Photo: JAMIE SMED (CC BY 2.0)

The "backflip girl" and Matildas' captain, Sam Kerr.

Cometh the hour, cometh the women

Commentary

Talent, marketing and audiences receptive to change have finally created the perfect conditions for women's sport to rise up and ride a wave of recognition and opportunity.

Budding sportsmen were only ever that, sportsmen. Rising up through the ranks from grassroots to professional status was once an exclusively male journey. Society knew this and so too did the big brands. The sporting landscape was a revolving door of male talent bolstering the status quo, reinforced by marketers, who, looking to communicate relevance, only sponsored high-profile male stars.

Sports sponsorship of male athletes created a self-fulfilling prophecy of men as guaranteed money-makers for the big brands, and an audience that didn't know any different.

In June 2019, that landscape is slowly shape shifting. The voices of sports reporting and commentary have added an increasing number of women, such as soccer's Sam Kerr and cricket's Ellyse Perry, to their checklist of recognisable sporting names.

Every match of the W-league 2018-19 was broadcast on major TV networks - the lucrative space previously reserved for those guaranteed money makers, our male heroes. When the 2019 Women's World Cup kicks off in France on Saturday, all eyes will be on Kerr and the Matildas, who play their first match against Italy on Sunday June 9. SBS and Optus Sports will broadcast every Matildas match live.

'Sam Kerr is a perfect ambassador. She's a perfect fit. Nike have picked someone who is inspirational to inspire their audiences.'

"They're riding on the crest of the wave of this explosion in women's sport at the moment," SBS World Cup presenter Tracey Holmes told The Sydney Morning Herald this week. "It's been too long coming. I have been waiting for women's sport to arrive in the mainstream since about 1990 and I am sure there were people before me hoping it had come before them."

But women didn't suddenly become fitter, faster or more agile. We didn't suddenly grow longer legs or develop stronger arms. We were always good. So why is the world only noticing now? Well, as experts in sports marketing explain, the answer lies in brands wanting to reflect and communicate what's relevant in the social realm.

"It's talking relevant and having a message that audiences want to hear. As a marketer you need to consider who's going to stand out. You need to consider who are the individuals that are going to meet your guidelines and if they have a huge following," marketing expert, Stephen Rinaldo explained.

Relevance in marketing is by no means a new phenomenon. Athletes have always been extremely attractive to brands due to the fact they're instantly recognisable and their believability factor is something that audiences are quick to buy into. What's new here is that brands are now communicating messages that involve females.

Monique Perry, managing director of media and sports at Nielsen, a global leader in analysing audience behaviours and viewership data, has competed at the World Masters Games for track running. As she explained, the unprecedented success of females in sport is attracting the big brands. This interest is transforming the status quo to shape what is now an increasingly level playing field.

"Women's sport is growing and this is an indicator of future success. There are now seven professional women's sports leagues, five of which have been established in the past five years. Women's sport has intangible association value," Perry said in an email interview.

Must-Watch: The day Ellyse Perry made history www.youtube.com

Previously, the risk for brands to partner with a female athlete was so large it was seen as a territory too risky to explore. Audiences simply weren't receptive to women. According to Perry, this has totally backflipped. "We have already seen a shift in partnerships across women's sport. Existing brand sponsors are expanding their portfolios or switching completely from men's sport to women's."

Females are becoming more relevant for marketers. As big brands begin to run with increasingly more female ambassadors, messages of equality and female empowerment are seeping through to audiences - including our next generation of athletes now at the grassroots.

"Wider societal issues around diversity and equality are also playing into women's sports investment decisions. There are more opportunities available in this comparatively uncluttered market at a cheaper price. Female athletes are seen as inspirational, considered role models and positive advocates of healthy body image," Perry said.

Founder and director of Sports & Entertainment Limited (SEL), James Erskine, speaks from his experience in representing internationally renowned sports stars like Mohammed Ali and Tiger Woods. He attested the interest of brands in women's sport is due to their squeaky clean image and indeed, their potential to inspire budding sports stars that are watching eagerly via the big screen.

"Women's sport is working. The AFL now have a very successful program, the Matildas are probably one of the best examples. Hockey have always done unbelievably well and they've also done really well at the Olympic Games and World Championships."

"Overall, female athletes have probably got themselves into a lot less trouble than male athletes. At the moment, there's a very clear image but having said that, that's probably because the spotlight hasn't been on them so much," Erskine said.

Take Nike's latest "Dream Crazier" campaign for example. Aussie homegrown success story, Sam Kerr's signature backflip features in a seven-second segment that forms one vital part of a broader, more revolutionary message of female empowerment and gender equality.

Nike - Dream Crazier www.youtube.com

"Nike's message is urging us to become inspirational. Because of that brand and that criteria, they would then search for people that fit those guidelines. In this instance, it's young girls," said marketing expert Rinaldo.

"With the #metoo movement and a societal effort to boost women's sport and to inspire young girls, Sam Kerr is a perfect ambassador. She's a perfect fit. Nike have picked someone who is inspirational to inspire their audiences. The message is no longer about price, it's about relevance."

But without a clean image, females wouldn't get a run in the marketing industry. Big brands are also jumping on board the fact that shining female athletes serve as both brand ambassadors and role models to impressionable girls at the grassroots of sport.

"If Sam Kerr was a foul-mouthed drunk and an abusive person they'd steer clear of her. But her backflip makes her different. That's how I noticed her. The backflip girl. You'll probably find that as her following increases you'll have all these young girls going, 'I can do backflips'," Rinaldo said.

As big hitting brands like Nike begin to notice the increasing success of female athletes on the pitch, they're realising that the receptiveness among audiences is something worth appealing to. Their relationship with female athletes and audiences is both responding to and reinforcing the changing social attitudes towards women in sport and gender equality in a broader, societal sense.

This is where the self-fulfilling prophecy of female talent, marketing and receptive audiences lies.

"What you'll find is that now the men and women are being paid the same, you'll have all these girls going, 'Oh well I can earn that sort of money too. I'm an equal, I can do that'. This is where Nike have noticed a wave of women empowerment coming through and they've jumped on it. They're quite smart," said Rinaldo.

The success of marketing in women's sport wouldn't be possible without talented stars to promote, nor an audience that's increasingly receptive to change. So as our news feeds feature more goal-scoring moments from the women's leagues, more pony tails, and more backflips, we can appreciate that this increased coverage is the result of an unprecedented shift in the self-fulfilling sports sponsorship prophecy paradigm.

Young girls can now dream a little crazier knowing those dreams have a genuine chance of materialising into a star-studded sporting career with an audience who can't wait to tune in and meet them.