Women’s sport has never been as popular, as commercially successful, or played to as high a standard as it is right now.
Strong recent support from governing bodies and investments in coaching and performance programmes have been matched by growing interest from brands and broadcasters, delivering record-breaking sponsorship and media deals that will accelerate the upward trajectory of female competitions.
Deloitte forecasts suggest the women’s sports industry will generate more than US$1 billion in revenue in the years ahead, while other studies claim women’s sports are a better long-term bet than their male equivalents. It is believed that the sector offers greater scope for innovation, a less congested calendar and investment environment, and significant room for growth.
Technology will play a critical role in this next phase of development, driving performance levels, opening new revenue streams, attracting and engaging audiences, and increasing participation. However, there’s no escaping that both sport and technology are traditionally male-dominated environments in which the unique requirements of women’s sport have been overlooked in favour of male-centric visions.
There has been significant progress in addressing these inequalities and there are more women than ever working at the intersection of these two industries to create products and services that benefit not just female athletes and fans of women’s competitions, but the entire sports landscape.
Still, there is plenty more to be done and the digital transformation of women’s sport will only realise its full potential with greater representation.
‘The only woman in the room’
Systemic and unconscious bias has often discouraged women from pursuing careers in either field, even if they are passionate about sport or have a relevant qualification, and some recruitment processes have reinforced these prejudices. As a result, many technology companies are simply unaware of how and where to find female talent.
Marilou McFarlane has worked in sports technology for more than 12 years, founding education platform Vivo Girls Sports in 2009. She has since held positions at an array of companies in the industry and for many years would be the only female at certain events.
“I would go to conferences to learn about other areas of sports tech, and I would often be the only woman,” she tells SportsPro. “It was an industry where only men were in leadership roles. I didn’t think this was by design, it’s just that people tended to hire who they knew [and these would be men].
“I was kind of used to [the situation] but then I’d meet women who were really intrigued by the [sports technology] industry and so I realised we needed somewhere to connect everyone.”
Her solution was to create Women in Sports Tech (WiST) back in 2017. The non-profit organisation is now a thriving community that provides networking opportunities, workshops, job listings, and education content to encourage more women to enter the field and allow tech companies to take advantage of the talent that so clearly exists.
Marilou McFarlane, chief executive, WiST
Sport is a very diverse business so it just makes sense that people behind the scenes building technology should also be diverse.
The flagship initiative is the fellowship programme that offers internships and mentorships to college, graduate, and PhD students. Partners include big tech firms like IBM and Oracle, sports-specific vendors like Catapult, and members of the startup ecosystem.
“Our community is mostly half women, half men and everyone is committed to seeing more diversity and more inclusivity in the industry,” she continues. “Sport is a very diverse business so it just makes sense that people behind the scenes building technology should also be diverse.
“[Our partners] would love to have people with more diverse backgrounds, more women, and more people of colour but the [potential candidates] just weren’t in their networks. Women would often not be aware of these companies or these opportunities so would not apply for them.
“We’ve developed relationships with these businesses to diversify workforces and with conferences and events to diversify speakers and panellists. By making women in the industry more visible, then other women will see a path to [getting involved] and to leadership positions and they can see a commitment to confronting systemic sexism.
“The business results are clear – the more gender diverse a team is, the more likely they are to generate above average revenue and profits. They’re more likely to be more innovative and solve problems faster than [less diverse teams].”
Wearables and apps allow women to track their health and performance data (Credit: Whoop)
Mind the data gap
This lack of diversity has huge consequences for women’s sport as it can perpetuate historical inequalities. The vast majority of medical and sports science research relates to the male experience, which invariably means that data analytics, wearables, and other elements of performance technology are geared towards male athletes.
Part of the reason for this is that researchers have often been tempted to exclude women from trials because they are deemed to be more complicated subjects than men. Advice for female athletes is therefore based on the supposition that they are just smaller, lighter versions than men and the findings are adapted accordingly.
Female soccer players are more likely to suffer from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries than men, but the body of research is scarce. Similarly, technologies such as smart mouthguards that detect concussions are based on male-centric data, limiting their effectiveness.
