‘Authenticity’ – the marketing buzzword of the past few years, and it’s easy to understand why. But for many younger people, authenticity isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a way of life.
Social media has driven a world where audiences look for real stories from real people and a sense of relatability that they weren’t previously able to find in the airbrushed world of old. Nowadays, brands look to partner with those who know exactly how to engage these audiences through being their authentic selves, speaking their truth and advocating for what they believe in.
But who’s doing it best? Where can authenticity be found? Where should brands be looking for their next partnership?
Well, look no further than the post-match celebrations from the Lionesses’ historic Euro 2022 Final victory over Germany at Wembley for some of the best examples you’ll find:
The Lionesses are European champions and represent the top tier of women’s football. But examples like these are commonplace right across the pyramid and we shouldn’t only be looking at the upper echelons for inspiration and authentic athletes to partner with.
But the key question is why? Why are those involved in the women’s game – at the top end and throughout the pyramid – able to be their true selves? Why do they possess this seemingly hard-to-find, yet so valuable trait of authenticity – and what is the opportunity for brands in a post-Euro 2022 world, where women’s football is set to continue its upward trajectory ahead of a FIFA World Cup in 2023 and an Olympic Games in 2024?
Let’s take a look at three factors which could be contributing…
Having been operating in the margins of society since the ban on women’s football was lifted in 1972, for a long time the very nature of women and non-binary people playing football was seen as a radical act. Which has led to the cultivation of a widely inclusive and safe environment for people to truly be themselves within the sport.
Unlike the men’s game, where Blackpool’s Jake Daniels recently became the UK’s first active male professional to come out publicly as gay, it’s not an issue to be ‘out’ in the women’s game as so many players haven’t been ‘in’, as Chris Paouros, Kick it Out trustee says. There are many who the players of today owe a debt of gratitude for giving the space to different types of women to get involved, and, while there are still serious issues around diversity of race and class, the game has shown that in many ways it’s a space where you can be your authentic self, no matter who you are.
Talking about the financial disparity in the men’s and women’s games is a well-trodden and often lazy path to go down, but the reality is that making a living in women’s football in England is still a very recent phenomenon that continues to have an impact. As recent as twenty years ago, when the men’s Premier League was celebrating its 10-year anniversary, many female players at the top clubs in England were paid just £100 for an appearance and had full-time jobs to support themselves and their families.
By way of a few more recent examples, each Lioness took home a bonus of £55,000 for winning Euro 2022. The England men’s team would have received nine times that amount taking £461,000 each if they’d won Euro 2020 (granted that’d be donated to charity, which is enabled by their year-round earnings).
Another example: the highest earning male player internationally – approx. £130m per year. The highest earning female – £410,000.
These numbers represent the commercial framework at the very top of the game. In March, a Daily Telegraph investigation found that current salaries across the 12 Barclays WSL teams range from £20,000 up to £250,000 per year, and outside of the WSL, only a handful of Barclays Championship clubs offer full-time contracts. The WSL is the only avenue to being a professional right now and even then the salaries are relatively modest (WSL club Tottenham Hotspur’s average salary for the 2020/21 season is just under £27,000 per year, below the national average wage in the UK of £31,772).
Income doesn’t drive authenticity, and it’s a very blunt instrument I’m using to make the point. But the connection these players have to the real world is natural as they’re truly living in it. Many of them are actively experiencing what others across society are and are aware of both the cost of everything and its value too.
There are many structural and societal issues that have meant there have been countless barriers that women who play the game have had to overcome. But the relatively limited attention the players have had on their private lives until now has afforded them the opportunity to live their lives outside of the glare of the spotlight and the scrutiny that often comes with it. They’ve been allowed to be themselves. Anita Asante recently said how when she joined Arsenal as a teenager it was just like playing for a Sunday league team and that’s what drove their humility, washing their own kits before games and most holding down full-time jobs whilst playing for their clubs and in some cases, country.
And some of the examples we saw and enjoyed throughout Euro 2022 would typically go against the advice and guidance that we often see in action in other walks of life where media training and counsel would have led players to both finish their media interviews before joining sing-a-longs and leave the hotel with a coffee instead of a beer! But I don’t think any of us would have had it any other way.
So when brands are looking at talent and influencer partnerships and looking for authentic people to represent them and their values, the women’s game represents a huge – largely untapped – opportunity. As the game has developed, many of the bigger names have become accustomed to such partnerships – including Lucy Bronze with VISA, Pepsi and EE, and Leah Williamson with Gucci and Pepsi to name a few – but the opportunities shouldn’t be limited to those who are now household names or at the absolute peak of the WSL.
Gillette Venus has recently announced a partnership with Lioness and Arsenal centre-back Lotte Wubben-Moy, which will see the pair, along with youth charity Football Beyond Borders, focus on tackling the issue of ‘skin consciousness’ which is identified as a major barrier in getting women and girls into sport. Lotte’s performances for club and country along with partnerships like this and her work in the community with Arsenal are testament to her own growing brand and her commitment to making an impact both on and off the pitch.
There are countless opportunities out there and we’re only going to see more of them arise as the game continues to grow. As Yvonne Harrison, chief executive of Women in Football says, it’s crucial that grassroots teams and players who sustain women’s football also benefit financially. “We’re not going to get the depth in terms of Championship players and WSL players without having a growing base at the bottom,” she said.
So next time you’re thinking about where and who you invest in to represent your brand, look no further than the women’s game – both at the top and the grassroots – where authenticity is the norm.