As Spain’s captain Olga Carmona strode through on goal in Sunday’s Fifa Women’s World Cup final (20 August), millions of people in the UK – many for the first time – would have felt the familiar dread of the football fan.
The sinking feeling as you realise there are no more defenders to protect you, the split-second pause as the ball leaves the foot, the inevitable bulging of the net, the clinging hope that the referee’s whistle might save you and then finally the acceptance that your team is indeed a goal down.
You may think that these emotions belong solely on the back pages of our newspapers but in truth, this raw human feeling is what will power the cold commercial side of women’s football. If we want to close the $330 million gap in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cups, this is where we start.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that what makes humans unique as a species is that we can take part in shared imagination. We can create fictitious, imaginary constructs that have meaning because we all believe in them. The ultimate example is money. The belief that little gold coins or pieces of paper have shared value has built the all-too-real cathedrals, skyscrapers and cities that surround us.
Like money, professional sport is an example of shared imagination. We might take pleasure from the spectacle and the skill of elite sport but this isn’t what brings fans back to the stadium week in, week out.
What sustains professional sport is shared belief – it matters to me because it matters to you. This is what drives sports fans to cry when their team is relegated or to experience wild euphoria when they beat a rival. Most importantly, it’s what motivates them to spend thousands of pounds a year on TV subscriptions, tickets, replica shirts and travel. This is the kindling that fuels the glitz and glamour of the men’s game.
Millions of fans would have woken up on Monday morning realising that they were believers in women’s football. They may not have even known it beforehand but the heartbreak now feels all too real. As real as the £185 million ($234 million) they injected into the UK economy in just two days.
The Lionesses are quickly becoming one of England’s favourite teams. They are dominating the front page of newspapers, not as symbols of gender equality, but because their results on the pitch have the power to affect the mood of the one in three people in this country who tuned in to watch them.
For those looking to close the commercial gap between men’s and women’s sport, this is the key. We can’t just focus on getting more people to see women’s sport, we need them to believe in it.
Marketers should have a leading role in doing this. After all, we are experts at building brands and what are brands if not further examples of shared imaginations?
To create these shared belief systems we tell epic stories, we leverage social proof, we build icons and we do it all with confidence. We need to do the same for women’s sports, not just the Lionesses in the Fifa Women's World Cup final, but the women’s sport that happens every weekend across the country. The women’s sport needs fans to invest in it emotionally and financially.
This tournament was another huge moment in the UK but there is still a long way to go. The key thing to remember is that seeing is not the same as believing. We need to create more believers and that job has to start with us.
Matt Readman is chief strategy officer at Dark Horses