Hey, women like football too you know!

Dr Sue Bridgewater

Posted: June 13, 2014

I’ve tried to ignore the unfunny and patronizing viral “Rules for Women during the World Cup” tweets, I am ignoring FB offers to go to a Spa for “girly bubbles” to escape the football, but the idea of watching football on a big screen, whilst being pampered and with a glass of something cool? Now that was almost sounding tempting for a moment – until I reached the part about this being so that I could “ogle footballers’ legs.”

That is when I felt the urge to write something about the appalling gender stereotypes, which seem to have beset the World’s marketers. This offends my feminist and marketing sides in pretty much equal measure!

I never really saw myself as a feminist, I used to, semi-jokingly, say that I am post-feminist. That – fortunately for me in the UK – a generation before me fought and won those battles, so that people like myself could be equals professionally and in our society. Rather than fighting to promote any particular minority or group, I’m really more in favour of equal opportunities for everyone regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality. Let the best person get the job irrespective of those things. I have also spent many years analyzing fan bases, family support for football, segmenting football fans and trying to understand their motivations.

I realize now that I may have just presumed that everyone understands that the world is diverse and that people do things, including supporting football, for their own reasons, irrespective of any of these things.

How, HOW, I wonder, have major commercial organisations, media publications, with market intelligence and smart marketer – as well as this raft of smaller businesses, which seem to be targeting women on the basis of unfounded assumptions based on gender – failed to notice that women like football too?

Just the other day, I was reflecting for The Conversation on football, or soccer to some, and the fact that it tends to be a participation sport and played by more women than men in countries such as the USA. Women’s football is also growing in its levels of participation – against the trend of declining participation in the men’s 11v11 game it should be noted, in England where 1.7million women play football (Source: FA Tracker Data 2014, The Football Universe) and in many other parts of the world.

If we consider the growth in football support by women like myself who do not play football – hockey, netball and anything involving jumping were my sports! – and who are every bit as excited by the World Cup as our male counterparts, then targeting only men just shows poor understanding of the football market and the motivations of a significant proportion of the global football fanbase. It is also, of course, deeply irritating in the use of stereotypes, which, were they racial or national, we imagine might see a much more significant backlash.

Mailing out free copies of the Sun, presumably at great expense, and then making “laddish” comments and assumptions about those who might be interested in a World Cup special, is just plain poor segmentation, targeting and marketing.

So how come the marketing communication strategy is going so badly wrong for these types of organisations and outlets?

It would appear that segmentation is being done on the basis of demographics and other descriptive variables rather than on benefit segmentation. This last has been the marketers’ segmentation basis of choice since Russell Haley wrote about toothpaste buying habits back in 1968. Benefit segmentation looked at “why” various groups of customers bought toothpaste, whether that was for taste, whiteness of teeth, avoiding cavities etc. Then, and only then, should we be considering the best descriptive segmentation variables – who and where the customers are for each group.

In football terms, fans differ in their motivations for support of club and national sides as previously discussed .

John Williams wrote a lovely piece explaining his personal inability to feel terribly interested in supporting the England national team:>

What it all boils down to is that we are really pretty much individual in our reasons for playing or supporting football and in the reasons why we might, or might not, be highly involved in this World Cup as fans.

There is some fascinating discussion out there about the portrayal and role of women in the Brazil World Cup, such as this piece by Kath Woodward of the Open University on The Conversation

There is a chance to make this a World Cup, which is memorable – not just for the football.

Like many other aspects of customer or fan analysis, World Cup support and engagement by fans is very obviously no “one size fits all” type of process. And it is absolutely critical to begin by asking Haley’s “why” question. Why do people engage with a tournament such as the World Cup and maybe too, why do some not?

Now maybe – and I can only assume that the market intelligence of those marketers promoting “laddish” messages, or those offering “girlie” alternatives, suggests this – a majority of those who engage with the World Cup, to whatever extent and for whatever reason, turn out to be male.

But I’d be darn sure that the proportion of those who are female is large and growing.

So ignore us at your peril! Patronise us at your own risk! Use stereotypes of females’ lack of interest in football and the World Cup at the risk of making yourself look like antiquated misogynists. And attempt ill-conceived marketing communication strategies, which not only miss their target and waste your marketing spend, but actively irritate a good proportion of the football supporting market at the risk of – rightly – being pilloried across social media.

And as to the spa offer, which kindly offered a whole mixed batch of women, including female England international players, the option of either going to their spa to avoid football and/or to watch football on a big screen – purely to ogle players legs whilst sipping champagne of course – well I’m half tempted to turn up, if only to see how all of these groups of people with diverse interests and motivations could possibly enjoy being put into the same space together. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

But then I’ll be too busy watching the football… Would it upset the stereotypes even more if I said that I might well have a beer in my hand?

About Dr Sure Bridgewater

Dr Sue Bridgewater is Director of Sports Research at Liverpool University. She designed and for the past 12 years has directed and delivered leadership and management courses for professional football managers on behalf of the League Managers Association for whom she also delivers football management statistics. Having studied modern languages before her MBA and PhD, Sue worked in industry as a marketer and as an international business specialist, so is has a range of interests from sports sponsorship and brands to elite sporting careers.