Women and Sport: the other half of the sky.
Mary Peters was the first female athlete that ever really impacted me. Her gold medal in the Pentathlon in the 1972 Olympics was striking in so many ways.
Firstly she came from Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles. For a boy from Glasgow, that was a very big thing: Ulster and Glasgow are joined at the hip, and we all felt that civil war very acutely, as we trotted off to our separate schools and Old Firm games. The ugliness of Bloody Sunday, the bombs, the jarring murals, and the desperate bigotry, gave the 8 year-old me a terrifying image of the six counties. When, in that period, we took a family holiday to Dublin, the idea of the car journey south, passing through Northern Ireland, kept me awake for days before.
And then you see Proud Mary, who looked like a home economics teacher more than an athlete, with her blonde ponytail hair, and she truly raised the spirits at that time. She looked like one of us normal folk, in the Olympics as if by mistake, but beating them all.
“Now Mary, come on”. What a great, warm commentary.
Her humility then waiting for the final result at trackside is compelling. Watch it here.
Mary was a heroine, and rightfully Sports Personality of the Year (when that actually meant something on merit). She stood above the whole religious debate, even when they sent her death threats. A class class act, with that amazing smile. A salt of the earth woman of achievement, showing what they could do in sport, to enthral us all.
Tell me again that women’s sport isn’t valuable!
I have never ever understood why this industry has totally ignored 50% of its potential customer base. Forget about that just not being fair, it’s incredibly stupid financially to be dismissive of this audience.
This week, I found myself watching the film What Women Want, with Mel Gibson. A family compromise choice. It is about a very successful male advertising executive, Gibson, classically sexist, who comes to realise that he has understood absolutely nothing about women, when he magically gets to hear what they are thinking in their heads. Be that his daughter, his secretary, and especially his boss (the splendid Helen Hunt).
In the end, he is a changed and better man, having understood how he has disrespected all women to that point.
A nice film about the arrogance of men, who presume they know best, but really don’t.
I need to say this because it’s key. If you believe that all gender is now fluid, then a film like What Women Want is obviously meaningless… and you will like nothing in this Column.
That would be a shame, because I come in peace, and have always been a feminist.
Often, in life and business, it’s the people who don’t virtue-signal and posture that silently are your biggest admirers and friends. And it’s the ones that seem to support you, who you should fear most.
This whole debate is a minefield of offence, I think I’m your friend.
Who am I to say all these things?
These days the background of the messenger seems to be more important that the actual message. Good points get dismissed simply with “ok Boomer!“.
I am actually a boomer. A 59 year-old white straight male, who has lived his life totally influenced by strong and capable women. My mother’s family, the Tuscan immigrants, built an empire of fish and chip shops, all from the drive and ambition of the matriarchy. Even before war internment physically took all the men away for 6 years. They were brighter, shrewder, colder in business. Similarly, my wife has excelled in all she has done, work and domestic; at Philip Morris Inc, setting up Albachiara and various start-ups, including the restaurant business now. To complete the picture, I have a boy 21, and a girl 19, that God has blessed with skills, intelligence, EQ, and looks. Watching these kids grow, you can see a mile away that the female is a superior machine. It’s not even fair to compare boy and girl teens, as it’s embarrassing how far the girl is ahead. We catch up a bit , sure, but we remain a far less complex tech stack.
John Lennon described the song Woman, one of his last, as follows:
One afternoon it hit me what women do for us, what I was taking for granted.
Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the start of the song.
The song opens:”Woman, I can hardly express, my mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, after all, I’m forever in your debt.”
Every single contented and successful man I’ve known has always had a quality woman beside him.
That’s not a coincidence. Lennon is very right. The other half of the sky.
This lyric should be on the front page of the FIFA website today, as a direct apology to women’s football for what Infantino has done.
It is this week’s Sunday Column.
I am a guy with a hard negative opinion on equal pay, who maybe comes across as the last person likely to say this, but:
I’m very sorry for the arrogance and ignorance of all of my male pale and stale colleagues.
There are way too many guys in sport, like Gibson’s character, pontificating on, and worse, dictating, the future of women in sport. That’s just wrong.
I ran into Alex Willis of the English Premier League for the first time this week, and unusually for me, just found myself mostly listening. I was very impressed. The talent exists.
So it is ridiculous that the male-dominated sports sector, in primis Gianni Infantino, thinks that it knows best for women.
Valentina, my daughter, is central to me trying to work out this new world, and write this piece. In recent years, she has informed almost all my views on modern content, pop culture, influencer strategy, and gives me fresher perspective on everything we boomers refer to as “wokedom”. She is however no zealot warrior on a mission, and understands her parents’ generation. Celebrity boxing caught her attention. Women’s football, with her, hasn’t even touched the sides.
Whatever the reason for that is, I’d suggest it is worth gold for our industry to understand why.
