The WSL was established in 2011 as a summer league, with a clear ´manifesto´ of sorts to grow the women´s game in the UK. Steady improvement in the performances of the national team, allied with the increased investment of Manchester City Women, Chelsea and Arsenal Ladies has accelerated the women´s game towards professionalism at the very top level.
Women´s football has reached a crossroads in the UK, with the WSL, formerly a spring and summer league, now looking to capitalise on increased coverage and attendances by reverting to a winter timetable. Tim Stillman spoke to Arsenal Ladies´ Marketing Officer Gemma Avery about the challenges of promoting the women´s game.
“My background is in men´s football marketing with the community arm of Burnley Football Club,” Gemma tells me following the Ladies´ victory over Birmingham in May, “It´s my job to run everything online, offline and on the matchday experience side of things at Arsenal Ladies. Online is obviously our biggest marketing tool using the Arsenal brand. We are about to hit 5 million followers on Facebook, which is the most of any club in women´s football throughout the world.”
Gemma explains that the Ladies look to harness the power of the Arsenal brand, but also try to strike a balance that gives the women´s team its own identity, “We don´t want Arsenal Ladies´ marketing to be a carbon copy of the men´s team. One of the things that is really important to us is to transmit the girls´ personalities. One of the key selling points of women´s football is that the players are close to the fans.”
Maintaining that intimacy with the players and selling it to a growing market is another one of the balances Gemma has to strike in her role, “Before we were probably focused on a core of about 100-200 fans. Now we get over a thousand at the games, so we´ve got to be thinking how we start getting 2,000 in. We have to think about what we can do to target supporters´ of the men´s team and how we get them to games.”
Online match ticket sales is a key to this strategy, “Tickets are available on the gate for women´s games. But that means people come through the turnstiles and I don´t know who they are or whether they might come back,” Gemma explains, “Through increased online sales, we can get a little more information and open lines of communication with them.
“We´ve now started to increase the percentage of people that are buying online so we can establish a relationship with them.” It´s a relationship that is beginning to bear fruit, “For the Kelly Smith celebration game, we only sold tickets online. For the next home game against Tottenham, well over half of our ticket sales were online. So we are continuing to target this as an area of growth.”
Clearly social media also forms a large part of Gemma´s remit and she is enthused about developments in this area for Arsenal Ladies, “You´ve probably seen the individual player gifs we´ve developed for this season on the twitter account. Again, we are trying to build up the idea that there are some amazing characters in the game and in our squad and really bring that to life. Some of the players really want to build their own brands as well and we use our social media to help them do that, because it benefits us all.”
⚽ Our Spring Series campaign in numbers…
2️⃣2️⃣ goals scored
⛔ UNDEFEATED ⛔ pic.twitter.com/EnNVu88mBT
— Arsenal Ladies (@ArsenalLadies) June 3, 2017
Arsenal certainly have some very recognisable players in the squad. Heather O´Reilly is a very famous sportswoman stateside and captain Alex Scott juggles her playing responsibilities with a burgeoning media career. “The players always let us know if they are doing something so we can help promote it too. It´s so important for us to build them into what we are doing.”
Gemma says that the players are very forthcoming about collaborating with the club, even when it comes to personal media duties, “Alex always says to me that everything she does represents Arsenal. She is very conscious of that, she is now an ambassador for the Arsenal Foundation too, which we are really proud of. But it´s so much easier in women´s football because all of the girls are so passionate about growing the game.”
BT Sport and BBC currently share rights to broadcast WSL games, but coverage remains a tricky area for women´s football. Broadcast matches tend to take place in the evening, which is not conducive to the families that tend to attend matches. When I spoke to Heather O´Reilly in March, she outlined her enthusiasm for games to be made available to viewers Stateside too.
“The great thing about the Spring Series is that the broadcasting rights were relaxed,” Avery says, “BBC were showing games online without geo-blocking, BT Sport were really supportive too. In women´s football, it isn´t as money driven, everyone is enthusiastic about growing the audience.”
Manchester City Women have taken to live streaming some of their games on Facebook, an area Gemma says that Arsenal are looking into, “We are definitely looking at live streaming. We didn´t do it in the Spring Series because lots of our games were shown live by BBC and BT. Also, we want to make sure we do it properly.
“We don´t just want a single camera with no commentary and a stream that cuts out all the time. We want it to look like Arsenal, we want it to be high quality. We just didn´t have enough notice for the Spring Series to turn it around and the budget was a little smaller. But it´s something we definitely want to do next season, especially with the 30th anniversary of Arsenal Ladies coming up.”
Gemma makes reference to the team´s 30th anniversary, she confirms that the club have multiple plans to mark this landmark campaign in 2017-18, “We´re going to have a reflective look on everything that has been achieved in the last thirty years, but the real emphasis will be on how we use our history going forward.
“We´ll involve players in the current youth team, but also huge characters like Faye White and Vic Akers. We are going to have quite a community focus too with a lot of activities focused on the number 30. We will work with our sister clubs a lot, because they are the future. And there will be some big parties of course!” she smiles.
Manchester City Women´s strategy is viewed as a leader in the field of women´s football. They often tie the women´s team with commercial activity conducted by the men´s team. For instance, when FourFourTwo magazine conducted a feature on City last November, it included an interview with women´s captain Steph Houghton. The unveiling of Pep Guardiola was attended by senior members of the girls team, while they are also routinely involved in kit launches.
But Gemma suggests that Arsenal have a slightly different strategy, based on the independence of Arsenal Ladies and their decorated history, “In terms of the core mentality of the club, it´s a one club mentality. The support I get from behind the scenes is from the same people that work with the men´s team.
“If there is an opportunity to do something with the men, we take it. But we understand that we are different and we don´t want to replicate everything they are doing. We have a different audience and a great history of our own. The little girls coming to the games are the most important target audience for us,” Gemma continues.
“Everyone is important, but we are very family focused, so we need to make sure our tone is a little different. Our brand on social media looks slightly different because that is who we are really focusing on and trying to attract. The F.A´s main target audience is girls that play football, so we want to build on that and create role models for them. We want fans of the men´s team too, but families are where we have the biggest opportunity.”
A massive thank you to Gemma Avery for her time, you can follow her on Twitter @MissGAvery.