I know it may often seem that I’m focusing on the smaller issues of inequality in football, but personally I think if you look too broadly at things like attendances and funding then you can get lost in a chasm of misinformation and “opinions”. It’s also easy to look at things generally and for those angry men out there to find gaps (often that don’t exist or that they’ve simply made up).
Many of you will remember how excited I was at the news that FIFA20 had finally created avatar female coaches who were able to manage men’s teams in the career mode version of the game. For me, this gave children the opportunity to see a future where women could manage in men’s football. The glass ceiling effect. I’d been writing to EA Sports since 2012 to request female avatars, asking why, if the reason for the sexism was because there were no female managers in the men's game, then why were there Asian avatars, fat balding Indian male avatars etc. Isn’t it baffling when you really think about it? A world where the best Premier League manager of all time could barely get a game in the Scottish league and yet it’s unthinkable that a professional footballing woman could manage a team. Anyway, one day it will happen, and personally I think FIFA20 having female avatars (played by approximately 3 million women worldwide) is a huge step to make the unbelievable a bit more believable.
So here I am, back on my high horse to talk about a specific issue that has a much broader issue attached. Football shirts and monetizing women’s football.
For my day job I work in Marketing, supporting small businesses to grow. Even at the most basic level there’s an understanding from these small business owners that brand awareness is an incredible (and very cost effective way) of promoting a business. Also that spending money on marketing often leads to making money.
Let’s take America’s Major League Soccer as an example. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if in 1996 the league had launched and suddenly the birth of football in America lead to millions of fans flocking to watch men play football? Well, not quite the case. In 1996 a bunch of MLS players filed law suits about salary caps, in 2001 two of the leagues teams folded, there was an overall attendance decline during the first decade and there was loads of drama over the rules because they weren’t “American” enough. It was reported that the league had lost a reported $600 million before 2001. It was a shambles. Then, in 2002 the USA lads did the remarkable and got to the quarter finals of the world cup… not quite four times world cup winners like their female counterparts, but everyone seemed to get behind the league and the sport grew. This happened through various means. They started a stabilization project which involved developing six purpose built soccer stadiums, they added more teams to the league, throwing more states into the mix, and then in 2007 they brought international attention to the league by bringing in the worlds most famous player: David Beckham.
In short, there was a marketing strategy put in place to make sure the league worked. When the league wasn’t working, they pushed to make it work, they tanked $600 million and they kept on pushing. And yes, the rumours are supposedly true, when the league was in it's worst position they used money from the USWNT pot to keep the league alive. They even paid for one of the most expensive players in the world to bring his famous family to California to shine a light on their league and they've continued to bring in famous faces over the years as brand awareness exercises.
Monetizing football: the shirts
So why do I want to talk about football shirts after blabbing about The MLS for ages? Firstly, I’m obsessed with football shirts. For me, they’re like a little artefact that hold memories of events in football history. You show me a 2005/06 Barcelona shirt, no sponsor, little Nike tick, glowing red and blue and I think of Messi scoring his first goal or the 2006 Champions League final with Ronaldinho, Eto’o and Puyol. I’ve collected shirts for years and I'm not alone. There are now shops dedicated to football shirt collectors. It's also really exciting to see women's surnames on the back of some of the most famous club shirts in the UK when I go to games. I've personally added a Lyon 2019/20 shirt to my collection with, of course, Bronze on the back.
It’s an awesome marketing strategy for a club to get their customers to pay them for a shirt whilst also helping the club to market their own brand... for free on top of paying for entry to the stadium, plus a pint at half time etc. Think about all those fans pouring out of the stadium after a game, wandering into town wearing their club shirt. For smaller clubs shirt sales can have a huge affect on the infrastructure of the club.
The MLS, with their hundreds of millions spent on growing the sport would be pretty stupid to not strategise to get more shirt and merchandise sales. It’s lucrative and as I’ve already said, it’s a great brand awareness exercise. Just google “MLS shirts” and you’ll be lead to the Adidas or Nike websites where you can buy any MLS shirt for around £40. Even the lower league teams. They're all up for grabs.
So my question is...
1. Why haven’t MLS and NWSL clubs joined up their branding? For example, why aren't Orlando Pride and Orlando City wearing the same kit with the same badge? To me this seems like such a simple way of involving the fans. There's no brand risk to having Pride and City both wearing the same badge. Is Alex Morgan bad for MLS brand awareness? I think not. She's more famous than any of the Orlando City fellas!
2. Why can I easily buy a bottom of the table men's Orlando City shirt for £45 online and why can't I easily find a reasonably priced Orlando Pride shirt online at all? I can't even find a Courage shirt (NWSL winners). Why do US soccer fans tell me it's impossible to find NWSL shirts in sports shops in America? Why can't I source a single NWSL shirt provider in the UK? Why haven't the same marketing whizzes that saved The MLS from near extinction created brand awareness tools and merchandise around the NWSL clubs to increase popularity? I mean, the most famous soccer players in America are the women.
I don't really have any justification for The MLS monetizing their league and not bothering with The NWSL to be honest. It's probably just down to good old fashioned inequality. One rule for a men's league that only survived because they kept pumping money into it vs a women's league that's struggling to grow at the same pace because no one is willing to risk $600 million on a project involving women.
It's a bit like when the FA banned women from playing and then just expect it to reach the dizzy heights of the men's Premier League without the billions spent on the framework and infrastructure around the worlds most famous league.
Firstly, I think we have to all be united on small issues like this that seem trivial on the surface. If we all push together for women's clubs to sell shirts for their fans (and shirt collectors like me) then they're more likely to listen. It's a great brand awareness exercise, costs very little, and quite frankly not having replica shirts easily available to women's fans just emphasises the lack of care taken to support women's football (even in a country like USA where football is widely seen as a women's sport).
The second thing I've done is set up a clothing brand called W.F.F to give fans of the women's game representation. Something that defines fans of the women's game. As a marketeer it baffles me that we don't have more of this stuff available in the world of women's football. Millions tuned in to watch The Lionesses in the World Cup and participation has shot up in recent months. I honestly believe if these sort of % increases were being produced in the world of men's rugby (for instance) there'd be brands popping up all over the place. As female sports people and fans of women's sport we are pushing against a tide of underlying misogyny that feels impossible to beat.
So, I figured in my own little way I'd try and represent women's football merchandise in the hope that I can get the ball rolling. The ball is stood still at the moment, but hopefully soon one of the big guns will give it a kick.
by Helen Hardy
To check out W.F.F click here: www.womensfootie.com/wff
For more info on MLS and NWSL infrastructure and financial fair play disagreements check out: www.starsandstripesfc.com/
I have contacted @Fanatics who are one of the biggest providers of USA sports goods. They do every single MLS team and don't provide any women's replicas. They had no response or reasoning behind this inequality.