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#61 In conversation with Rebecca Sowden (Founder of Team Heroine) - Sponsorship and marketing of women's sports
Episode 6128th February 2023 • Sports CDP Crash Course - Data Talks • Data Talks
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Meet Rebecca Sowden

The Women’s Sports Director at WeAreFearless & the founder of Team Heroine - a platform where they share insight, tools, and inspiration to help brands and rights holders unleash the power of women's sports sponsorship and marketing. Rebecca Sowden has also worked as a Sponsorship Manager and Commercial Marketing Director. She also worked as marketing manager for FIFA where she developed and managed marketing initiatives including the production of TV commercials to drive attendance at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup.

Rebecca also works closely with Lewes FC and is one of its owners

In today's episode we discuss:

  1. Sponsorship and marketing in women's sports
  2. Challenges within the women's sports industry
  3. The importance of leveraging the current momentum within women's sports
  4. How to be a male-ally of women's sports


You are listening to the sports C D P Crash course, your go-to podcast for all things sports related. We talk about how sports clubs and teams can sell more tickets and merchandise than ever before, and how they can negotiate sponsorship agreements of higher. We also champion women's sports and discuss how data and innovation can help bring equality to the sports industry.

We have interviewed industry leaders who have worked with the likes of the NFL FC Barcelona, women in football uk, Feba the Davis Cup, just to name a few. So don't miss out. Listen to today's episode. Our next guest is a women's sports director at We Are Fearless and the founder of Team Heroin, a platform where they share insight, tools and inspiration to help brands and right holders unleash the power of women's sports sponsoring and marketing.

Rebecca Soen has also worked as a sponsorship manager and commercial marketing director and a marketing manager for FIFA where she developed and managed marketing initiatives, including the production of TV commercials to drive attendance at the 2008 FIFA under 17 Women's World Cup. Rebecca, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you for having me. It's such a, it's such an honor because, um, I feel like we've been trying to get this done for such a long time and it's, it's so great that we're finally able to do it. Yeah, no, it's fantastic to connect and looking forward to it. Absolutely. But before we begin, we like to start off our sessions with an icebreaker.

Are you ready for that? Oh, we'll see. , what's your favorite quote, expression or motto, and why Is it your. I think I'd have to go with, feel the fear and do it anyway. And I guess I just like to live by that motto myself. Um, obviously produce a lot of content around women's sport and you know, sometimes it's a little bit uncomfortable trying to push a few buttons and, um, start to.

Tricky conversation, but I think without that boldness and challenge, we are not gonna drive the game forward quick enough. So yeah, I like to kind of, and work in my own personal life, kind of live by that. And do you have any memories of like any, anything like recent where you've actually felt just petrified or just afraid and you're just like, you know what, I'm just doing.

Yeah, I mean I think, um, well personally I was at a Halloween theme park on the weekend, so going a couple of rides, which definitely put me outta my comfort zone. But you know, I think knowing I was gonna be a little bit uncomfortable, but the rewards at the end of it were worth it. Yeah, I think just in a day-to-day basis, like I said, I've, you know, with a lot of my content, um, you know, trying to raise the conversation on issues that are complex, um, you know, and knowing you're gonna get a little bit of resistance or conflicting comments back, but just still knowing it's best for the game and, and best to help drive things forward.

So still doing it. Awesome. You have worked with big brands such as FIFA Sky, and. Maybe let's go back to the beginning. What is it, uh, about sports or the sports industry that has you captivated if we start there? Yeah, I mean, I was lucky enough to be involved with sport since the age of five. I started playing footballers, one of the first girls, and the only girl in boys team.

Um, so I guess growing up. Participating in sport, I felt that camaraderie, that connection, um, that brings people from all sorts of backgrounds together. So I think naturally kind of being involved from that side, I always had an interest in it. And I think for me, um, yeah, that's discontinued into my career.

I just love the power of sport to bring people together and connect all sorts of people. Awesome, awesome. And, uh, shortly after leaving university, uh, you founded ASCAs Communications, uh, where you produced an information pack, including Emmanuel and A D B D to aid other KWA athletes, uh, in their pursuit to obtain college sports scholarships in the us.

Uh, you went on to found other projects and companies as. A great example being team heroin. What is it that prompts you to found your own projects and companies? Is it that you identify a need that is not being fulfilled or what, what is it? Yeah, absolutely. You've hit the nail on the head there that I guess I'm always drawn to studying companies or ideas that solve problems I face or have, have encountered or experienced a gap in the market.

I went to college on a soccer scholarship in the, the US as a Kiwi. And when I came back, um, you know, all these other Kiwi athletes were like, oh, how do you do it? What, how do you go about it? And myself, I found the, the process very confusing and complex and I wasn't the only one obviously, as there were hits of other people approaching me.

So kind of, yeah, saw the gap in that and, and tried to just help solve it. I think with Team Hero, my latest kind of venture. The reason I was compelled to start that was it was the 2019 Women's World Cup in France. And of course, you know, it kind of took the world by storm. There were a billion people that were watching the tournament, yet I still.

