In the last few months, several articles have made their way into the press focusing on the kit situation in women’s football. Although, on the face of it, kit might sound less important compared to some of the broader development topics in women’s sport, we argue that it can be an important driver of both participation and commercial development. In the below article, we provide background on the kit market in women’s football, and share how we see our work at Soccerella supporting its development, both in the public eye as well as behind the scenes. (You might want to grab a cup of tea first..)
Two sporting giants, one clear leader in women’s football globally
As the Soccerella journey began leading into the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was already interesting to see the relative strategies of Nike and Adidas, the global footballing powerhouses, with regards to the women’s game. Led by its sponsorship of the US Women’s National Team, Nike threw itself headfirst into the women’s game in North America - producing the first-ever dedicated women’s international jersey for the USWNT, and supporting this with an accompanying women’s boots pack, not to mention producing some inspiring and engaging marketing content, including this incredible commercial for the USWNT.
Sadly, this same energy was not reflected in the UK market, with leading England internationals lamenting Nike’s failure to commercially capitalise on the Lionesses success at the World Cup, even on their return. On the other hand, and in spite of being the lead sponsor to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Adidas’ marketing failed to deliver the same impact, with no dedicated advertising campaign during the tournament, even in North America. And so the trend between the two has continued elsewhere.
In the professional women’s game, Nike also proves the global leader. In the US, they are the exclusive technical supplier to the NWSL, where they outfit all 10 teams in dedicated women’s-fit kit - and have just extended this commitment for the next four seasons. For their part, Adidas holds the corresponding contract with the men’s MLS league.
Back in the UK, Nike-outfitted England WNT and the WSL’s Man City WFC lead the way in supplying women’s-fit gear for their players, although Nike clubs further down the pyramid, such as WPL South champions Brighton & Hove Albion, don’t currently benefit from the same support.
By comparison, Adidas continue to supply their two WSL clubs, double-winning Chelsea Ladies and Sunderland Ladies, as well as the Welsh and Scottish WNTs, with unisex kit (otherwise referred to as men’s, or even boy’s, kit). Adidas’ claim that their kit is “intended for male and females” is appearing to be misguided, with Welsh international Helen Ward expressing her disappointment and several players making adjustments to the unisex kit on the playing field, such as rolling up the shorts at the waistband, or rolling up the sleeves.
Lastly, their respective teamwear catalogues, which serve the grassroots market, only accentuate the issue. While Nike’s teamwear 2016/17 catalogue includes a selection of women’s-fit items (with plans to expand aggressively in 2017-18), Adidas’ 2016 teamwear catalogue fails to offer a single women’s-fit item (although the company intends to bring out selected items later in the year).
On the women’s side, and despite starting to launch dedicated women’s boots, this leaves Adidas lagging behind other footballing brands including Umbro (who provide Everton Ladies and West Ham Ladies with women’s-fit kit), as well as Hummel, Errea, Stanno, Uhlsport and Joma, who have all created dedicated female teamwear products for the women’s game.
A footballing fashion faux-pas
If the above makes Nike out to be the darling of the women’s game, this was largely the case until a very recent slip. At the start of April, Nike released its 2016 international collection, including the latest England and USA shirts (featuring female players prominently across both launches). And while the match kit for both was another excellent women’s-fit shape, Nike then slipped up by releasing the women’s replicas with dipping necklines - equally in the US as in the UK. This mirrors the ‘fashion’ strategy also adopted by Adidas in their previous season’s collection, where both the Man United and Chelsea replicas came under fire.
Justifiably, this strange decision caused uproar on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA, where females represent 48% of youth soccer participation, Nike backtracked and released statements that ‘authentic’ replicas would be released later in the summer. (In England, it doesn’t appear that we’ll be so lucky - on request, it was suggested a minimum order of 200,000 shirts would be required to put these into production.)
We believe that the whole episode devalues female participation globally, firstly by not providing fans with a true replica of their favourite on-field female role models, and secondly by sending a message that females are less likely to actually play the game and thus don’t need a functional replica. This must not be seen again and it begs the question about when ALL brands will stand up and realise that these shirts are not ok, replica or otherwise?
It’s not about the right look, or wrong look, it’s about choice
Of course, the problems with kit are both cultural and commercial. In the UK, given the lower relative participation levels in the women’s game and the commercial clout of the men’s game, the women’s game has been largely overlooked in terms of its kit needs. The majority of women’s clubs have been built out of existing men’s organisations, leading them to adopt the club’s identity and consequently their unisex playing kit (and often sponsors too). Man City, Arsenal, Reading and Everton, who play in women’s kit, are amongst the exceptions here.
