#MustReadMonday – The Boat Race: What Next For Women’s Sport and Sponsorship?

In the aftermath of this year’s boat race, where the women’s race was on the same day as the men’s for the first time, Ellen O’Sullivan, Account Manager – MEC Access at MEC UK, explores the untapped opportunities for brands to sponsor women’s sport.


Saturday 11th April was a great day for sport, with the Masters, the Grand National, and the Boat Race. Or rather, “The Boat Races” – for much has been made of the fact that this year the Women’s Boat Race took place on the same course and day, and with the same prize money, as the Men’s Race.

Both The Grand National and the Boat Race are particularly British events, much loved by a public who would otherwise typically not be interested in the respective sports. However until this year the Women’s Boat Race has been a very different story. Until Newton Investment Management took over as sponsor five years ago the Women’s Race had no funding, and therefore no prize money. The women taking part actually had to pay to compete in the race, and take public transport to get there.

Fast forward to 11th April 2015, and The Women’s Boat Race pulled in an initial BBC One audience of 4.8m – just a million or so short of the Men’s Boat Race, and these figures are even more impressive considering the competition of the Grand National on Channel Four and the first spring heatwave.

So what changed? This is an example where real change has been brought about by a sponsor. Helena Morrissey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management, agreed to sponsor the event only on the condition that from this year onwards the Women’s Race would be fully aligned with the Men’s Race, and broadcast on TV. While the event was a historical moment for women’s sport overall, it was also a hugely exciting moment for Newton to be part of as sponsor.

It is becoming apparent that women’s sport can offer brands great opportunities. More women are taking part in sport, and as above viewing figures indicate, more people (both men and women) are watching women’s sport. Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is committed to seeing more women take part in all types of exercise. Female participation in typically ‘male’ events like Tough Mudder is only increasing, and the FA has pledged to make women’s football the second most popular team sport in Britain by 2018 – ahead of men’s sport such as rugby and cricket. What’s more, the crowd at Wembley watching the England women’s football team take on Germany in November reached nearly 46,000 – over 5,000 more than the previous England men’s friendly played there.

So the interest is there, meaning the sponsorship opportunities are there – in fact women’s sport offers a huge untapped resource for brands.  Sponsorship deals within women’s sport are much cheaper than their counterpart deals in male sports, yet come with far more access to players who are willing to work with brands but rarely get the chance. At an Ad Week Europe Panel entitled ‘Women in Media and Sport’, Casey Stoney (Team GB women’s football captain at London 2012 and Arsenal defender) was asked about her current personal sponsorship deals. Her response – she has never been offered one.

As well as access to talent, would be sponsors often represent a much needed funding injection for these sports and players – allowing a brand to make a real beneficial difference to the way a sport is played. Thanks to Newton’s sponsorship and the exposure around the event, this year was the first that the Oxford women’s team could buy a minibus for training.

It’s clear that these areas offer somewhat of a blank slate for sponsors, so why are so few brands involved? Hopefully 2015 will mark the year that the increased buzz around women’s sport starts to change perceptions. Until that happens, the field is open for more brands and people like Helena Morrissey to take a leap. But if a brand really wants to innovate, and when there are moments in history like this year’s Boat Race on offer, it’s hard to think of many reasons not to take the plunge into women’s sport.