The Perception Agency – Changing the face of women’s sport

“You’re fundamentally never going to engage new fanbases or change people’s minds when the marketing of women’s sport is so much poorer than men’s sport.”

On this platform, we talk a lot about encouraging young girls to participate in sport and ensuring that the message gets out that sport is for everyone. However, we have somewhat overlooked that adage that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. It’s very much a ‘chicken and the egg’ type of conversation, but can we ever truly achieve gender equality at the grassroots level of sport if we don’t see change at the highest level?

Professional Rugby Player, Flo Williams, set up The Perception Agency last year, realising that her expertise could be put to use in trying to achieve gender parity in sport at the highest level. I spoke to Flo about the work and her agency do in literally ‘changing perceptions’ of women’s sport.

“I started playing Rugby aged about 7 or 8. My dad is Welsh, so Rugby was always the law in my house,” Flo said. “I was the only girl in my local team, but it never bothered me because I was in a competitive environment where I got to play sport in an environment where other people were pushing me.”

“The Women’s 1st XV would always watch the Men’s 1st XV on a Saturday and the men would watch us on a Sunday. But eventually we were promoted to the Premiership and the men were basically in a beer league,” Flo said. To most, this would seem like a step in the right direction in terms of a women’s side receiving as much, or more, attention than their male counterparts.

However, it was the ‘behind-the-scenes’, institutional sexism that caught Flo’s attention. “We never played in a stadium, there was no S&C, no extra coaches, no coverage, if you were lucky you got your score on Twitter and most importantly we never got any money from the club,” Flo said. “However, on the other hand, the old men in the club were known to leave the male players little brown packages under their jersey.”

“I had to actively seek Rugby; it wasn’t a given. But most players I play with have come for a Rugby family,” Flo said. It’s perhaps the game in Britain that is still perceived as a ‘male domain’. The nature of the game typifies those supposed masculine qualities of strength and aggression, and it’s a sacred male space that is not readily permeable for women looking to try a new sport.

Flo is now playing for Wasps, having played in the Premiership for 8 years. “The game has come so far since I started. Most players for Wasps are being paid something, most games have been in stadiums, we get content on Wasps social media and our sponsor is Vodafone,” Flo said. “However, just as I couldn’t be too thankful for 20 lads coming to watch my game 8 years ago, I can’t be so thankful for this change until we achieve true parity.”

As with the majority of elite female athletes, the journey in their sport isn’t as easy as entering an academy aged 10 and receiving a full-time wage for doing what they love. Flo herself went to Loughborough University to study Graphic Design and to play Rugby. Upon graduated, whilst still playing Premiership Rugby, Flo firstly had a full-time job working for the university and then working at the Marketing and Advertising Agency in London, Mindshare.

“I was learning so much about the media and the marketing world, but I sat there at the same time as women’s sport was evolving,” Flo said. “I thought, I actually have the tools to do what these agencies are doing, but for women’s sport.” Through her experience in the marketing world, combined with her experience in the female sporting world, Flo identified a problem and a gap in how women’s sport was perceived. As such, Flo left her job, and decided she was going to try and change the face of female sports marketing.

Flo set up The Perception Agency last year, aiming to specifically help female athletes and teams build their brands. By doing this, the goal is that the “perception and awareness of women’s sport positively changes, fan bases grow and there are more commercial opportunities.”

“Marketing of women’s sport was so poor. Until the marketing portrays the sport at a certain level, audiences are never going to change their perceptions of it,” Flo said. Fundamentally, as a product, women’s sport is a wholly different entity to men’s sport. It needs different considerations and foci, that agencies who had only served men’s teams for decades can’t fully appreciate.

“I didn’t see anybody else doing it and I wanted to help give women’s sport the platform it deserved,” Flo said. In essence, encouraging female participation or ensuring every third article in the paper is about women’s football does nothing to actually change people’s mind about what women’s sport is and what it can be. “You’re fundamentally never going to engage new fanbases or change people’s minds when the marketing of women’s sport is so much poorer than men’s sport,” Flo said.

Flo used this analogy to highlight the necessity for the work The Perception Agency is doing. “Two films are coming out in the cinema. One is advertised every bus stop; the other is just advertised on the front door of the cinema. The one being advertised on every bus stop, creates hype and builds expectation. More people are going to see the one being advertised everywhere. However, when people see the advert for the other film when they’re at the cinema, that might be of interest. But you’ve had to actively seek that out,” Flo explains.

When applied to how women’s sport is currently perceived, this analogy works perfectly. For example, male football has had over 100 years of professionalism, marketing and a solid fanbase behind it. Compared to the female game, that head-start is madness, but people still seem to ponder over why there is such disparity. If we put the women’s game ‘on every bus stop’, perhaps that distance might be made up a little.

