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The Women’s Super League and Barclays: Four takeaways from four years of a landmark title sponsorship

When Barclays became the title sponsor of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2019, the bank believed it was investing in potential. Four years later, the brand is reaping the benefits of its association with one of the fastest-growing soccer leagues around.

10 July 2023 Sam Carp

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Barclays prides itself on being a bank of firsts.

In fact, there are dedicated sections on the company’s website which highlight that it appointed Britain’s first female bank manager in 1958, delivered the UK’s first cash machine in 1967, and rolled out the country’s first debit card 20 years later.

So in 2019, when the opportunity arose to become the inaugural title sponsor of English soccer’s Women’s Super League (WSL), which at the time had just turned fully professional, it felt like a natural fit.

“What we hoped would happen would be that other brands would sit up and take note,” says Katy Bowman, head of sponsorship partnerships at Barclays. “With women’s football, unlike men’s, we don’t see ourselves as owning it, we see it as spearheading it.

“The more brands and the more organisations that want to get involved, as long as they are bringing something to the party, we were really welcoming of [that]. We hoped that it would be a turning point for people to take women’s football seriously – and it has been.”

Indeed, Barclays’ decision to put its name to the WSL came at a time when few brands had been pledging significant investments to domestic women’s soccer leagues. Since then, though, it has become synonymous with the growth of England’s top-flight competition.

After decades of being an afterthought, the league’s recent history has been defined by rising revenues, improved viewing figures and attendance records – all of which have helped make it the chosen destination for some of the world’s top players.

Barclays’ sponsorship of the WSL has coincided with a period of growth for the league

The partnership has helped Barclays tighten its grip on UK soccer

Barclays is not one of those brands that has countless sports partners in its sponsorship portfolio, but when it does sign deals, they tend to be premium and long term.

In addition to the WSL, Barclays also holds the naming rights to the New York home of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Liberty basketball teams and is currently in the middle of its first tournament as the official banking partner of Wimbledon – although the latter deal has drawn some unwanted attention to the company’s support for fossil fuel projects.

Yet the company is perhaps best known – in Europe at least – for being the title sponsor of the Premier League from 2001 until 2016, a period which was all about international growth for both parties. That deal started when Barclays was looking to expand into other markets, while the men’s top flight – not even a decade old under its new guise at that moment in time – was in the nascent stages of becoming the globally recognised property it is today.

With women’s football, unlike men’s, we don’t see ourselves as owning it, we see it as spearheading it.

Katy Bowman, Head of Sponsorship Partnerships, Barclays

The bank no longer holds the title designation but remains an official partner of the Premier League, which many fans still affectionately refer to as ‘The Barclays’. So strong is the association that it’s difficult to find too many other financial institutions who have been willing to show up in English soccer.

After building up that level of equity in the sport, partnering with the WSL wasn’t simply about switching focus to the women’s game. According to Bowman, it was seen more as “an evolution” of the company’s footprint in soccer.

“It didn’t feel right to continue on the journey without looking at what being a brand associated with football actually means, particularly in this country,” she explains. “If I’m speaking really honestly, it was about wanting to be the brand that’s associated with football – and we don’t see that as just being the Premier League.”

The money goes a long way

Arguably the most eye-catching detail of Barclays’ decision to partner with the WSL wasn’t that it was investing in women’s soccer, but rather the amount it was prepared to invest. The original deal was worth a reported UK£10 million – even though the competition didn’t benefit from the same level of visibility that it does now, nor were its squads yet stacked with international stars and other household names.

Those factors might have made it difficult to justify an eight-figure deal internally. But Barclays wasn’t necessarily investing in what the WSL was in 2019. Instead, it was buying into what it believed the league had the potential to become.

“It is still a bit like that, if I’m honest,” Bowman says candidly. “You’re still buying into what could be because it’s still not there yet. You’re buying into a promise of growth from a commercial standpoint, for sure.

“In terms of monetary, I don’t know how difficult that conversation was, but it was never about what return on investment this is going to be. It’s a bit of a no-brainer. We know it will grow and the ambition will be for it to grow. But we know we also need to help it. It’s a journey, so you get out what you put in.”

Bowman adds that Barclays’ Premier League partnership still performs a “very commercial-led role” for the business, which banks 15 of the competition’s clubs and “loads” of the players, while many of the stadiums take the company’s payment solutions.

