said.

A recruitment advert for Britain’s Royal Air Force, which has been shown during the World Cup, shows a woman marshalling efforts to prevent a space collision in what is meant to be a symbol of a “modern, future-facing RAF”.

There have also been TV adverts for audiobooks, airlines, holidays, video games, family cars, soft drinks, crisps and oven chips. Visa sponsors player-of-the-match awards and McDonald’s has the rights to the fair play prize.

Dr Christina Philippou, a football finance expert who contributed to a UK government review of the women’s game, said advertisers who “want to be associated with success” were trying to send positive messages.

“There is a difference between the standard football audience and what you would see attending women’s games. There’s obviously a lot more families, there’s a lot more women. The community is a lot more diverse,” she said.

“What we are seeing is people being given a chance to watch football in a safe environment and that brings diversity with it. The sponsors are following suit and trying to show that same message.”

Online and social media adverts are also key as matches take place in Australia and New Zealand’s time zones and fans in the rest of the world often catch up online.

Chelsea jumped on Lauren James’s emergence for England to advertise tickets to see her at domestic games. The social media drive hit a snag when she was sent off against Nigeria.

“It’s a World Cup that, more than the last World Cup, is taking place outside of 90 minutes on the pitch because of that time difference and because of the way that people want to consume content now,” Ms Templeton said.

“They can’t just rely on the TV advertising for this one if they want to make sure the story’s going throughout the day. If you’re advertising on TV at 8.30am, what happens during prime time?”

A combination of the men’s winter World Cup in Qatar and some pandemic-related rescheduling means women have dominated the footballing airwaves for two straight summers.

They think this is something that’s here to stay
Dr Christina Philippou, football finance expert

An exciting tournament this year, in which favourites such as Germany and the US have gone out early while underdogs Haiti, Jamaica and Morocco have impressed, has been a good advert for women's football.

With the next major international tournament not until Euro 2025, the test is now whether brands will sustain their interest at what Adidas has called a “tipping point for the women’s game”.

Preparations for the World Cup were clouded when Fifa accused networks of making miserly offers for broadcast rights and threatened a blackout in the big five countries – England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

But there is hope that this is a breakthrough moment, with Google this week announcing a partnership with Arsenal and Liverpool to “reduce the visibility gap” around women’s football.

Dr Philippou said big-name sponsors who would not tend to throw money at short-term projects were treating women’s football as a long-term investment.

“If you’re looking at stuff that might not be sustainable, you’re normally going to get the less big brands. But we are seeing the likes of Barclays and Visa. There’s been a lot of big brands that have been involved recently,” she said.

“Inevitably there might be blips along the way. But in terms of a long-term project and the long-term sustainability, I think the indications, at least from the sponsors, are that they think this is something that’s here to stay.”

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:00 PM