The female playing field: How brands and social media can be a driving force behind change and sports equality

The summer of 2019 was a bumper summer for sports, especially for women’s sports. Never before has women’s football captured the nation’s attention in such a way.

Women’s sports participation has seen a surge of interest in the last few years, some of which can be connected with the growing influence of social media. Social media has become one of the most important tools for sports clubs, players and fans – at every level, including grassroots. In this article, we use social intelligence to explore how women engage in sport, how audiences engage with women’s sports, and where brands can add value.

New levels of exposure via social media

Fans can engage with and keep up to date with their favourite sports clubs, athletes and other like-minded fans like never before. Football player Raheem Stirling has taken full advantage of this by creating his own content and publishing it via YouTube in order to branch out beyond his club and engage with his fans. His content ranges from football challenges in his car to car-sharing with other prominent YouTubers such as KSI.

But is this not more of the same for these male athletes? More exposure for them in a world where they will already earn significantly more, and are much more likely to be in sponsorship deals, than their female equivalents.

The growth of professional female athletes and teams has been limited in the past by this lack of exposure and sponsorship opportunities, with many full-time female athletes also working jobs. But does social media present opportunities for female athletes and sports teams that have been lacking in the past?

You only have to look at women’s football to see the opportunities it can present. It wasn’t so long ago that you could only see a women’s game if you attended a match, but these are now available via live streaming on Facebook and the BBC.

A recent survey completed by Join the Dots InSites Consulting found that Twitter activity was considered an important profile-raising tool in the world of women’s football. It was felt that Twitter activity provided the opportunity for women’s teams, and women’s football in general, to broaden its fan base, it also found that even just simple retweeting can have a huge impact on player, club and game visibility at grass-root level.

Female athletes are using the profile raising opportunities social presents to their advantage. Social media offers female athletes an opportunity to amplify their voices and grow their presence: they are the newest group of social media influencers. An example of this is Ramla Ali, a Somali born female boxer and Nike sponsored athlete who shares her struggles in a male dominated sport and is sparking inspiration amongst others.

Negative social media trolling

Unfortunately, when it comes to raising their profile on social female athletes will often be subjected to online abuse. One study found that female athletes face three times more abuse than men. Analysis of social media commentary found that nearly 27 percent of comments on Facebook posts were negative towards sportswomen compared to 8 percent of male athletes. Of those negative comments 23 per cent were sexist and 20 per cent belittled their sporting abilities. Alongside this 14 per cent were highly sexualised and explicit.

The challenge with sports engagement isn’t limited to players themselves, it is also evident amongst female sports fans, especially fans of male-dominated sports.

Analysis of female football fan engagement conducted by Join the Dots InSites Consulting found that whilst female fan engagement was evident (with the men’s game), they typically took the position of cheerleader, whilst men would openly comment and debate tactics, strategy etc., women were mostly defaulting to a ‘come on!’ cheerleading role. In addition, men represented a big share of fan voice for both the male and the female game.

When we explored this further there was a view amongst some female fans that they didn’t feel confident in their opinion or ‘football voice’, despite some being life-long fans and season ticket holders.

In fact, whilst they engaged and were present at games, analysis of their relevant social media activity highlighted that they were very much isolated. They were the curators of male fan activity, typically not featuring in any photos they were sharing from games, or featured alone (whereas men would share pictures in groups, amongst other fans).

Overlaying this with our recent Twitter analysis we can start to understand that whilst there is some negativity at times, social media can play a role in building the voice of the female fan as well as the athletes. So whilst some may not be confident in starting a conversation, social media channels such as Twitter allow female fans to join in and build upon what other people are saying.

Whilst social media can be used as a means to increase awareness and engagement, what role can brands play within this?

The role brands can play

It’s clear brands have started to engage with women’s sport. Barclays has agreed an eight-figure deal to sponsor the Women’s Super League. Visa has agreed a sponsorship deal for the Women’s Champions League. But is this all smoke and mirrors? Are brands simply seeing sportswomen as a ‘marketing trend’ (as suggested by Laura Weston, Women’s Sport Trust Board Director’), or are they truly committed to supporting female athletes/sports?

Nike has always been praised for its inclusivity but this image was recently at risk when Nike received significant backlash over its performance-related pay for female athletes. Whilst women and mothers were applauded on the field this was not backed up at times when they needed support the most. Nike athletes shared their stories about how their endorsements deals were paused whilst they were pregnant, causing some to return immediately to training after giving birth. Nike has since changed their pregnancy policy.

In order to drive long-term change in women’s sport, injecting cash into sponsorship alone will not work. Brands need to be seen to be actively supporting female athletes at both the peak of their game but also the grassroots level. Glossy brand exposure at World Cups and European Finals has its role to play but supporting grassroots initiatives will ensure the longevity of female sports players and female fans of sports in general.

As outlined earlier Twitter is an important profile-raising tool, a place where conversations and interaction can quickly drive awareness and build a positive culture. This provides an opportunity for brands to take part in these conversations.

There is a role for all of us in this, brands can inject cash, athletes can raise their profiles through social media and we can all engage in the conversations happening online as a positive way to change culture. Every single one of us who is on social media has the potential to influence someone in our network, it could be one person or 100. So, if you’re a woman who enjoys sports share it with the world and inspire others, or if you’re a man who enjoys women’s sports show your support for the girls!



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Ellie Osborne
Ellie Osborne
I am the Head of Social Media Intelligence at Join the Dots I InSites Consulting. I’ve worked in the industry since 2003 both agency and client side. I am a Certified Member of the Market Research Society with an understanding of qualitative, quantitative and social data disciplines (I'm a big fan of mixed modes!). Sectors I've conducted work in include: Financial Services, Utilities, Public Sector, Business-to-Business, Education and Healthcare. More content by

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