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Data over revenue and prestige sponsors – the keys to growing women’s sport?

Following the release of Ticketmaster’s State of Play report into sports fan attitude throughout the United Kingdom, SportsPro spoke to the ticketing company’s managing director, as well as former Team GB hockey captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, about women’s sport’s next steps.

21 December 2018 Nick Friend

If the concrete effects of Visa’s landmark partnership with Uefa women’s soccer might only truly be seen over the next few years, its symbolism highlights a welcome – and overdue – increase in commercial interest in women’s sport.

The seven-year deal – the first of its kind as an agreement specific to the women’s game – comes with added significance, both with the global size and prestige of the banking company, as well as the sheer scope of the deal.

It covers not only the Uefa Women’s Champions League, but also the Uefa Women’s European Championship, the Women’s Under-19 and Under-17 tournaments and the Women’s European Futsal Championship.

The news follows the release of Ticketmaster’s annual State of Play report, which this year focused on fan attitudes in the United Kingdom as the sporting paradigm continues to shift.

According to the study, more than 60 per cent of the 12,000 people interviewed as part of the survey agree with the notion that women’s sport is on the rise, while evidence from the research also points to the nation’s young people as the driving force behind the growth.

However, despite the encouraging figures, just three in ten suggested that they were likely to attend a women’s sporting event in 2019.

It is a statistic that must grow, and one that Adam Newsam, managing director of Ticketmaster Sport, is intent on changing.

The nature of Ticketmaster as a vertically integrated business means that it possesses the insight, data and technology to understand what has worked as a method of attracting fans to stadia, and how best to target both existing and future audiences.

Visa's deal with Uefa women's soccer includes acting as a main partner of the Women's Champions League through 2025.

As Newsam explains, Ticketmaster has the tools to become a bridge between the public audience and women’s sport across a wide range of disciplines and competitions.

“It is a huge opportunity for us,” he says. “We are in this unique position whereby we can leverage the research and insight and apply it and get more bums on seats.

“Forget sport, there are 30 million people in our transactional database – those 30 million people are live event fans.

“Just because they bought a U2 ticket, that doesn’t mean that they only like U2. We are absolutely uniquely positioned to get new live sports events in front of live event fans and consumers.

“We need to make sure we are not doing the marketing of 15 years ago by just sending 30 million people an email. That is another way in which the industry has changed and a way in which we have changed in how we market and analyse and how we do the insight.

“It is about getting the right message in front of the right people at the right time, but based on science rather than just based on guesswork.

“I was at a meeting with a Premier League football club a couple of months ago and top of their agenda was not how do we see tickets to the men’s game, it was how do we sell tickets for the women’s game.”

It is the proverbial million-dollar question, and one that Tina Mermiri, the director of research and digital analytics at Ticketmaster, is determined to answer. Mermiri was the report’s editor and, like Newsam, is quick to emphasise the position of strength that the ticketing company finds itself in as a guardian at the gates women’s sport’s future.

“We need to take advantage of that better understanding of the audience that we now have,” she says.

Indeed, while elements of the research show encouraging trends, just three per cent of those questioned in the State of Play research claimed to prefer women’s to men’s sport.

39 per cent stated that they only watch men’s sport, with 43 per cent of fans saying that they only watch men’s soccer matches.

At the same time, however, the majority of ticket-buyers in women’s soccer purchase at least five per order. It is a statistic that highlights the differing audiences at play; men’s soccer ticket purchases average two per order.

“Through the research, we can see who is already interested – the low-hanging fruits,” she adds. “We have to target them and convert them quickly and then focus on the harder-to-convert, and understand what the challenges are.”

England faced Ireland at Twickenham in November, with the game a non-ticket affair, allowing fans to remain in their seats for the women's game if they had purchased tickets for the men's match against Australia beforehand, while also enabling fans without tickets free entry.

One method that has proven popular thus far is the ‘unticketed’ policy utilised at Twickenham, the home of English rugby. Following the conclusion of men’s internationals, admission fees for the women’s games – the second part of the doubleheaders – have been waived.

Those with tickets for the men’s games have been encouraged to remain in their seats, while the doors are open for fans without tickets to the men’s fixtures to stroll in to watch the women in action.

In late 2017, 12,000 people watched England Women seal a series whitewash over Canada at the national stadium after the men’s side had beaten Samoa in front of a packed audience.

Three years previously, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) estimated that 15,000 fans had seen England take on Ireland at the venue.

While the figures may seem small – the stadium has a capacity of 82,000 – they fulfil a crucial purpose as women’s sport continues to grow in the live event market. Although tickets are free, the gains are not only vital, but twofold.

We know it makes a difference; quite simply, that is why sponsorship works as an industry.

Merely by being able to understand who is attending the games free of charge provides those looking to grow the industry with key demographical information. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, making the games accessible is fundamental to any growth. Not quite ‘baby steps’, there remains, however, an appreciation that improvements will take time.

“Forget whether someone pays for a ticket or not,” Newsam explains.

