It’s mostly due to the success of female athletes at the highest levels of competition – we all remember the Lionesses success in the Euros and their incredible performance in the World Cup – but the increase is also down to a broader cultural shift that is pushing for gender equality in all areas of life, including sports.
Someone who’s seen this growth first-hand is Phil Benton, a hugely respected individual in the consumer side of sports having been part of adidas North Europe’s leadership team during an impressive 27-year tenure with the global brand. As an avid advocate of women’s sport throughout his career, Benton has enjoyed watching the dramatic rise in the commercial interest of women’s sport in recent years.
As someone so passionate about using his experience in the sports industry to help women achieve their full potential, Benton is now proud to call himself chair of the Advisory Board for Women’s Sports Alliance [WSA] – a global platform that uses storytelling to empower female athletes and inspire the next generation of female athletes.
“Commercial awareness of women’s sport has accelerated significantly in the last five years,” explains Benton. “A lot of this has been due to more seminal moments within and across women’s sport. These moments have been showcased with supporting data highlighting the engagement both in viewing figures and the growing commercial return. This has been further accentuated with robust future forecasts showing commercial growth which has led to a better understanding of the long-term commercial opportunity.”
One of the most notable examples of this is the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was watched by more than two billion people worldwide. That’s a 45% increase on 2019’s tournament which saw 1.1 billion tuning in, which in turn was 47% up on the 2017 Women’s World Cup viewership of 747 million.
“Brands are now seeing the value in investing in women’s sport and they are starting to make significant commitments,” explains Benton.
“There are a variety of reasons that have coincided to generate the exponential growth in women’s sports that we’ve seen but a fundamental one is the gradual societal change to reject the status quo and create a fairer more equitable society.
“Sport is a very visible barometer of this and has benefitted from the shift. While education of the situation has been paramount, this has been supported by shifts in governmental policies and some brands moving their investments into women’s sport to highlight a more visibly balanced brand position.
“As a result, we’re now seeing an increase in more high-profile women’s sporting events, more athletes being visible role models and a more structured, supportive, introduction for girls and women across a number of sports.”
Benton now wants to fuel continued growth across women’s sport and after his appointment as chair of WSA’s Advisory Board, he’s wasted no time in building a global team bursting with world-leading experience and expertise on the subject.
WSA is a non-profit organisation that works to advance organisation strategies, competitor careers and supporter perceptions in women’s sport. Its mission is to, “create a world where all female athletes have a voice and receive the tools they need to achieve their full potential”.
By working with current athletes and organisations, WSA is helping inspire, educate and guide female athletes through innovative campaigns and by partnerships, including one with adidas for their Breaking Barriers Project.
“Projects such as Breaking Barriers are a vital part of the developing eco-system that has to evolve for women’s sport to continue its growth,” explains Benton.
“Beyond the high-profile, well-promoted athletes and events which WSA highlights, communities and grassroots are vital to engage and encourage girls to participate and to remain in sport.
“WSA’s involvement is key to help, promote and spread the message. Visibility and education are key to engagement and to highlight the opportunity that is there and give confidence not only to current athletes but to the next generation of elite female athletes.”
Organisations like WSA and projects such as adidas’ Breaking Barriers go a long way to show the development of women’s sport, as neither would have existed a decade ago. For someone so closely entwined in the sports world for nearly three decades, Benton is clear about what the future now holds for women’s sport.
“Women’s sport will continue to grow in its visibility as investment from the broadcasters, sports brands and non-sport brands continues. This will lead to better facilities and more professionals across many sports.
“There will be an increase in desire for participation but this will only be achieved if investments in the infrastructure and eco-system at a grassroots level reflects that at the top end of women’s sport.
“That’s why it’s so important organisations such as WSA continue to promote the role models and events within women’s sport, and continue to inspire and highlight the pathways that exist to help educate and give confidence to all female athletes who want a career in sport.
“WSA will do this by working in partnership with athletes, governing bodies, organisations and brands to advance women’s sport, globally.”
Header image: Phil Benton, chair of the Advisory Board for Women’s Sports Alliance [WSA].