Meeting the needs of the modern football fan

If you are a fan of women’s football or even just supportive of the growth of women’s sport, it has been a pretty exciting few months.

In December, Visa signed a ground-breaking seven-year women’s football deal with UEFA which has sparked other leading brands such as Adidas and Nike to show their commitment to women’s sport, particularly around the FIFA Women’s World Cup. In January, Athletic Bilbao set a new record for attendance at a women’s match in Spain when 48,121 watched their match against Atletico Madrid (which at the time was higher than any men’s La Liga game at the stadium this season) and all tickets for the Women’s World Cup final sold out in just 31 minutes last week.

But amidst this growing audience interesting, it was fascinating to read Copa90’s latest Modern Football Fan report this week and see that 44% of fans feel like the women’s game doesn’t pop up enough on their radars frequently enough, with social media their primary point of consumption.

And when asked who has the power to create positive changes in the women’s game, particularly around the lack of development of the domestic game, 58% of those interviewed said that football clubs had the power to create those changes, with the two other most popular answers being female football players (51%) and media brands (46%).

So what can Premier league clubs do from a digital perspective to boost the women’s game in England?
Clubs need to think about how they serve avid fans of women’s football, while building interest amongst the general football fan, by delivering content strategies that appeals to different audiences. If you look at the Facebook posts of England Rugby in 2019 using Crowdtangle data, three of the top twelve most liked posts, which cover both men and women’s matches, relate to when the women’s team have triumphed in the Six Nations. To the fans of the page, they don’t care whether it is men or women playing, they just want to celebrate England winning at rugby union. There is an opportunity for football clubs to mainstream some of their coverage of women’s football across their main accounts, like Manchester City have done already, while serving more detail on dedicated women’s football accounts, and celebrate key moments – such as the goals and victories of their women’s team – just like they celebrate those of the men.

Premier League clubs also need to tell stories about women’s football in new and exciting ways that appeal to broader audiences. Nielsen Sports’ research in 2018, launched at a Women’s Sport Trust event with England Hockey, found that fans see women’s sport as more progressing and inspiring, less money-driven and more family-oriented – content strategies should reflect these key values. At BBC Sport, when I was digital development and social media lead during the Rio Olympics, we changed the tone of accounts to appeal to main eventer audiences, and it was fascinating to see the positive impact that it had on in engagement from a female audience. While a quarter of attending Premier League fans may be female, on social media the followings of clubs on social media do not match those figures at present, and so there is a fan engagement and commercial motivation to do better.

Teams should also consider how they can invest in the training and development of women’s athlete digital skills and provide them with the tools and confidence to present their stories. Many female elite athletes are still unsure of how to position themselves on digital channels, balancing their public and private personas, and lack the digital skills to tell their own stories on social media – unlike leading male athletes, they are often not in a position to have others managing their accounts on their behalf. If mainstream media won’t always tell their stories (and women’s sport currently accounts for less than 10% of UK media coverage), then club and athlete social profiles is a great way to achieve digital reach and engagement.

Of course, digital will only achieve so much in telling the stories of the women’s game – big club matches in their main stadiums, more brand activations that integrate the leading men’s and women’s players together and greater media exposure on broadcast are just some of many key components that need to come together.

And after England’s stunning performance in the SheBelieves Cup, I hope that all clubs and brand partners, are ready to maximise the opportunity this summer’s tournament in France brings, irrespective of whether football comes home this summer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hurst is a Women’s Sport Trust Board Member. He has almost 20 years of experience in the sports industry working for the Premier League, International Cricket Council, BBC Sport and Nielsen Sports, before launching his own digital sports business in 2018 – C J Hurst Consultancy – which provides strategic advice to companies across the sports industry.

As BBC Sport’s first dedicated social media editor, he developed and delivered a strategy focused on growing BBC’s social media reach and engaging younger audiences. In his role as Digital Development Editor for BBC Sport’s award-winning interactive services, Chris oversaw the editorial development plans for the Rio Olympics that was used by 102 million unique browsers across the globe.
Chris also sits on the board of the Rugby Football League.