I don’t know the answer, and, in general, it’s always useless for men to try and work out what goes on inside a women’s head.
And isn’t that exactly the point?
How dare Infantino think he knows what’s best for them.
The most our male industry can do for women’s sport is maybe ask them to reflect on some of the questions they will need to work out themselves.
Often the best advisers add most value to a client not from what they tell them, but rather from what they ask them.
Here are the ones on which I would humbly ask women’s sport to reflect:
Would you agree that women’s sport, and particularly football, is the biggest investment opportunity in sport? Capturing a virgin customer base that represents as close to a blank canvas that you will ever see?
That in the SWOT analysis of our industry, the biggest Opportunity (O) of all is in capturing the 50% of humanity that we “blokes” have scoffed at and ignored?
Would you say that some sports, that look a bit tired and ageing, would benefit enormously from the transfusion of female blood and new mixed formats? Golf? Wouldn’t that be almost like manna from heaven for their CEOs?
Of course, yes to all. That’s just a consultant’s technique to break the ice and find “connection” to move on.
Do you really want to make equal pay your raison d’être?
Isn’t this in reality the biggest risk to the growth of women’s sport?
Is it maybe like a founder with a wonderful AI widget asking to be paid the same as the CEO of Google?
Wouldn’t such a salary demand ironically sink the company, before it could fulfil its potential?
Perhaps equal pay is more a cultural battle; with little to do with serious business sustainability?
Why would women’s football make the mistake of letting a middle-aged man, of all things, hurt you, by publicly strong-arming your crucial broadcast partners, trying to shame them to pay more for a product than it is obviously worth today?
Could one argue that this virtue-signalling has actively and materially affected the oxygen exposure the game needs, denying the women’s World Cup crucial marketing and build up, with sponsors not able to commit in time?
Why are you accepting to let men make all these calls in the first place? In Gianni’s case, do you feel that he is particularly sensitive to women’s needs, understands better the female psyche, has a track record of successfully marketing to women? Maybe you feel that, if not Gianni, FIFA – as an organisation- has all these good things? That they no longer think that the best way to progress your game is for female athletes to wear shorter shorts?
At national level, in England, why is women’s football, at very least, not run by the EPL? They have a 30 year track record of marketing a global product, and also now have Ms Willis.
These are all leading questions, I know. Stylistically in real life, a good advisor would deliver them differently. But this one I wouldn’t sugar-coat, because for me it is absolutely scandalous:
Would it be fair to suggest that all those wonderful young female athletes, sacrificing their childhood to become excellent, are being betrayed, in allowing mediocre men to identify as women and rob them of their glory?
Isn’t that the ultimate male misogyny?
This exchange is must-watch, as it asks the fundamental question, about woman and sport.
Then you’d ask the big question; the one all of this dance has been leading up to:
Why don’t you girls do it all yourself?
Why bother at all with the prejudices and bad governance of the men’s game, where you will always be for them a lesser product line?
“Where’s the bloke, luv?”.
There’s no more any debate on capability. Women are leading governments and companies everywhere now.
But this is football and sport with all its limitations in full view. It’s a monopoly with the dictatorial governance of a banana republic. So no-one can blame women for falling in behind the status quo.
But even so they should try; maybe getting some Saudi backers? Because history shows very clearly that the quickest way for women to gain the true standing they deserve is to make themselves as financially independent of men as soon as possible.
Not enough people in this debate tell you the truth, but the vast bulk of male fans really think like this:
The traditional men’s game, will never respect you if you always want a hand-out to get by, paying yourself equal wages on their $.
Men feel our game has been around 150 years. And it has defined all of our boyhoods. It’s very very special to us, flaws and all. You instead arrived yesterday, and you should show more respect. No one likes the new noisy neighbour telling them how they should change, to be modern. Would a young new brand manager waltz into a meeting, telling the CEO of a 150 year legacy brand what to do? If they did, they’d be picking up their boxes at the end of the day. To be honest, did the male game even ask your opinion in the first place? The male fan finds it laughable that you keep defining yourselves by comparison to our football, and worse still, trying to change the traditional game in your image?
I attach the Wrexham video. I shouldn’t, but this is the key point. It’s two different products.
Men don’t like badgering like this by women at the best of times, being told that something they love should change. Sure there’s a bit of promo trash talk in there, but 12 fucking nil. The player standing beside her thinks like I’ve explained above. He’s politely laughing.
So I’d ask you to reflect if being aggressive on your “demands”, like on equal pay, is a smart strategy.
Even practically it seems wrong. Gianni had to hold out for big broadcast revenues to pay for your equal pay; and he’s screwed your marketing. Facts.
You women are the superior machine. So why do you care what men think? Why do you seek their approval and respect? As far as I see it,
they are a lost cause for you. You will never win over the male legacy fan, no matter how you try. So why try?
Ask yourself if trying to morph soccer into a gender-neutral homogenous product, like the Borg, will work for anyone, especially women?