“For me it’s simple – if you invest in it, you’ll get a response to it,” Flo said. “We have to tap into wat the men have, which is a loyal and widespread fanbase. So why not put on double headers? Why not report on the men’s team and the women’s team in the same article?” Flo said.

At a recent interview I had for an in-house journalist at a Premier League Club (I won’t disclose who!), the interviewer asked how I would suggest they update their content to align with the present day. When suggesting, perhaps it would be nice if their women’s team got a bit more coverage on their website, I was immediately shut down. “Our audience isn’t interested in that though, so it just wouldn’t get any views,” he said. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I was praised on, apparently how qualified I was for the role; however I wasn’t considered “suited” to working for them…

My own personal woes and resentment aside (!), it is this attitude that is inhibiting the growth of women’s sport, and something which Flo is actively seeking to change. “For too long, women’s sport has been marketing to people like me and you, but you don’t need to sell it to us!” Flo said. “It needs to be easy, it needs to be targeting at that huge existing fanbase, it needs to be engaging, it needs to be on primetime TV, it needs to be alongside the men – it’s that simple.” Visibility is only possible with accessibility and whilst you’ve got an audience, capture it. If BBC put on a game in same way as men’s, back-to-back, you’re almost brainwashing your audience and it becomes normal.

In a simplistic way, in any sport, elevating the profile of women’s game could equate to double the revenue. For example, Christen Press and Tobin Heath’s shirts, following their signing to Man Utd Women’s, outsold every single male Man United players’ shirt in the first three days. “At the moment, too many people see giving attention to women’s sport as a tick box exercise, but it can become a point of revenue. The demand is there,” Flo said.

For many of us, we have this problem of appreciate how far we’ve come whilst still having to question why we weren’t there already. I had that feeling this week, reading about the new maternity leave regulations proposed by FIFA, for example. We have made tremendous progress in terms of women’s sport, and the difference even in the past year, let alone the past decade is remarkable. However, that doesn’t mean that the work is done, and we’ve officially achieved gender parity…

Flo was starkly reminded of this when she found herself at the centre of the Irish Rugby shirt controversy a few weeks ago. In a nutshell, Irish Rugby filled us with such hope when they proposed the launch of the male jersey and the female jersey simultaneously. However, when the jersey came out, they’d used male players to model the men’s jersey, and a e-fit of a female model for the women’s jersey.

“For me, this just portrayed exactly what Irish rugby thought of their women’s team. A model brings no meaning to a shirt rather than the story of a player behind the jersey,” Flo said. Flo posted a side-by-side photo on her Twitter, captioned ‘Spot the Difference’, which went viral.

“The whole thing suggested that the female rugby body wasn’t suitable to sell a jersey. Whereas the male rugby body is marketable, in fact, it’s desirable. That was so disappointing, after so many female rugby players already being labelled ‘masculine’, whatever that means,” Flo said.

Following the attention that Flo’s post had garnered, Canterbury apologised and re-launched the jersey, alongside the biggest piece of media ever done by Canterbury on a women’s team. Flo was asked to speak on a global brand webinar for them, with over 115 employees listening to her explain why their actions were so damaging.

“As disappointing as the saga was, I have noticed that every other jersey launch since that, has had more female faces in it. Perhaps they’ve seen what happened with Canterbury and realised they need to be more careful. Even if it’s a tick box exercise, it’s a move in the right direction,” Flo said.

Flo is extremely active on social media and regularly posts about different news stories regarding women’s sport. On a recent post where she was announcing that the England Women’s Rugby team were playing on Primetime TV for the first time ever, I couldn’t help but notice the string of abuse in the comments, of ‘no one cares’, ‘women shouldn’t play rugby’ etc.

“I do get some people hating on posts I do but it illustrates my point so well, because they’re almost doing me a favour. All it’s doing is solidifying my need to be here. Not only are people having these thoughts behind closed doors, but they’re actively posting, which needs to be highlighted,” Flo said. This is where it takes people like Flo and The Perception Agency, or global brands, to keep persisting and using their power to harness positive change.  

With the recent Sainsbury’s Christmas advert receiving so much negativity and abuse, it just highlighted the fact that there is a very real race problem in the UK. I’m sure there would be a similar response if Nike launched a huge campaign for female athletes. However, ultimately people have to made uncomfortable to be made comfortable.

As women’s sport is entering a new era where there is so much to appreciate, at what point do we step back and be happy with what has been achieved? “Not until we have achieved gender parity and women’s sport is taken as seriously as men’s,” Flo said. “We need to stop being so thankful for everything and continue to actively seek progress.”

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