“It is important that we know who is going to these events. If we look to the issue of awareness, if you open the gates and 5,000 people come in but you have no idea who they are, you have kind of lost that opportunity to reengage that audience the next time.

“I don’t think it is about whether you have paid money for a ticket, but it is about finding ways to capture the data of those people so that you can get them more engaged in the next women’s rugby game or the next women’s cricket match.

“That is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter to me whether we sell a ticket or not, but it does matter to me that we know who’s going so that we can grow women’s sport. That is what makes it go round.”

However, key to improving the situation is sponsorship and the subsequent increased visibility that comes alongside such a partnership.

According to a Nielsen report, between 2013 and 2017 the number of women’s sport sponsorship agreements increased by 47 per cent, with the average deal size rising by 38 per cent. It is a statistic that, if nothing else, acts as proof of a challenge that is beginning to be overcome.

Kate Richardson-Walsh led Team GB to hockey gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Kate Richardson-Walsh was the captain of the victorious Great Britain women’s hockey team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was a triumph, given its circumstances, that captured the hearts and imagination of the British public. With a record 375 caps for her country, she can appreciate the importance of commercial interest more than most.

“Brands can make a massive difference,” she says. “As soon as you get a title sponsor for a tournament, I think it gives you a bit of a lift. For sports that don’t have a huge marketing or PR budget, it means that they can tap into that company’s resources in those departments and get a far wider reach.”

She reflects on this year’s Vitality Women’s Hockey World Cup. Despite retiring following the drama of the Rio Games, the success of the tournament – held in London across a summer fortnight – highlighted the benefit of brand association.

“Immediately, the sport gets taken into a different area,” she explains. “People who have Vitality insurance or see the adverts suddenly make the connection and become interested. They think: ‘They’re a big company and they’re sponsoring the World Cup, so that must be good.’”

As far as strategies go, it seems unquestionably logical. From an athlete’s perspective, as Richardson-Walsh adds: “it makes you feel more professional and more cared for.”

She points to netball as the blueprint to be followed. Since England secured Commonwealth Games glory in April with the most dramatic of last-gasp winners, the game’s popularity has soared.

Liverpool had already been announced as the host of next year’s World Cup, while the sport is three years into a four-year broadcast deal with Sky Sports, showing both domestic and international fixtures. Meanwhile, Team England have been renamed the Vitality Roses.

The name change, while unusual among international outfits, is a nod to England Netball’s long-term partner – the insurance firm signed up as the governing body’s principal sponsor in 2015.

Its influence, Richardson-Walsh says, has been huge, while acting as an easily replicable model – not simply for hockey, but across the spectrum of Olympic and Paralympic sports, whose budgets rely heavily on UK Sport funding.

“For a big company, we are still talking about a small amount of money,” she stresses. “Imagine if you had five companies; imagine what you could do for coach education; imagine how you could support the school system.

England Netball has maximised its opportunities in the months since the team's success at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, with the side now known as the Vitality Roses – a nod to the body's long-term partnership with the insurance firm.

“We need investment and I think that, for a small amount of money, you get maximum impact.”

As the hockey legend looks back at the direction of travel within her own game, without being critical of England Hockey, she confesses that the sport has not fully exploited the national stardom that Olympic glory provided.

Although members of the gold medal-winning side have gone on to achieve fame in their own right, the sport has not necessarily kicked on.

“But I don’t think we have necessarily capitalised on that moment,” she reflects. “We are an old and traditional sport, and part of that is that we have old, traditional club setups. What we might have had to do – and we still might have to – is shake that up and capitalise in order to get those sponsors in.

“Rather than having a big national pyramid with three conferences underneath a Premier League, it would be something like having a Super League with fewer teams that people can get behind and are dotted around the country.”

The infrastructure to which she alludes is another nod to netball’s precedent. “They have a following that can grow and I think that is something that we could have done better,” Richardson-Walsh admits.

I don’t think it is about whether you have paid money for a ticket, but it is about finding ways to capture the data of those people so that you can get them more engaged in the next women’s rugby game or the next women’s cricket match.

That is where the significance of Ticketmaster’s report lies as a game-changer; evidence is key and case studies invaluable.

As Richardson-Walsh says: “There is now data, information and facts to go to companies and present the case – that for a very small amount of money, this is your potential market, this is your potential growth, this is where your profits lie. It is about getting that message out there to people who haven’t seen the report, who aren’t aware of the benefits.

“Nobody is going to lose money – it is only going to increase your reach and grow the number of people that follow the club or the sport. It could galvanise a community and a family environment, which is what sport is built on. It’s a no-brainer for me.”

It is a statement on which both Newsam and Mermiri can corroborate, with their experience in the ticketing industry leaving them well aware of the value of sponsorship.

“The report showed that there is an impact,” Mermiri says. “The bigger the fan, the more open they are and the more likely they are to appreciate the sponsor; but generally it is accepted and expected that there will be a really positive halo effect.”

“We know it makes a difference,” Newsam adds. “Quite simply, that is why sponsorship works as an industry.”

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