Equally, historical preferences of the majority of female players appear to have been to wear men’s kit, and there are still many players at all levels of the game, from the pros down, that still prefer the comfort and flexibility of the unisex fit. However, our experience in the last year suggests that this trend is shifting, across all levels of the game.
Players want to feel comfortable in their kit - a kit made especially for them, and one that allows them to look like (their) role models. For a typical team, we’ve found that the majority today typically prefer women’s-fit kit (although we can also provide examples where this is not the case). Lois Fidler, Manager of the FA Women’s National Player Development Centre, also believes things are changing: “it's important to women to look and feel good, hence their domination of retail & fashion trends. Acceptance is no longer seen as fitting the male stereotype, but instead embracing gender differences and inspiring women with the power of choice.”
Do these changing trends mean that everyone should be made to wear women’s-fit kit? Nope. Or unisex-fit kit? Again, no. It’s about choice, and in most cases teams can still share the same appearance regardless of which fit a player chooses. With the women’s-fit kit that we provided to Cardiff Met LFC, we combined women’s-fit (x12) and unisex (x3) models to give everyone the kit they were comfortable in. The overwhelming feeling that we have, however, is that the players are not being empowered to make that choice.
Players can make a difference
To solve the problem, the game must therefore unite, across all levels, to overcome both the cultural and commercial problems.
The cultural issue, of people perceiving that females aren’t interested in the kit (or, worse, ignoring the issue) can be solved in a number of ways. Comments in the media, such as those by Jacqui Oatley and Helen Ward, are particularly powerful at bringing light to the situation publically, and ensuring certain incidents get addressed quickly. But, in many cases, on the cultural front, the existing players themselves can already make the desired changes, if they speak up within their clubs.
For example, we have been working behind the scenes with one particular WSL team to ensure that their forthcoming kit (which coincides with the men’s team) is delivered to them in a women’s-fit. All that was necessary was to empower the girls to decide between themselves what they wanted, and we then helped them to raise this with the club’s Commercial Director. It turns out that there was absolutely no difficulties to get the women’s-fit kit organised, but that the rest of the club (except for the players themselves) had believed that the team wanted unisex kit. So, by players raising the issue, in many cases this can be easily solved.
But the game must use its financial firepower to drive the change
The commercial problem is more difficult. The game must prove to the brands ‘with their wallets’ that they are interested in the women’s products, so that brands can be confident about earning a return on their investment on any new female products. At Soccerella, we are trying to manage this impasse by pooling together all of the available women’s-fit products in one place, therefore providing enough choice to allow clubs to vote ‘with their wallets’ and supporting those brands already investing in the products - being Nike, Hummel, Errea, Stanno, Uhlsport and Joma.
Once female teams across the UK and Europe stand up and adopt the women’s-fit style, then we will quickly find brands expanding the number of product lines available in women’s sizes. They might even design some new female-targeted products! Through all our interactions with teams, we are tracking their preferences and maintain continual dialogue with the brands, both those that supply women’s products today, as well as those that might consider supplying these products in the future.
On the other hand, should women’s clubs continue to (blindly) invest in unisex kit, we consider that to be money spent on the men’s game, and lost from the female game. Imagine that this money will go to funding another Cristiano Ronaldo advertisement (rather than a corresponding women’s campaign). The female game must therefore learn to spend in ways that will be recycled back into the female game - back to players, coaches, publications, organisations. For every £ spent by women’s football players, clubs and fans, we should try and maximise the amount that is retained in the women’s game. And, in terms of sponsorship, we should be working hard to increase the flow of sponsorship into the women’s game, at all levels, building the sustainability of the women’s game as a standalone entity, and beginning to reduce the financial dependence on the men’s game.
Kit that fits.. a purpose
In today’s game, we see some great examples of women’s-fit kit transforming the visual identity of female players, reinforcing their position as role models for the next generation. But we also see plenty of examples where this is not the case. As we work to provide the choice for players across the country, we also believe that kit can serve a purpose far greater than just function - but also become a commercial tool with which to further develop the game. We’re proud to play our part in this movement and, together, we hope that we can make the brands reflect the true potential of our great and growing game.
Soccerella is the first retailer dedicated to women’s football, with the UK’s widest selection of women’s-fit match and training kit. If you would like to learn more about our vision, our work to date, or what we can offer your club, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also explore the women's-fit options for your club at http://soccerel.la/shefitkit or join the journey on Twitter at @wearesoccerella.
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- Tags: Adidas, Kit, Nike, NWSL, She-fit kit, Soccerella, Women's Football, Women's-fit kit, WSL