Opinion

To work successfully with female athletes, brands need to hand back control to the stars

Women in sport are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but in order to fully reap the benefits of sponsorship, brands need to let the stars do the talking, argues Lauren Houghton.

As a sport-loving Aussie working in sports marketing, it’s been an exciting year watching the growing visibility of females in sport. With figures like a 1.m combined national audience for the inaugural AFLW match earlier this year, the new Suncorp Super Netball League Grand Final shown on prime-time Nine and a new WNBL broadcast deal recently announced, it’s not new news that female athletes and sports are growing in profile and influence.

Houghton: “Brands must stop asking their ambassadors to hold a product and request a ‘tag’”

The sporting associations want to see growth in the sport and partnering brands want to be a part of that sentiment whilst hitting business objectives. Both want to be proud of their efforts, so how can this relationship be mutually beneficial and successful?

I’m certainly grateful for the brands who are flocking to invest in female sports – appropriately placing their logo on uniforms and telling well-produced, touching stories about inspirational women.

However, the partnership assets I find most misused are often the athletes themselves, be it through ambassador appearances and on social media in an attempt to reach their fans.

Brands must stop asking their ambassadors to hold a product and request a ‘tag’, instead finding more functional and creative methods that has relevance to the athlete and the fan.

This is even more important with Instagram announcing this month that they are also implementing paid partnership tags to address lack of transparency for product endorsements on the platform.

Greater consideration needs to be given to the brand and values of the athlete, and sponsorship amplification on their channels should be fit for their platforms to naturally resonate with the audience.

Our elite athletes are influencers in their own right and most have aspirations beyond their personal achievements that should be considered when using their voice for a brand; it’s this kind of attention that allows for a natural partnership fit.

These hard-working athletes, like all of us, just want to go home each night feeling like it’s all worth the sacrifice and that they can use their profile to make a difference. Finding participative and purposeful partnerships making best use of their ambassadorships is the key.

Nothing says real role model like having Australian Diamond Paige Hadley arrive at the door of a young injured netballer whose mum wrote to her on Facebook after watching her Samsung #NeverGiveUp story, or having a mother in tears thanking Ausdrill for bringing the Hockeyroos to her son’s school in Kalgoorlie last year and giving him the confidence to no longer feel suicidal and stand up to bullies. These are the real, life-changing stories worthy of finding and telling.

There’s no doubt that sponsors – or ‘partners’, as brands would rather refer themselves as – of a team or athlete need to provide much more than a logo on a shirt. Badge-tagging days are done.

It may be a large investment for a national brand to run a successful partnership program with reportable KPIs that benefit the business, but it’s an area of opportunity where the brand beliefs can become more personal and the success in this consumer connection relies heavily on the transparency, subtlety and class of the execution.

Cementing a brand sentiment in the real world using real inspirational people is where brands need to invest their strategy to create a personal connection and strive to gain their own fans.

Lauren Houghton is social media and partnerships manager at iris Sydney.

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