The growth of women’s football worldwide in recent years is to be celebrated. There are a lot of great initiatives ongoing to engage girls and women in football, new competitions as well as a growing number of women playing and watching football. For example, the Women’s World Cup in Canada was the second most-watched FIFA competition after the Men’s World Cup, with it’s record-breaking 750 million TV viewers.
Media has contributed a lot to this growth. In fact, there has been strong support for Women’s sport from traditional media owners, such as BBC and ITV in the UK who have included female experts and commentators in their coverage for the first time. This could be one of the reasons there has been a 7% increase in the female audience on YouTube for the World Cup 2018 content compared to Euro 2016, based on figures from the OMD EMEA & Tubular’s World Cup 2018 Wrap Up.
Source: Tubular Labs data
Today the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is kicking off, and in light of the event we posed ourselves a challenge – to investigate what makes someone a football fan and if this experience is different for men and women.
There are several valuable lessons to learn from the FIFA World Cup held last year in Russia. Here at OMD EMEA, we conducted research around the competition in collaboration with our research partners Blis Media and Dynata. Within the study we combined surveyed perceptions with the behavioural data from mobile users who had been in certain key locations during matches in Russia and the UK (stadiums, fan parks and pubs). This was supplemented with social listening across the whole period of the World Cup. Our insights are informed by these proprietary studies and further desk research.
Women have traditionally been stereotyped as passive viewers of football, interested only in the peripheral aspects of the game. However, we saw no significant difference in motivations between men and women when it comes to following an event such as a World Cup. For men and women, support of their national team was the main motivation to watch the matches and the feeling of belonging to a larger group of their country’s supporters.
Moreover, according to the passive data we collected, more women were watching the World Cup matches in pubs in the UK (58% vs 42% male audience), while there were almost the same number of women and men watching the matches in the fan parks in Russia (51% men and 49% women). As social listening revealed, women also talked about the event sharing the excitement of watching the matches and the big moments of the playing teams.
Source: OMD EMEA/ Blis Media
Generally, people love football. The study proved that in fact, both female and male fans claimed to love football largely to the same extent. All the differences we found were related to intensity of interest (high interest fans vs. low interest fans) and commitment, not gender.
From the levels of commitment to football we identified two types of fans: social fans who usually follow games for the social and entertainment factor and vested fans who tend to be more passionate. They attend games at stadiums, participate in initiatives, such as fantasy football, buy merchandise products and consume sport related media. Vested fans are more likely to remain loyal over time, but crucially from our findings, they can be men as well as women. Interestingly, our research revealed that in some cases the female fans showed an even greater interest in the World Cup than the male fans.
We had the opportunity to discuss this with Raquel Rodriguez, a Penn State graduate and professional footballer, who scored Costa Rica’s first ever World Cup goal in 2015. Raquel’s experience confirms the importance of passion over gender. Moreover, when people are involved in a sport or a sports event, the players’ gender becomes less relevant to fans. These findings suggest a huge potential of the Women’s World Cup, which many brands may undervalue.
Exploring the fans’ dynamics and how passion impacts the behaviour of fans, we concluded that this is a question of acceptance not only of inclusion. Unfortunately, the environment is still not always welcoming for the female fans despite the progress mentioned earlier.
There are several findings pointing in this direction. For example, how fans were watching World Cup matches. The figures reveal that women are much more likely to watch football with family or small groups of friends.
Source: OMD EMEA/ Dynata
In other words, they are more likely watch matches where they are already accepted. We also found that there were less women watching games at the stadiums compared to men. This signals an important implication: if context and environment is not friendly towards passionate fans, a massive audience can be missing.
Source: OMD EMEA/ Blis Media
It is also true that there is an effort being done to make male football games at stadiums more family inclusive. Many fathers bring their children to the games, with seating areas often allocated specifically for families. However, this is not always the case. At the same time, the women’s matches are always family oriented.
From reviewing academic research on why people engage with sport we furthered our understanding of motivations amongst football fans. The motives are entertainment, escapism, achievement, inspiration and bonding with other fans. Using these territories applied to women’s football we see a broad opportunity for connection and bonding territories. While the male tournament carries more of the tribal element, both can appeal through the aesthetic appreciation of participants and deliver key moments for communal celebration. These will appeal to ALL with an interest in football, including male fans, who will be important to engage in an authentic way to deliver on the potential of the women’s game.
The situation is clear: the brands promoting inclusive football environments are likely to benefit. Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Adidas and Nike are the strongest players on this field. Many brands have a real potential to play a significant role in normalising the environment due to their capabilities and millions of loyal consumers worldwide. It is also an opportunity for the brands. There is still no strong brand association with the women’s football, in other words the space is not owned by any brand.
Speaking about international sports events, brands in this environment are visible to a large, passionate audience. Though at a smaller scale compared to the Men’s tournament, the Women’s World Cup also provides a great opportunity for brands to reach the audience, but it is not enough just to be seen. With inclusivity being the key, the generated engagement will drive ROI in both the short and long term.
It is crucial that we do not try to compare women’s and men’s tournaments, neither in terms of importance or priority, nor in terms of physical strength and abilities of male and female players. Making comparisons of this kind are misleading when the results are applied from a gender perspective – whatever sport event is compared to the Men’s World Cup will not deliver at the same scale.
The Women’s World Cup and the female football in general should not be in the shadow of male football. It should be treated as a sport on its own. We see the potential and we believe that the Women’s World Cup can be hugely engaging for fans whether they are female or male. It is important to understand that it is not just about more women watching the women’s World Cup. We hope to continue to see a change in the attitude towards women’s football without referencing the male one. Maybe more mums will be inspired to bring their daughters to the football class and more fathers will be sharing moments with their daughters at the women’s tournaments.
In conclusion, it’s all about perception. If football continues to be associated with male players, it will be organic implication: women’s football will remain at the same scale. There are still many girls leaving football at the age of 14 due to lack of opportunities and stereotypes still existing, as well as professional female players giving up their football career due to low wages. Raquel also underlines that support and resources need investment. Female football is a growing phenomenon and represents a big arena for brands and investors to promote themselves commercially, above and beyond the positive associations with inclusivity and equal opportunities, in one of the most followed entertainment categories.
Thanks to the OMD Insights team – Ioli Nissim and Scott Nelson for their invaluable contributions and Pete White for his inspirational guidance and persistence. Special thanks to Raquel Rodriguez for her unique insight from a player’s perspective.