All the risque, and no reward for women’s sport
A former Football Fern, inspired by iconic moments in World Cup history, is offering her advice - for free - to help women's sports lure the sponsors' dollar.
Rebecca Sowden is astonished at how little has changed in two decades.
She still remembers the moment when American soccer star Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty at the 1999 World Cup - whipping off her shirt in celebration and revealing her bra and six-pack abs to an astounded world.
An impressionable 17-year-old footballer, Sowden watched the ground-breaking moment alongside her dad.
“It was the first time I’d seen women’s soccer on TV,” she says. “There were 90,000 people in the stadium. And for the first time I thought maybe I could take my hobby of playing soccer to something greater. That maybe women’s sport was a viable thing.”
Sowden was inspired to go to the United States, and took up a four-year football scholarship at the venerable College of William & Mary in Virginia. “I wanted to go to where the best players in the world were,” she says.
In 2004 - the year Sowden made her debut for the Football Ferns - she also completed her degree in business administration and marketing.
While she continued to play, Sowden also embarked on a rewarding career in sponsorship and marketing. She worked in both sports and entertainment - at TVNZ, the Fifa U17 women’s World Cup, the Hong Kong Sevens and the Volvo Ocean Race.
From her home in Hong Kong, Sowden watched the US triumph again in the 2019 women’s World Cup in France. This time, she watched with her one-year-old son, and this time, a lilac-haired Megan Rapinoe was the US golden girl.
But Sowden was shocked by how little the women’s sports landscape has changed in those 20 years.
“That moment with Brandi Chastain, I thought, ‘Wow, women’s sport is at a turning point here’,” she says.
“But hold on ... 20 years have passed, and women’s sport receives just 0.4 percent of the total sports sponsorship?
“The progress is just so slow. How will it be in another 20 years?”
So again, Sowden was spurred on by the World Cup to do something. “I realised women’s sport has the power to inspire the world, but it isn’t being helped as much as it should be. Maybe I can help,” she says.
Sowden decided to use her experience and expertise to offer advice to sports on how best to attract investment. And it's an online service she's offering for free.
She’s created Team Heroine, a website to increase women’s sport sponsorship success – “so we can increase investment, increase fans, grow the game and inspire the world”.
Sowden isn’t new to coming up with smart ideas. Two years ago, she was a finalist in the New Zealand Women of Influence Awards, for innovation and science, with her social sports app, Hookdshot. (It enabled sports fans to share live moments with their friends, like, say, the Chastain moment if there had been apps around in 1999). Her start-up was also chosen to be part of the first Vodafone accelerator programme.
She worked at TVNZ in sales and marketing, with shows like Masterchef and New Zealand Idol. She also created a national beach soccer series.
For the last four years, Sowden has lived in Hong Kong. She was responsible for drawing over 100,000 visitors to the first Hong Kong stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race last year, and then worked as sponsorship manager at the Hong Kong Sevens (which coincidentally will include the women’s game in 2020 - the first time in 45 years).
Now taking time to be a “part-time mum”, Sowden decided to develop her new strategy to help women’s sport globally.
“I’ve always loved innovation and ideas. Watching the women’s World Cup inspired me – I don’t want to be sitting at a desk every day. I want to be doing something that I’m absolutely passionate about,” she says.
“This is just such an untapped area. With the lack of information and expertise out there, I thought ‘This my passion, let’s see what I can do with it’.”
She’s employed the help of another Football Fern too. Rosie White, who just happens to play at the Seattle Reign with Rapinoe, is also a talented artist and designed the Team Heroine website images.
Sowden sees one of the biggest changes that must happen for women's sport to get commercial backing is for brands to stop evaluating women's sporting events purely on audience numbers.
“Many old-school marketers look at sponsorship as a media-buy, but women's sport is so much more than that, and it should be considered for the wider opportunity,” she says.
“It’s not just about eyeballs. Women's sport and female athletes offer a powerful platform for brands to leverage to tell their own stories to customers, staff, clients and fans.”
Within the last month, a string of inspiring young women made sports headlines around the globe, like Coco Gauff winning her first tennis title at the age of 15, and 17-year-old Kiwi Alice Robinson winning her first giant slalom World Cup.
“Women's sports and athletes offer some of the most desirable values any brand could be associated with - inspiring, progressive, family-orientated, inclusive, progressive and clear,” Sowden says.
But part of the problem has been that men’s sport has had such a head-start on the female game.
“Marketers need to treat women’s sport like a start-up. It’s not a short-term game, it’s for the long-term - you’ve got to invest money to build the product and the audience, for the good of the wider women's sport ecosystem,” says Sowden.
New Zealand has a wealth of opportunities to capitalise on over the next three years, with the women's cricket and rugby World Cups, and IWG World Conference, the most significant conference on gender equity in sport. New Zealand Football also has a bid to host the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup.
“That’s definitely fuelling many of my ideas and much of my excitement,” Sowden says. “The issue around women's sport investment, unfortunately, is a global issue so I'm creating content that I hope will benefit women's sport rights-holders and brands around the world.
“Over the next year or so, I’ll be putting free resources out there, doing content marketing and offering value to people. We need more thought leaders out there.
“It's only a matter of time before people get clued up to the massive opportunities women's sport is presenting, and that the investment follows.”