Couldn't believe how few sponsors were involved in the tournament or, or Warren's football and those that were, were just still activated in a way that wasn't fulfilling their potential or kind of copying and pasting the men's game. So yeah, I just thought there was a real need to advocate for more sponsorship around women's football and women's sport, and also help marketers unleash that power around best leveraging their sponsorship in marketing rather than, Kind of doing what they would do for the men's game and really understanding and identifying those nuances and opportunities around the women's game.

Uh, you just mentioned about, um, like going to, to the US and on, on a scholarship as well. You are maybe the third person that we've spoken to that's gone to the US on a scholarship . And so I'm like, I don't know. I think that's so, that's so interesting that the US is actually. Maybe so ahead or advanced when it comes to creating opportunities.

Mm-hmm. for women in that area of like scholarships and stuff. Yeah. I think particularly with women's soccer, I think they've always been ahead of the game. So for me it was always the dream destination because it's right around the 1999 World Cup. You know, the famous Brandy Chastain ripping off her shirt and when they won the World Cup.

America was just really the place to be for women's soccer. But saying that the US just do college sports so well, it's, it's so professional. You're getting to train and play like a professional athlete, plus you come out with a degree and have an amazing social experience at the same time. So for me, you know, I think it's a fantastic opportunity for athletes to pursue their athletic dreams, but also get an education and a great experience at the same time.

It makes me wonder though, like what other countries could be doing better in that sense? You know? Um, because I am thinking back to. where I'm from in Botswana. Mm-hmm. . We have a lot of opportunities from the government when it comes to academics, so if you do very well, the government will give you like a full ride scholarship to like even Oxford or whatever, university, but never really when it comes to sports, because where I'm from, sports is viewed as the thing that you do when you.

Do you actually, yeah, I mean, I think it's a great path and, um, I mean, the US does have the advantage that they can command such big broadcast rights across their college sports from, you know, basketball to football. Uh, so, you know, that funds a lot of the programs. But I think, you know, this dual, um, kind of passions with sport and education is a, is a great way to move forward and help people excel in both areas and, you know, they naturally compliment each other with.

You know, being, being productive and healthy through sport, you know, helps obviously with the academics as well. So it's a great model. Um, which yeah, I'd love to see more nations follow. Yeah. Yeah. Sorry. I just got really interested in that. suddenly hit me that, oh, quite a few people that we've spoken to have mentioned the US in one way or another.

Like the US in that sense has that soft power where like, like you're saying, with commanding rights, with commanding this interest and being able to produce commercial value from it in a sense mm-hmm. versus other countries. But, um, , you mentioned that, um, you were speaking about how you focus on women's sponsorship and, and marketing with team heroin.

Um, what trends are you seeing within that field that sports organizations should start implementing and leveraging, especially when it comes to, I mean, women's sports organizations, like what should they be doing when it comes to sponsorship? Mm-hmm. , I think one of the biggest things in terms of sponsorship is brands or sponsors need to see themselves as partner.

Who are there to help the game thrive as opposed to just transactional sponsors. They put in money, they get whatever value out of it. I think because women's sport is still at such a nascent stage, you know, it's kind of in that startup phase. , it needs to really be a partnership attitude to collectively grow the game.

And I think that's the biggest opportunity for brands too. The ones that we are seeing doing the best, coming in, really adding to that ecosystem and kind of looking like heroes in the process because they're helping the game, but you know, they're activating certain ways to help it investing. So it's kind of a win-win scenario.

So yeah, I always encourage brands to. Think about what, what kind of role in the ecosystem are you gonna play to enable it to thrive? I think we're also seen in terms of commercial trends, a movement towards unbundling sponsorship rights from the, the men's teams or men's side of the organization. So for the first time ever, FIFA have unbundled their men's World Cup rights from the Women's World Cup rights.

Uh, so zero an accounting cloud software company and Visa are the. Women's World Cup and Women's FIFA sponsors and what I, where I think the opportunity is around unbundling. Um, and it needs to be right for each team and organization of course, and you need to look at the individual aspects. But what I like about it is I do see men's sport and women's sport as a different product with a different audience.

And I think. If you kind of separate them out, you can really focus on the, the strengths and the attributes of each. But it also opens up opportunities for new entrants in the market. So someone like Xero, they're all about supporting and getting more women and small business to thrive. So they potentially wouldn't have got involved with FIFA if they had to then buy the men's World Cup as well.

That's not kind of the area of focus. Plus it probably would've been price, um, exhibitive. So I think yeah, it's a great opportunity for a lot of brands. We've seen you afa have a lot of success with Visa as the first kind of UEFA women's partner MasterCard have come on with world rugby. So yeah, for me, I think we are gonna see more and more of.

And saying that I'd hate to stop the cross promotion, um, and marketing between maybe the men's and the women's team. I think there's a lot of opportunities for signpost and cross promotion. Um, I think another trend we are seeing is the, the increased complexity around brand alignment with, um, sports properties.