Instead? Maybe humility, independence and differentiation is the better play?
Embrace the clear blue water of “not your boyfriend’s game“, pointing out how you reject all the bad elements, like laddish violence and racism, horrendous fickle fandom.
Women’s football… by women, for women, paying for itself!
Like I say, I come in peace. To be constructive, you need to make some suggestions, and I have an idea of what that vision looks like for women’s football. It’s forming like this:
Structure women’s football like any other promising startup with a huge total addressable market (TAM). It should be independent of the men’s game and its horrendous governance. Its investor base should be fresh and obviously committed believers in the vision, like Mike Moritz at PTO, or Larry Ellison at Sail GP.
The role of the men’s game, FIFA, the FA, I’d suggest, is as a passive cornerstone seed investor; in women’s football Newco. That is how to help grow the women’s game. Give them cash, and let them get on with it. Get out their way. If it fails, it wasn’t to be. It didn’t have good enough product-market fit.
But wouldn’t it be magnificent if it worked? All of us, old misogynist codgers, will be forced to say: look at them! They did what we couldn’t do.
We pissed all our money away. But the girls are running a sustainable ship, with return for investors, and growing a sport.
That’s my hope.
In building out the pitch deck for this vision, is the hardest slide the strategic marketing one?
Does this Plan need to attract a male audience or is the female market big enough?
Should it even bother to waste precious marketing budget on convincing men? Does that view change with Gen Z and below?
Fuzziness in any of these answers will not work.
Laser sharp go-to-market. If I was a potential investor, Id like to see that with maximum terrestrial broadcast exposure possible. Even for little money. The revenue model should therefore be around sponsorship and match-day. At least for now. Sponsors should be all over this, for all the great values it represents. It should also develop its own DTC media platform as well, for deeper engagement, first party data collection, and a community business ARPU plan.
Will the Plan stay within an acceptable cost base, around players?
Or is this culture-war aspiration of equal pay going to be a thing?
Clearly, if it is, that’s an immediate no for any serious person or investor. Striving for equal pay stunts exposure, as Gianni now knows, and is a horrendous boomerang. It’s like a sport putting its product, in an accelerated growth phase, behind a paywall.
Then, who is running all this?
I don’t think it can be a man because I don’t think a man, certainly of my generation, can market to women in 2023.
The CEO should be someone close to the demographic of the audience. It’s one of the hardest challenges in modern business for anyone. Marketing to modern women.
What DO Women want in 2023?
I can only speak for myself and say: I don’t know. I’m very confused, I’ve no clue anymore.
My generation may have been wrong, but it was simple and honest: sex sold.
Film and pop stars male and female were chosen for their looks. Same in the ad industry. It seems to me now that there has never been so much aggression towards anyone that wants to define a woman merely in physical terms. Body-shaming is a cardinal sin. And fair enough. But the actual evidence doesn’t support that credo, and there is a very mixed message from women themselves.
How did Kim Kardashian “break the internet”?
Posing fully naked, like in a sleazy peep show.
What empowerment is that? Where is the dignity? And all I see around is women trying their hardest on social media to look as attractive as possible.
So physical attractiveness IS important? Or not? Mixed messages.
Music videos, from top artists like Dua Lipa and Ariana Grande seem like soft porn. These are all undoubtedly selling sex. Even Billie Eilish, who started as an introvert grungy tomboy, is now getting them out at will on Instagram. As far as I can understand, in defending all this, they say something around being in charge of their sexuality, as they see fit.
I am very confused.
I asked Valentina:
Nowadays it’s much less common for women pop stars to be confined to sexy music videos and superficial hits. Sure, it’s an element, a big one, but the public is wanting and expecting much more. Pop stars are more transversal. There’s no one-size fits all anymore. Dua Lipa has a book club lol, which I actually closely follow as it pushes forward a great variety of (mostly female) fresh voices. She has a fashion collaboration with Versace. Billie Eilish goes without saying, she’s gone against the grain since the start of her career (musically/aesthetically) // has made significant moves in the sneaker/activewear space + now heading into acting etc., etc.. Ariana Grande, now a major player in the beauty/fragrance industries, producing/writing even for other artists, acting in both Broadway and Hollywood productions. Obviously these are all also money-led decisions like duh + music is still very much on the forefront of their careers. But you know what I mean.
It’s complex indeed.
But it’s not just me confused. The fashion industry doesn’t know which way to turn.
Let’s also bring it right back to sport.
The NIL court judgement that allows college athletes to make some money with their image rights is telling. What is working best? A couple of mediocre female athletes, selling sex, old-style.
Women’s football has a huge future. But, at the end of the day, its business is in a female audience, and it needs to market hard to women. That’s a tough shift for anyone to understand right now.
So middle-aged men need not apply for that job and should get out the way.
Coz, like Gianni, we will fuck it up.
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