Interview | Sally Horrox: In sport, gender should not play any role

Text: Simona Kruhar Gaberšček | Read time: 8 min

Sally Horrox is Managing Partner with the British sport strategy and sponsorship consultancy Y Sport and an expert in the professional and commercial development of women’s sport. In collaboration with UEFA, she developed the football initiative “Together We Play Strong” with the aim to inspire more girls and women to play football. Additionally, she cooperates with various European football associations, including the collaboration with the Football Association of Slovenia in 2018. According to her, Europe is behind the US when it comes to the professional presentation of women’s sport. But as its fan base is growing, so is the attention of sponsors.

SPORTO: We came across an interesting fact – in the UK, as many as 95% of all sports coverage is about men, while women’s sport accounts for just 0.5% of total sponsorships. Why is there still such gender inequality in the sports industry, outside maybe tennis and alpine skiing? Could you attribute it to the same factors as in any other industry, i.e. lack of women in leadership positions?
SALLY HORROX: Gender equality in sport, in fact, gender inequality in society, is something that I am passionate about. Society’s reluctance to understand that we live in an equal society is at the heart of the problem. In sport, there are still patriarchal structures and attitudes where organisations are led largely by men, and boys are meant to do one thing and girls another. There is not equality of opportunity, investment or provision.

On a positive note, we have seen great progress in recent years; now sport and business realize that gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it also helps to grow the sport and is good for business.

Where there are more women in leadership positions influencing and driving culture change, it definitely helps – a change comes from the top. There is increasingly stronger leadership and investment. The quality of the ‘Product’ is better. Top flight leagues, competitions and professional athletes are now performing to higher standards to an avid fan base that is building.

Is this also related to the fact that there are fewer female than male sports fans – although their number has clearly increased in recent years?
From a commercial perspective, the professional development of women’s sport has stepped up and the fan base is growing – it has reached a critical mass that brands can see and measure with insight and data. There is also a greater understanding of the audience for women’s sport. We have found that it is not specifically women watching women’s sport; it is sports fans with families that love great sport that want greater access and engagement at affordable prices.

UEFA’s commitment to making girls football the biggest team sport in its member countries is a bold statement, backed by multimillion-euro investment. Similarly, FIFA and leading professional football clubs are all working to the same long-term plan – to grow the fan base and grow the sport. This has given great comfort to Barclays, Visa and Nike – who have all signed multimillion euro deals in recent months.

“From a commercial perspective, the professional development of women’s sport has stepped up and the fan base is growing – it has reached a critical mass that brands can see and measure with insight and data.”

“Deals valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds – more of it value-in-kind than cash – are being replaced by multi-million-pound investments from household name brands making a long-term commitment,” is your quote from a recent article in Sport Business regarding sponsorship investments in women’s sport. If you look back, how do you see the journey to this milestone?
I was specifically referencing the new brand and media partnerships that have been announced in 2019. Many of these have been in football, prompted by the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in June 2019.

Milestones along the way have been the 2012 London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Quality coverage and presentation of men’s and women’s competitions was equal, and for Team GB at home games, the women won more medals than the men on a world stage – likewise for the Paralympic games. London stood out for me as a really significant moment.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada was another pinnacle moment in the development of women’s sport – packed stadia and world-class entertainment with media coverage on an unprecedented scale. This was then repeated in the Netherlands at the Women’s EURO in 2017 albeit on a smaller scale, but it kept up the momentum.

Increased commitment from traditional broadcast partners across Europe to promote women’s sport has also been important, together with the development of new digital and social platforms which allow much greater accessibility.

In the same article, author Richard Gillis makes a point that “… brands backing women’s sport is wonderful – but they are followers, not leaders.” Would you agree?
Yes, I agree with Richard in that the brands investing in women’s sport are largely supporters or followers. Much hard work has been done over many years by the rights holders to shape, transform and create new opportunities for brands to partner. There has been a need to build the demand, the appetite and the market – sport first and brand second.