You know, we've seen it recently in the news with, um, when shell announced. Partnership with British Cycling, which caused a lot of backlash in terms of, you know, a sport that's trying to get people out of cars, kinda partnering with an oil company. We saw it just last week. Netball Australia faced first criticism for their partnership with Hancock Mining.

Um, they kind of withdrew their sponsorship after the backlash and ended up visit Victoria, kind of tourism board stepped in. But I think particularly with women's sports, it's gonna become more and more important that. Brand partnerships, um, have a strong alignment. And the reason I say that is we know that women's sports fans place more importance on social causes than men's sports fans.

So, you know, in terms of fandom and, um, you know, keeping your fans on side, it's, it's gonna be really important from that perspective. Not to mention athletes, women's sport are a lot more socially active, so I think that's something we're gonna have to think a lot more closely. So yeah, those are three, three trends I'm seeing kind of approaching in the immediate future.

I know that like most of the time, and, um, maybe you might not have a, an answer for this and that's absolutely fine, but most of the time when we have these conversations, we're obviously having them around like the mainstream industry. We're talking the US talking Europe, talking, um, Australia as well.

But where do you think like markets such as like Asia and um, Maybe Africa fit in in this, but I know that there's a lot of conversation around. Mm-hmm. bringing more capital to, to Africa. For example, we spoke to Lin Guer, who's the managing director of CSU Sports Management, and she's working really hard in that specific market because the human capital when it comes to athletes of today and athletes of the future is coming from Africa.

Africa in that sense. , what areas do you know if there are any opportunities there? Yeah, yeah, I think it's definitely challenging and I'm seeing the same things that, you know, yes, with the growth we've seen in one sport, there's more commercial investment and sponsorship money flown into the game.

However, I see it flowing into certain parts of the game, so I'm seeing it, like you say, flown into the likes of the uk, the us, Australia. and also certain codes or, or the top teams. So seeing a lot of money, maybe going into the top women's super league football teams, but it's not filtering down to more grassroots or other, you know, maybe more developing nations.

Um, so definitely see it as a problem, particularly working in Hong Kong for seven years. Yeah, women's sport is still just not put on the same pit is still like it as men's sport, so they've got a lot of work to do and of. because sponsors primarily. Kind of their, their deals on eyeballs, unfortunately, and I don't think it's the right way with women's sport.

They're still looking at, you know, maybe they're not getting the viewership, so they're not prepared to put in the, the money it deserves or, or could get. So I think, you know, it's key for the governing bodies. To continue to work with those, to pull those other regions up. I know the likes, you know, FIFA have big pro with China growth game in Asia and Africa and making sure those nations do keep a pace with the other ones.

Um, you know, and I think there's ways to do that. For example, you know, the introduction of kind of second and tear tournaments, so maybe even if they're not going to the World Cup, you know, there's other nation's legs or, um, You know, regional league, that they can get that experience, uh, you know, and, and new opportunities even for sponsors to, to get involved in that way.

But it's definitely challenging and yeah. I think it's even more fragmented than men's sport. You know, a lot of, um, you know, even say English Premier League teams have a lot of sponsors from Asia because, you know, there's a lot of people down there who love the teams and there's huge money, you know, and a lot of those countries.

But we just haven't seen that kind of filter over to the woman's side. Yeah, absolutely. And such a brilliant answer as well, because, um, there are just so many factors at play. From the sponsor's perspective, it's about the commercial value. But like I said, from my experience, for example, just from the grassroots from school mm-hmm.

sports is not something that's entirely encouraged. It's encouraged if, if all else has failed type of thing. Mm-hmm. . So there are loads of attitudes and I know, um, We sat down with a lady called Norina Shams, and she's a professional squash player in Pakistan, and she was just talking about literally fighting to be given a chance to, to play in that sense, you know?

Mm. So Lean, who's from, um, the Middle East, she's from Jordan. Talking about how they're really having to work hard to just get the conversation going about it's okay for women to play sports in that sense. So in that sense there's like just so much, so much work to be done. Yeah, and that's the thing. I think, um, you know, unfortunately these are historic systematic barriers and perceptions that have held women's sport and women in sport back.

And, you know, I think different markets and countries are at. Part of that kind of social spectrum. So like you say, you know, some sports, you know, it's still not that accepted for women to play or in certain markets. So I think yeah, trying to break down those barriers before even kind of getting to those other conversations and, and issues like sponsorship, it's, yeah, it's unfortunately, um, trying to jump over every hurdle and everything is a piece of that puzzle.

Yeah. And it's very, um, it's very interesting and you've touched upon some of the challenges that women's sports face when it comes to sponsorship and marketing, but what frustrations would you say you've experienced when it comes to women's sports and or the sports industry as a whole? If we look at it like at a global scale in just, uh, at women's sports in general?

Yeah. I think couple of frustrations. I, I still think despite all the progress, We need to be bolder. I think, you know, yes we've made progress, but there's still so much to do and we so much room and gap to still make up. So I always encourage brands and rights holders, you know,...



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