2019 was the year that women’s football really started to break through into the mainstream. 1.12 billion viewers of the Women’s World Cup would attest to that. But there remains an abundance of untapped potential in the women’s game that brands are yet to capitalise on. Sports move forward in quantum leaps, and the easiest way to achieve those leaps is through the power of personality. The star. This is where the unmined potential in the women’s game truly lies: in its personalities. Both those that we have already seen, and those that we are yet to be introduced to. Women’s football is undeniably at the table now, but is waiting to be launched fully into the mainstream off the back of its first genuine megastar.
This idea of the ‘star’ is hard to define. Ability alone isn’t enough, and nor is personality. And sometimes even a combination of the two isn’t sufficient either. It requires some intangibles. Loved by some, hated by others, but watched by all. Think Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Floyd Mayweather, Tiger Woods, Conor McGregor – individuals who left truly epoch-defining legacies and changed the landscapes of their respective sports, and culture more broadly, in ways that will persist long after they are all retired. Take that example of Jordan: he transcended his sport in such a way that, 20 years on from his retirement, Paris St Germain F.C., a team in a different country who play a completely different sport, are wearing his logo on their kits. Women’s football is still waiting for its figurehead in this way, but future-thinking brands can play their part in building these narratives. And those that get in early stand to benefit from the current audience in the short term, as well as its enormous growth potential in the future.
The comparison with Women’s Mixed Martial Arts can act as a compelling roadmap to commercial success. MMA is still relatively young and has only recently achieved mainstream status with the UFC’s ground-breaking ESPN deal last year. But it wasn’t long ago that the sport was still illegal in many states (legalised in New York as recently as 2015) and was struggling to shake it’s grubby ‘human cockfighting’ reputation. And women’s MMA wasn’t just considered unimportant; it was considered grotesque. And that was even to those closest to the sport. In 2011, UFC President Dana White famously told TMZ that women would never fight in the UFC, because “who wants to see a pretty girl get punched in the face?”.
But here we are less than 10 years later and the picture couldn’t be more different. Looking at just the immediate history: the current bookies’ favourite for ‘2020 Fight of the Year’ is the bout between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the women’s strawweight title – which is also now being touted as one of the greatest fights ever, period. On top of that, the UFC’s most recent pay-per-view event was headlined by the women’s bantamweight and featherweight champion, and objective GOAT, Amanda Nunes. Plus, at $500k for a night’s work, Nunes took home a purse almost twice the size of any other athlete on the card, male or female.
Something doesn’t add up here. How can it be that the sport most associated with all the negative connotations of toxic masculinity is also one of the best when it comes to properly promoting and respecting their female athletes? In short, money. Do not be fooled into thinking that there is any sort of enforced social justice at play here. Dana White is a brash, outspoken, staunch conservative who is committed to one cause and one cause alone: the almighty dollar. If a headstrong dinosaur like himself has been swayed to such a dramatic extent in such a short space of time, this can only be for commercial reasons. The UFC don’t promote their female stars due to any sort of benevolence; they do so because it lines their own pockets. And this is because a previously sceptical audience have emphatically bought into these female athletes and the unique narratives that they have to offer. Similar, you might say, to the unique perspectives that come with being a female footballer in a male-dominated environment. You might see where I’m going with this…
But how did this transition from grotesque sideshow to main event action happen so seamlessly and rapidly? Answer: a star. A whole sport was essentially built off the back of one personality, Ronda Rousey. In November 2012, Rousey was crowned the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight champion. This was the aforementioned quantum leap for WMMA. Over the next couple years, Rousey penned big money deals with blue-chip companies such as Reebok, Carl’s Jr., and Monster Energy. She was also the cover star for EA’s UFC 2 game, had multiple features in Sports Illustrated, and got a number of Hollywood acting credits to her name. Within no time, Rousey had eclipsed the sport she had helped build.
Rousey attained such an unprecedented level of celebrity and notoriety that some of this shine inevitably rubbed off on her competitors. With that said, in the early days, there wasn’t a great deal of room for other female fighters at the table; they were all very much extras in The Ronda Rousey Story. But the more general precedent that she established in making fans actually give a sh*t about female fighters has had a lasting effect. Rousey’s fall was just as dramatic as her rise, as she was head-kicked into oblivion by Holly Holm to lose her title, before returning to be KO’d in the first round by Amanda Nunes. It wasn’t realised at the time what a seminal passing of the torch this really was. Amanda Nunes is now a bona fide megastar within the MMA world, and is so entirely because of her abilities, not because she looks like a Disney princess (not that this was the main part of Rousey’s mainstream appeal, but it was undoubtedly a factor). Seemingly overnight, the sport that Rousey had built had moved on without her. But this does not detract from her achievements; it elevates them. Rousey got the early exposure that the sport needed, and this allowed her competitors to snatch the baton and run with it. It took a Rousey to get the ball rolling, so that a Nunes could emerge and be recognised, above all, as a once-in-a-generation level competitor.
Women’s football is still looking for its megastar. Of the current crop, Megan Rapinoe is the obvious candidate. But she actually resembles Nunes more than Rousey. Both are proudly and vocally gay, for a start. Both are supported by their fans for their abilities and what they stand for, rather than what they look like. A cynic could look at this then and say that Rapinoe is too early, she hasn’t had the Rousey to her Nunes yet. But this would paint a very grim picture indeed if we were to just accept that we need a conventionally ‘pretty girl’ in order to capture the public’s imagination en masse before other female athletes can be taken seriously. No, this is an opportunity for women’s football to separate itself from this antiquated idea and be truly ground-breaking.
The complete absence of any openly gay players in football is a real black eye on the supposed inclusivity that is promoted within the game. No such problem exists on the women’s side. The fact that the biggest star in the sport is an educated, politically-active lesbian demonstrates the enormity of the difference between the two branches of the ‘beautiful game’. This raises an important point to remember for brands looking to get involved with women’s football: this is not the men’s game. Brands should focus on all the ways that women’s football is different from the men’s game, rather than the ways in which it is the same – those are obvious. It is its own beast, which comes with its own audience, its own challenges, and its own opportunities.
Rousey was the ideal product of a particular set of cultural circumstances which she possessed the perfect qualities to run with. She became a symbol of female empowerment through her take-no-sh*t attitude and her skills to back it up, and this gave her genuine commercial value. It wasn’t so much her uniqueness that set her apart, but her relevancy to a certain time. Just like Nunes is of our time, and just like Rapinoe is of our time. Women’s football needs its star, but that star needs to be the product of a perfect storm of circumstance, personality, and ability. But most importantly, she needs to be a woman of our time. Brands do not need to invent a USP for women’s football; what makes it stand out is already plain to see. The humanity and relatability embodied by its players sets it apart from the men’s game. These aren’t the coddled, detached, otherworldly, footballers we’ve grown wearily used to. These are real people, real women, who can make a real difference – and that’s where brands will find their Ronda. Who knows, she could well be out there already.