Lee Gibbons, Managing Director of Sport UNLIMITED, part of UNLIMITED, discusses female fandom in sports and the insights that can be gleaned from a scientific approach.
What motivates females to be fans is different from what motivates males, so when it comes to fan engagement or brand sponsorship, it’s important to see the female sports audience as different from women’s sport as a product.
While the pandemic may have slowed down attendances, there are still broadcast deals, commercial partnerships, and increased ticket sales showing that women’s sport is on a major growth trajectory. For example, the FA Women’s Super League’s £8 million-per-season broadcasting deal with the BBC and Sky Sports, plus the record pre-sale ticket sales for this summer’s EURO 2022. Indeed, Women’s Sport Trust research suggests women’s sport could be worth over £1 billion per year by 2030.
But our understanding and considerations of the female fan has not evolved at a similar pace.
Insight from a team of neuro, behavioural and data scientists, part of our Human Understanding Lab, has highlighted that many rights-holders and their partnering brands are missing out on a huge opportunity to target, engage and acquire female fans. Many fail to distinguish between distinct motivations, which typically sees them miss the value of the female sports fans.
There remains a clear gap between how both men’s and women’s sports engage female fans. Research by Sport UNLIMITED found that 46% of UK females consider themselves sports fans, yet two-thirds of those fans don’t currently follow a specific women’s team, league or tournament.
Part of the research found that this was primarily due to a lack of awareness (34%) and ‘driving visibility’ is often cited as the strategy for growth, however, with lack of emotional connection to the sports (20%) being the second most common reason, it would suggest how these fans are communicated to has a significant impact. Furthermore, female fans under 24 claim women’s sports don’t fit with their lifestyle or offers merchandise more focused on men rather than themselves.
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Who do female fans follow?
The vast majority of female team sports fandom currently lies with men’s football teams, with 45% of female fans saying they follow a men’s professional side and a men’s international team. One-third of female fans (34%) say they follow men’s international tournaments, 17% support a men’s international rugby union team and 13% support a men’s international cricket team.
The contrast between that following and women’s teams is stark. For example, the most significant female fandom is towards an international women’s football team (18% of respondents), followed by 9% following an international women’s rugby team.
Understanding the difference between male and female fans
The primary driver of fandom in men is something quite intrinsic, with one-third stating ‘it’s part of my identity’ which is where many campaigns focusing on the rituals, banter and ingrained allegiances will do well. For female fans, however, what drove them to follow was ‘my family have always supported them’ (39%) and ‘it’s something to do with my family’ (33%). The family connection, whether nostalgic and being passed down, or innovative and starting something new, was the primary driver. Interestingly, those scores were consistent for women with and without children, and for both males and female fans the role of the success of their team was far less important (15%).
Women’s sport is rapidly growing in popularity, and vast amounts of women are interested in sport, but it’s clear brands can do more to appeal to female fans. That means understanding what engages female fans and tailoring the right messaging to get women on board. And those that do will count the benefits.
Which is why Sport UNLIMITED goes beyond looking at what fans say and do, and takes insights from how they feel, why they love the event, team or individual that they do, and use that human understanding to fuel our strategies and activations.