The Future of Women's Football Is Wide Open for New Brand Partnerships
Football is a brutal, punishing sport that exacts a toll from those who play it. Putting on the helmet, pads and jersey before slogging through tryouts, practices and weekly games is a bit easier when your reward is something more than victory or love of the game.
Odessa Jenkins didn’t start the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) just so women would have a place to play tackle football. She built the league as a step toward recognition, compensation and, ultimately, equity. With its third season kicking off April 1, the WNFC has brands including Bose, Riddell and Adidas buying into its mission, with Adidas donating all of the league’s uniforms. While brand sponsorships still aren’t enough to pay players or create big league profits, they represent crucial steps toward that goal.
“I wish it were more,” Jenkins said. “Some of these brands that are coming out are saying that they’re standing for women and girls, particularly for the diverse female athlete. For what they want to do for BIPOC women in sports, and girls in sports, it’s like we are a no-brainer when it comes to supporting and being a part of that kind of community.”
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the number of women under 17 playing tackle football increased from 172,000 to 215,000 between 2015 through 2020. Where just 23% of all women playing football were under 17 in 2015, that percentage jumped to 49% five years later. Meanwhile, more than one in every four women playing tackle football is ages 25 to 34. That describes not only the players on Jenkins’ Texas Elite team, which she owns and has coached to two WNFC titles, but also her coworkers at analytics company Emtrain, where she serves as president.
“We can tell a sports story that almost can’t be told anywhere else,” Jenkins said. ”I can tell the story of a mom going from being hurt during a 48-hour firefighter shift to cooking dinner for her kids to them being the top wide receiver in the league. We have the most amazing stories that go beyond sports—they’re human stories.”
More brands may come off the sidelines and join women’s football yet, if what’s happening in other leagues is any indication. Nike joined WNBA owners and investors including Condoleezza Rice in raising $75 million in capital for the women’s basketball league as both players (and some owners) pushed for growth amid rising viewership. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced a $100 million capital raise and a new collective bargaining agreement on the same day and added both Delta Air Lines and cryptocurrency brokerage Voyager to a stable of sponsors that include Nike, which recently extended its deal with the league. Even the Premier Hockey Federation raised $25 million to pay the women on its rosters.
However, before the influx of investment and recent enhancement of name, image and likeness rights—which has increased both recognition and income for women in collegiate—the WNFC had a story to tell and a game to sell.
As chief executive of the WNFC, Jenkins is attempting to bring that world right to her players’ doorsteps. She has all of the league’s games streamed on the VYRE Network. She has brought brands including Adidas, Riddell and So Hoodie out to the WNFC’s XI Cup, the league championship game played at the Dallas Cowboys’ Star practice facility in Frisco, Texas, which was named for the 1972 Title 11 law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal government funding.
She invited former NFL players including Marshawn Lynch, Charles Haley and Patrick Willis to watch the game and interact with players and coaches during the 2021 XI Cup in Denton, Texas, because “it means a lot for us women as football players that our heroes and our idols support us.” She’s created opportunities for both her current players and an expanding base of girls’ and women’s football players invited to flag football and all-pro tackle football events to be seen by fans in NFL facilities and by the Adidas and Riddell representatives in the XI Cup stands. With football participation among girls and college-age women growing, the WNFC is selling brands both the league and its connection to the next generation of players.
“What the XI Cup did is really show brands that we could attract the varsity [student] athlete,” said Jenkins, referring to 12- to 17-year-old athletes who’ll go on to make 80% of all apparel purchasing decisions in the U.S. “She buys differently, she consumes content differently, … and we showed Adidas and our other brands that we were attractive to not just the varsity athlete but to her mom, her dad, her peers, her brother and her sister.”
‘The proof is in the action’
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls drop out of sports roughly twice as often as boys. The foundation pointed to social stigma, lack of access, decreased quality of experience and a lack of positive role models as the pillars of that disparity. Adidas used those stats in 2018 when it signed on as a WNFC sponsor, providing uniforms and other equipment as part of its “She Breaks Barriers” campaign and the WNFC’s Got Her Back nonprofit initiative.
“The proof is in the action,” said Cameron Collins, senior director of football for Adidas. “We came out several years ago and said, as a brand, we want to assist in breaking down barriers, removing barriers to sport. This was one action that we feel incredible about: Partnering with the league to provide world-class products for world-class athletes to perform their best.”
The league’s first sponsor, helmet and pad manufacturer Riddell, saw similar opportunities in the WNFC’s player base. It began taking three-dimensional scans of players’ heads to create custom helmets tailored to their features. Riddell’s also used WNFC practices and games as a proving ground for its Diamond helmet-impact technology and custom padding.
Erin Griffin, vp of marketing and communications for Riddell, noted that adding more than 1,000 WNFC players to its scans will only improve the company’s offerings for women in the near future. In the long term, it will help the company understand not only women who play football but players who wear cochlear implants, hearing aids and even glasses.
“Admittedly, there’s still work to be done in terms of tailoring football equipment, whether it’s helmet technology or body protection for the female game,” Griffin said. “With more playing participants, that will mean greater access to equipment and tools that are tailored more specifically for women.”
For both companies, it also offers a path forward as they accommodate the growth of women’s flag football. From 2015 to 2020, the number of women participating in flag football increased more than 5%, from 1.2 million to 1.3 million. Since 2020, the NFL has partnered with 15 colleges and universities to offer athletic scholarships for women’s flag football programs, while offering grants to junior colleges to start varsity flag football programs of their own.
With the WNFC providing women in football a step up from the collegiate level, Collins said she thinks more brands will follow them through the ranks.
“I look at it as a snowball rolling down a mountain. It keeps picking up the more people keep talking about it,” he said. “The more brands that get involved, the more traction it gets, and the energy, conversation and awareness begins to exponentially grow.”
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