“There is a massive gap in research,” Esther Goldsmith, a sports scientist at sports technology firm Orreco, tells SportsPro. “For so long, [the conventional wisdom] has just been, ‘oh, if it works for men, it’s probably going to work for women’. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that we’re really understanding that we just can’t do that.”
Goldsmith says the “dearth” of research is slowly being rectified by the academic community, but the disparity is something that athletes, increasingly aware of the benefits of sports technology, are recognising too.
“We’ve got to collect a lot more data about concussion,” said Harlequins and England player Rachael Burford at an event hosted by IT firm Capgemini. “Women respond differently [to concussion] and their return to training or the return to play is different. The symptoms are different, and the recovery is different so there is a long way to go.
“We’re heading in the right direction and there’s so much out there, but we need to keep understanding how all this technology can impact a female. Most research out there is male-based – even for things like nutritional supplements. The standard instruction might be to have two scoops but that’s based on a male physique.”
The widespread adoption of mobile phones and wearables is helping to address this data gap by crowdsourcing huge amounts of information. Fitness trackers only require a basic degree of technical literacy, while intuitive applications help users understand their personal health data.
Whoop is one such platform, combining hardware and software elements to help members to track metrics like heart rate, movement and sleep, and to understand what it means through feedback and recommendations on health and exercise.
The company’s senior vice president of data science Emily Capodilupo and her team have access to huge amounts of anonymised, aggregated data that would have otherwise cost millions of dollars to gather through conventional trials. This informs both Whoop’s products and services but is also a bountiful source of information for its academic partners whose research in turn benefits the wider community.
“Wearables are putting this data directly into the hands of consumers and making sense of [the data] without the need to have vast knowledge about sleep, exercise, or training,” Capodilupo tells SportsPro.
“When we started doing this, everything we did was gender neutral, but we realised over time that the models for an average person was more modelled on male behaviour than female behaviour. This is a problem that’s pretty pervasive across all of human physiology and medical research.
“We’ve long used a male prototype and just assumed that women are essentially small men. But this just isn’t true.”
Emily Capodilupo, SVP data science, Whoop
The models for an average person was more modelled on male behaviour than female behaviour. This is a problem that’s pretty pervasive across all of human physiology and medical research.
A greater understanding of the physiological differences between men and women will improve everything from injury prevention and treatment to training schedules and nutrition plans, while it will also prevent potential bias in data models and intelligent algorithms that will be used in analytics technologies. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to menstrual health.
A lack of relevant research and general attention, combined with the fact that menstrual cycles are viewed as an uncomfortable subject for some, means female athletes have just been expected to endure symptoms even though they can have a huge impact on grassroots participation and elite performance.
“Women have different hormones like oestrogen that not only affect fertility but also things like how we access fuels at different phases of our menstrual cycle,” explains Capodilupo. “So, you need to be eating differently, you sleep differently, and how you respond to training is very different.
“These hormones also change throughout our lives. There’s an interesting phenomenon that 51 per cent of girls drop out of sport [as a teenager] and that’s not really a coincidence. As girls go through puberty it feels like training stops being a good fit for our bodies and sport becomes uncomfortable and less fun. The dropout rate for boys [at the same age] is completely different.
“These hormones also drop off significantly when you go through the menopause and there’s almost no academic literature on when we should be adapting our training.
“With wearables, there’s a unique opportunity to get [a huge amount of] data. By adapting all of the recommendations to what we know about these reproductive phases, we can create hormonally-aware training schedules that fit around what’s going on in your body rather than something generic.”
England are using FitrWoman in their quest to win the Uefa European Women’s Championship
A competitive advantage
Orreco’s FitrWoman application is helping elite athletes and coaches manage their menstrual cycle to maximise performance.
The app is available for anyone to use, but Orreco is working with elite female athletes and sports teams, including Chelsea Women and the England women’s national team during their bid to win the Uefa European Women’s Championship. Indeed, the latter’s medical staff have admitted they probably could have done more to help players in the past if they had known more about the research and solutions available.
“Tech has this amazing capability to be able to take science and all the research that’s being done and make it accessible and applicable,” says Goldsmith. “It’s about helping every exercising female realise that there are certain considerations around their menstrual cycle and to encourage them to track it as an individual.”
Initial scepticism at Chelsea has been erased to the point that the team even has custom nutrition graphics created by Orreco on display at its training ground.
