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Brand Storytelling & Depiction of Women Athletes

At GMR, we have a robust DEI learning curriculum for all employees, who we call StoryMakers. It’s woven into every aspect of our work and culture. In our monthly ‘DEI Talks’, we focus on the intersection of DEI and current events, and we recently used one of these Talks to highlight the historical (and current) challenge of athlete representation in media. While male athletes are portrayed first and foremost as competitors, representation of female athletes has historically trended towards lifestyle (ex: motherhood, family life) and beauty (ex: wellness, fashion).  


We reviewed several sources, including a Ted Talk and an NPR article, before diving into a discussion about the message it sends when we present women athletes as beautiful, feminine, and maternal first and athletic and talented second. We also addressed the implication that women viewers are responsible for the success of women’s sports, because men would never be interested in watching. Finally, we asked how we can help. As marketers working in sports, how can we use our platforms to influence the equitable portrayal of women athletes?


With this background in mind, let’s look at a sampling of the coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. With unprecedented interest from brands and fans, the question remains: has athlete representation in media/marketing grown the meet the moment?

Positive Brand Involvement

As we enter this conversation, I would love to spotlight two brands (and also GMR clients) who are actively working to combat gender inequity in sport. First, GMR client Google is focused on equitable visibility and access to women’s sports coverage. The brand recently announced a gender-focused tailoring function to provide more inclusive results for sports-related searches.


GMR client Visa also got in the game as an official sponsor of FIFA Women’s World Cup, which isn’t new for the brand. However, their equitable investment across both the men’s and women’s tournaments is noteworthy and shows the impact that brands can have when they exercise gender parity in their sponsorship spend. 

Positive Media Examples

I am also really excited to share some very positive examples that I’ve seen in the media. If you haven’t seen Megan Rapinoe’s Nike World Cup commercial, you’re missing out. It’s inclusive, it’s timely, and it’s just plain cool. Click here to give it a watch. Megan Rapinoe is a woman, an athlete, and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. The overarching theme of this ad: Rapinoe is a superhero. She’s not the “American hero” despite being a woman, but because of it.


Orange, a French telecommunications company, provides us with another great example. At first glance, it is a commercial celebrating the male athleticism and excellence of Les Bleues, a French football team. Then, about halfway through, there’s a twist. I’ll give you a moment to watch it here. That’s right, what you were actually watching was the athleticism and excellence of Les Bleues’ women’s team. Orange superimposed Les Bleues’ male players’ faces on to women players. Every single play was made by women.


Fans have kept up with the FIFA Women’s World Cup on social media as well—and we’re seeing celebration of the sport and athletes in interesting ways. Content creators, exemplified by influencers like TikTok’s Jackie J, are weaving captivating narratives that spotlight the tournament’s drama, historical significance, and the celebration of women in this year’s matches. 

There’s always more work to be done.

While I feel that it’s important to acknowledge progress and jobs well done in this space, there continues to be misrepresentation and inequity in sport. Despite advances for the US Women’s National Soccer Team, equal pay for men and women in sports, and in all other professional fields, has yet to be fully addressed. In fact, the United Nations has stepped in, urging FIFA to ensure that both men and women receive equal World Cup prize money. More on that here. We’ve come a long way, but there are still strides to be made. 


As individuals, we can vote, we can write a check, we can volunteer. That being said, I believe that my biggest ability to create change is through marketing. As brand marketers or agency advisors, we can influence how marketing dollars can be used to rectify the inequitable coverage, visibility, and accessibility to women’s sports. There’s still space here for brands to step in with powerful partnerships to change the narrative. Has your brand grown to meet the moment? If not, let us help you get in the game.