Has the marketing of women’s sport gone from Ladyball?

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Opinion: The way women’s sport is sold often reduces it to an inferior and less serious ‘pinkified’ activity than men’s sport

By Dr Niamh Kitching, Mary Immaculate College Limerick

Fans of women’s sport remember where they were when he first appeared on a Twitter feed, log or before the nine o’clock news. It was in January 2016 and lidl and the LGFA had conspired in the cross-platform publicity stunt of a manufactured pink ball product called “Ladyball”. The product was placed in shiny pink packaging and accompanied by slogans such as “fashion-focused for a woman’s style”, “eazi-play for a woman’s ability” and “don’t break a fingernail, break the boundaries”.

Ads appeared on national television, radio, in newspapers, online and on social media, with consumers being directed to various social media channels. In three days, Ladyball reached more than 8.5 million users on social media and the campaign was even discussed in Fortune magazine and the Washington Post.

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2016 ad featuring #Ladyball

As previously discussed on RTÉ Brainstorm, sport is constructed as a male domain in the media. When women appear, they are framed differently than men and in a way that judges them different. Similarly, the strategies used in the marketing and advertising of women’s sport have reduced it to a sport that is sexualized, infantilized, hyperfeminized, pursuit “dew”always less than and less serious than male sport.

For example, the focus on sexualized appearances as in the Ladyball model case diverts attention from women’s athletic performance and positions sport as “by” and “for” men. These gendered portrayals can restrict the public’s imagination of women’s sport and what women can achieve.

It is increasingly recognized that women’s sport offers sponsors flexibility and the ability to achieve their marketing goals more efficiently and effectively than their competitors. This is especially the case with business purposes such as promoting gender equality and corporate social responsibility. Similarly, female athletes are viewed by brands as potential role models and diversity and inclusion champions. In this way, women’s sport is a much more attractive proposition than it was before the days of Ladyball.

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In RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack explores whether the number of Irish women winning international honors in sport will change the way we view and fund women’s sport

Public relations and advertising campaigns often limit the portrayal of women athletes or women’s sport in a gendered way. For example, surf companies prosper over sexualized images of professional women with no regard for their performance or surfing prowess. A study of Nike advertising over a ten-year period found that Nike advertisements treat sports as a male-dominated domain.

Representations of Naomi Osakaone of the most marketable athletes in the world, by his sponsors Nissin Foods indicated at the same time Gendered and racialized ideologies which she herself disputes. As performances went on, the 2020 launch of the Irish Rugby Shirt had Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Conor Murray promoting the men’s jersey, while the women’s jersey was worn by models, not players. These examples serve to reproduce traditional stereotypes around sport for women and girls.

As research develops around female fan types, gendered marketing practices such as “pinkification” have become commonplace in the marketing of sport to women. While the pink versions of the team jerseys are presented as inclusive efforts, they are also seen as less authentic and simultaneously serve to infantilize and hyperfeminize female sports fans. Women’s football fans were appalled when the american soccer federation published clothes with love hearts and slogans such as “US Soccer cutie” in 2020.

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From RTÉ 2fm’s Game On in 2020, 20×20’s Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton discuss their campaign to change the perception of women’s sport

The marketing of women’s football to a heteronormative family target audience in English women’s football illustrates the tunnel vision marketing practices employed in women’s sports. Sports organizations must ensure that they recognize the diversity of female supporters and, in doing so, offer a wider range of products that demonstrate the authenticity of their fans.

In terms of reactions to sponsor/media portrayals of women athletes, sports fans seem to assess images related to the sports performance of female athletes in a more positive way than those sexualized. While female athletes themselves prefer to be presented as competent in sponsorship campaigns, there is also evidence of old stereotypes embedded in their worldviews. Athletes in one study pointed to “soft pornography” as the best advocacy strategy for increasing interest in women in sports. Worryingly in this case, “sex sells” for some female athletes, especially for male audiences.

Three days after #Ladyball, both Lidl and LGFA possessed till the waterfall, which led to the second stage of the promotion, a high-profile campaign called #SeriousSupport. This phase was accompanied by an ambitious advertisement topped with the phrase “serious athletes deserve serious support”.

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From Lidl and LGFA, Level the Playing Field campaign from 2021

Subsequent campaigns were equally eye-catching, especially the “Leveling the Rules of the Game” TV commercial from 2021. These examples, as well as Sky’s recent #OutBelieve campaign for the Republic of Ireland women’s football team are more in line with the new “rules” for the representation of female athletes and indicate the distance traveled from Ladyball.

In summary, the framing of female athletes in advertisements can tell us a lot about the cultural landscape of the sport’s image, the media and/or the sponsor. The next time you come across a female athlete or female sports team in a media campaign, take a closer look.

A longer version of this article will appear later this year in Social Issues in Sport Communication: You Make the Call, edited by Terry L. Rentner and David P. Burns and published by Routledge.

Dr Niamh Kitching is a lecturer in physical education at Mary Immaculate College Limerick.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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