You’re still buying into what could be because it’s still not there yet. You’re buying into a promise of growth from a commercial standpoint.

Katy Bowman, Head of Sponsorship Partnerships, Barclays

The WSL, on the other hand, plays a different role in allowing Barclays to amplify its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The most recent extension the company agreed with the Football Association (FA), which also expanded its title sponsorship to the second-tier WSL Championship, saw it agree to invest more than UK£30 million in women’s and girls’ soccer between 2022 and 2025, a record in UK women’s sport.

As part of that commitment, Barclays vowed to increase its investment in grassroots development and extended its sponsorship of the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships programme, which aims to have 20,000 schools offering soccer to girls by 2024.

“Sponsoring the league is this very visible thing, but without the stuff that we do behind the scenes, we wouldn’t feel credible in this space, because there is so much work that still needs to be done,” Bowman notes.

“If we were sponsoring the league, waving the flag about it every week, and yet girls were turning up to school and couldn’t play football, that would be a problem for us. So having a role to play in that access piece was as important to us as it was the league sponsorship itself.”

Barclays’ reputation has been enhanced by association

There are several ways Barclays is measuring the success of its WSL sponsorship, including brand tracking, media value, audience numbers, PR coverage and participation numbers.

Beyond that, another perceived benefit of sponsoring a women’s sports property is the impact it has on a company’s reputation in the eyes of consumers. Industry research carried out by The Space Between agency has also found that fans of women’s sports are more values-driven than followers of men’s sports and are more likely to engage with sponsor products.

So has Barclays’ sponsorship of the WSL strengthened its status among consumers?

“Yeah, definitely,” Bowman answers. “We have multiple drivers that ladder up into consideration, which is essentially the metric we want to shift. Showcasing our commitment to community issues is one of those key drivers, and the Women’s Super League has been key in shifting that.

“I can’t 100 per cent say that because we sponsor the Women’s Super League we have a more favourable reputation. But we know that what’s driving that consideration is being fed by the Women’s Super League, amongst other things.”

It’s had an impact internally, too. Bowman reveals that Barclays’ chief executive received around 400 emails from proud employees when the WSL deal was first signed, while the company’s corporate comms team reported that the agreement generated the most favourable coverage for the firm in eight years.

Bowman believes Barclays’ partnership with the WSL is helping to drive consideration of the brand

Barclays sees itself as more than a sponsor

For all the progress the WSL has made in the last four years, there are still regular reminders of some of its limitations.

The most high-profile controversy last season came when a game between Chelsea and Liverpool at Kingsmeadow had to be abandoned after just six minutes because of a frozen pitch, which exposed the basic need for undersoil heating at WSL grounds and for better communication with fans.

There is also a concern about the competitive balance – or lack thereof – in the WSL, which has seen some of the teams owned by the biggest clubs in the men’s game start to create a gap between themselves and the sides below.

As the WSL’s title sponsor and one of the competition’s biggest benefactors, Bowman recognises that Barclays is in a unique position to politely push the FA to accelerate the development of the league whenever possible.

“The frozen pitches, we wrote to the commercial director to say we are so disappointed to see that this is still happening,” she highlights. “We are saying on one hand with the FA, let girls play, yet our Women’s Super League players can’t play. It’s reputationally problematic for us.

“We’re not masquerading as a professional league here, we are one. So we can do some [things] but we’ve also got to be a united front. We are on a journey, we’re not expecting things to happen overnight, so I think it’s a balance.

“But absolutely, it is our job to put pressure on. And I feel like we’re a bit more than a sponsor, we are in this together, so the negative [headlines] really impacts us as well.”

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes announces the postponement of her team’s game against Liverpool in January

As long as those challenges still exist, Bowman suggests that Barclays wants to help be part of the solution. She says the FA is on track to reach its objective of ensuring girls have equal access to soccer in schools by 2024, so the bank has already started talking to the governing body about what the next iteration of the partnership looks like – whether that means investing in facilities or other areas.

In the meantime, Barclays is focused on “really cementing” its association with the WSL and “putting our stake in the ground”. For Bowman, the bank’s message is clear: “This territory is ours.”

“I think there’s still such a long way to go that I don’t see us veering off track anytime soon,” she continues. “We are still so far from where we want to be.”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about future themed weeks, click here.

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