In our experience, the more exciting transformational projects ahead of us will be with brands and sports that want to ‘joint venture’ to share their skills and experience to create a new style of partnership for mutual benefit – the sport and the brand will be co-leaders. I hope the Visa and Barclays partnerships with women’s football in Europe are bold and ambitious and develop this way over the next decade.

Relative to brands that have made a big step forward in terms of sponsoring female teams or leagues, what goals are they usually trying to achieve and why do they see investment in women’s sport as a win-win situation?
At Y Sport, we focus on Reach, Reward and Reputation as success measures for brands, when investing in sport – men or women. In women’s sport, the ‘win-win’ comes from the opportunity to grow the sport together – increasing visibility with great content, powerful personalities and accessible role models. Reward also comes from the accessibility, deeper engagement and different tone of voice that comes with women’s sport and its athletes and events. Finally, from a reputational point of view, women’s sport gives a brand the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equality and to make a social impact – beyond simply increasing market share. This is incredibly relevant socially and commercially right now as consumers seek out greater corporate and social responsibility and social purpose from the companies they spend their money with.

The already mentioned Visa, for example, became the first-ever sponsor of UEFA women’s football in their partnership from 2018 until 2025, following the unbundling by UEFA of sponsorship rights from the men’s game. How ‘big’ is that for the industry?
It is significant that brands like Visa are now investing significant amounts of money in women’s football as a marketing platform. It is not entirely new, but the scale of the deal, the amount of money paid, and the long-term marketing commitment is a first on a global basis. It is part of a much deeper long-term strategic partnership with women’s football. Visa has also invested in a new and high-profile broadcast marketing campaign across Europe for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The move from a ‘token’ partnership, where women’s and men’s rights were bundled – leaving women’s football seen as ‘a tax’ on the men’s game – to the women’s’ game having significant commercial value in its own right will give other brands and sponsors confidence that they are in good company alongside Visa.

“The power of the personality is something US promoters understand and do very well, allowing them to secure lucrative commercial endorsements for their female athletes.”

There has always been a lot of marketable female athletes from individual sports: in addition to Maria Sharapova (who was at the top of the endorsement deal list until her doping ban), there were always ‘dominators’ in their sport such as Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, Lindsey Vonn, Katie Ledecky and Red Bull athletes, and they were mostly from the US … Also, US Soccer was a step ahead of Europe in the marketing of women’s football. Do you see any differences in the US vs Europe approach to commercial opportunities with female athletes?
Over the past decade, the US has placed more emphasis on the professional presentation of women’s sport and its development as an entertainment product. The WTA led the way, for many years ago with the Williams sisters and more recently, UFC has had amazing success building its men’s and women’s profile and events. Over recent years, US Soccer has successfully developed many of its campaigns around the character and personalities of the players – only when the fans get to know them will they follow and be inspired. This then increases their reach and commercial appeal.

The power of the personality is something US promoters understand and do very well, allowing them to secure lucrative commercial endorsements for the athlete – witness US Soccer player Alex Morgan’s net worth, reportedly $3 million a year, comprised mostly of commercial endorsement deals with major brands such as Nike, Coca Cola, Bank of America, McDonald’s, Bridgestone.

Europe is now responding, as we have seen European marketing campaigns built around the personalities of the players who are now becoming household names. Ada Hergerberg, Amandine Henri and Wendie Renard, all at Lyon are reported to be the highest salaried women’s footballers in the world earning €300–400,000 per annum for playing football. However, it will take some time before the visibility, reach and value of these players comes anywhere close to the net value of those US female superstars.

There was a great message from Manchester City FC campaign: “Same city, same passion. It is not men’s football. It is not women’s football. It is just football.” Is that the way people should ultimately think about the topic of men’s vs women’s sport?
For me, it is all about a great sport, whether that is played by men or women. I think Manchester City is right. Men and women, boys and girls can experience the same passion and joy from football and other sports, both from playing and as fans of the game. I was recently in Iceland, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, to discuss women’s sport with UEFA and the Icelandic Football Federation. I was very quickly corrected. In Iceland, there is no such thing as women’s sport – it is just sport. Gender is not an issue. That is how it should be.

The interview was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 13 (May 2019).