“We’ve worked very closely with Chelsea Women for three years now and it’s spine-tingling to hear the players be so comfortable talking about it,” continues Goldsmith. “[The players] use our language and our phrases. We’ve seen a massive change in the conversation but we’re also hopefully helping lots of the players and mitigating against symptoms.”
The absurdity is that the impact of menstruation has often been ignored in sport despite a deepening obsession in identifying marginal gains that deliver only a fraction of the benefit. Goldsmith adds that once the discussion turns to performance, any lingering doubts are erased.
“One of our biggest messages is that we’re not even talking about marginal gains, it’s a huge gain,” she says.
Chelsea star Sam Kerr is the first woman to feature on the global cover of the FIFA video game (Credit: EA Sports)
The whole industry benefits
These applications and services are breaking down barriers, raising standards and driving participation – all of which will ultimately benefit the entertainment side of women’s sport. Here, technology will play a role in building audiences and engaging existing fanbases, while also creating new revenues in areas like streaming and the emerging world of Web 3.0.
A recent report by Sports Innovation Lab found women’s sports fans are some of the most technologically-savvy in sport. They are more active on digital channels, can amplify content on social media, and spend more money on streaming subscriptions. This is a huge opportunity if women’s sport is given the same attention as its male equivalent.
Again, steps are being made in the right direction when it comes to media and digital coverage. For the inaugural Tour de France Femmes this summer, technical partner NTT will build a ‘digital twin’ of the route to provide the same statistical analysis and real-time tracking capabilities as it does for the men’s race to help tell the story of the race on social media and on broadcast.
An official fantasy soccer game has been created for Women’s Euro 2022. Meanwhile, EA Sports has added women’s teams to its FIFA and NHL video games and 2K Sports has included the Women’s National Basketball Association (NBA) in NBA2K. In addition, Sports Interactive is embarking on a multi-year project to bring women’s soccer into its hugely successful Football Manager series, a move which will not only drive awareness but also provide a huge boost to data collection.
Women founders and the startup ecosystem also has a critical role to play. On the media side, Just Women’s Sports and Togethxr are examples of media platforms offering an alternative to male-centric incumbents. However, there are also a growing number of women behind visions and innovations that will benefit the whole industry.
Sportsdigita was founded by the former head of corporate communications for the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Tampa Bay Lightning, and some of the world’s biggest sports teams use its cloud-based sales tools.
Hewlett Packard veteran Kelly Pracht founded predictive analytics firm nVenue, whose technology provides insights for Apple TV’s coverage of Major League Baseball (MLB) and sees huge potential in the sports betting industry. Meanwhile, Ainsley McCallister has created Uru Sports, a professional network for sports athletes.
Even the issue of ACL injuries is being partly addressed. Ida Sports, co-founded by physics graduate Laura Youngson, has created a soccer boot designed specifically for women’s feet and physique, reducing risk.
‘There’s no excuse’
It’s clear that the talent and the ideas are there, but the necessary financing and support might not be. Male-founded startups still receive the vast majority of venture capital, and many women say they feel they have to work much harder to secure investment.
According to Crunchbase, women-led startups across all industries received just 2.3 per cent of VC investment in 2020 despite some evidence suggesting that early-stage companies with at least one female founder can deliver higher valuations. Part of the problem, of course, is that only 12 per cent of women make decisions at many VC firms and female founding partners only make up 2.4 per cent of all partners.
Nonetheless, progress is being made. Many VC firms now recognise that women-led startups and sports tech firms might be better investments and are creating dedicated funds. For example, tennis legend Serena Williams’ Serena Ventures firm recently invested a seven-figure sum in OpenSponsorship, a sports marketing technology startup founded by British entrepreneur Ishveen Jolly.
McFarlane points out that there are now more female-founded sports technology startups and more VC funding targeting women’s startups than before. She says WiST meets female founders every week to help them find investors who are seeking to diversify their portfolio.
“The talent is there – women are studying kinesiology, data science, engineering, machine learning,” she says. “Innovation comes when you have a greater diversity of people at the table.
“There’s no excuse for not having a way to identify and find talented women who are eager to work in this business.”
This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week, a week of coverage dedicated to the industry’s next great growth opportunity and co-hosted by Two Circles. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.
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