With the recent tournament successes of England’s Lionesses and the Red Roses on the international stage, as well as the jubilant images of England’s Gold medal winning netball team at the Commonwealth Games public interest in women’s sports is skyrocketing.
This dramatic upsurge in interest has been boosted by campaigns by the likes of Women in Sport, UEFA and The FA. The interest has given the long overdue impetus to Manchester United who have announced their intention to relaunch their own women’s team. For many years, they have been the notable exception in top flight UK football in not offering a women’s team.
However, can a new team, even backed by this brand, launch with the standout they are seeking? Many other women’s teams in the UK have become well established over time, from Arsenal Women to Chelsea LFC, through to their big local rivals, Manchester City’s women’s team.
These clubs have had years to build their fan bases with loyal supporters, and have also been spurred on by the recent successes of the national team in the women’s Euros and World Cup, for which they have provided many of the players.
This popularity also means these teams have had the time to develop and hone their assets and channel strategies to encourage additional supporter interest and keep their fans updated. The Red Devils may be well placed as a global parent brand to capitalise on its supporter fan base for its women’s team, but how can it start from – effectively – a standing start to best engage grassroots support and keep its nascent potential fan base engaged?
Of course, the natural place to start, especially for a brand with the international standing of this team, will be online. This is an increasingly vital channel for fans to keep tabs on their team’s latest news, player updates, scores and fixtures, and it will be imperative for a team of this calibre to get it right.
When it comes to the online experience for women’s football versus the ‘parent’ men’s teams, the key is to make the digital experience a united one centred around the club, rather than setting the women’s team up as secondary to the men’s.
A good example of this is Arsenal Women – the women’s team page sits as a subset of the parent ‘Arsenal’ brand, right next to ‘First Team’ and ‘Academy’; unified under the Arsenal brand banner, rather than bolted on as a separate entity page or microsite. This way, clubs can help to encourage cross-participation from one team to another, drawing on that broad and well embedded team passion within their supporter base.
In contrast, Manchester City Women has its own independent website, and when directly comparing the men’s first team’s content to the women, who finished second in the FA WSL this season, the digital experience for fans is markedly different.
Manchester United have gone on the record stating that they only want the best quality to launch the women’s team in terms of talent and management, and this needs to be reflected in their digital strategies. The club’s global fan base have come to expect a certain fanfare and tone from the brand, and against the upsurge of interest in women’s sports, expectation levels will be high.
In developing a digital approach for the women’s team, the club will need to carefully balance those demanding fan expectations around content provision, video and streaming access to games, as well as innovative in-match experiences and all-important post-game community engagement. All of these have become part and parcel of the modern sports fan experience when engaging with their chosen teams, and are also critical in helping supporter communities to grow and thrive.
While they are not starting from a completely blank slate – there was a former women’s team which was dissolved in 2005 – the landscape has changed immeasurably over that time in terms of supporter expectations, channel options and digital integration which needs to be considered.
For a global brand like this, a primary concern will be to ensure the team’s digital presence is fit for purpose on the international stage, where it can emulate the phenomenal and valuable global success of the established brand, and build on its supporter base with far-flung fans all around the world. There are also brand new technologies to bear in mind, such as the Amazon Alexa and Echo Skills for streaming live match access.
To set the new squad up for the best possible digital presence, the club will need to start with a detailed analysis of their own fan base needs and content consumption habits, while also looking to rival club’s strategies to find their own niche and set a standard for the team’s presence from the very start. If ambition for the team to compete at the highest level in the Women’s Super League reflects reality, it is likely that the team will rapidly gain a following in a city as football-mad as Manchester.
Any new site will need to cope with this demand, and has the advantage of being built for modern fan consumption and content needs from the ground up. Integration of ticketing and merchandise should be baked-in – an area where even Premier League clubs can struggle due to existing legacy systems and the need to bring together multiple different, separate sites.
This is all taking place against a backdrop of increased top-down focus on grassroots sport, and football specifically, to encourage wider participation and engagement, spearheaded by the FA.
This broader focus on encouraging sports engagement and support creates multiple voices looking to build online fan relationships, and makes having the right digital strategy even more critical when it comes to boosting awareness for the new team. However, it also means that the new women’s team is launching into a market not only open to women’s football, but eagerly seeking it out.
Words by Tom Dougherty, UX director, Delete