News and Insight

International Women’s Day: Unpacking Visual Storytelling in Women’s Sport

The visual representation of women in sport has changed hugely in recent years, very much moving from aesthetics to athletics. But there is still work to do by brands, rights holders and media. 

Insights by Getty Images VisualGPS has shown how historic imagery of women through the lens of beauty has switched to become more about their power, skill, and determination. This shift in visual representation has helped to liberate women and girls from the stereotypical judgements that stopped participation in sport altogether. 

Take the Lionesses’ success in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 as an example. Since then nearly 70% of young girls who love playing sport now dream of reaching the top – up from 50% two years ago. 
The imagery you choose matters. Inclusive visuals make people feel seen and accepted. Further research from Getty Images VisualGPS found 8 in 10 people expect brands to be consistently committed to inclusion and diversity in their visual communications, yet only 14% agree that they’re well-represented in advertising, increasing to just 15% in business communications. 

When it comes to storytelling, brands must recognise the significance of putting inclusion at the forefront of their narrative by understanding the types of visual language that best connects with a particular audience at a specific time.

Unity in Diversity

A changing media landscape with new ways of distributing content has been a catalyst to the intense momentum around women’s sport. February’s visibility report by the Women’s Sport Trust showed a record year for broadcast audiences with the average viewer watching 8 hours 44 minutes of women’s sport in 2022, compared to 3 hours 47 minutes in 2021. 

Without a doubt, the Lionesses placed the spotlight firmly on women’s sport. With a whopping 87,192 crowd at Wembley Stadium, it became the most watched Final in the UK and helped attract and maintain new audiences. The idea that the appetite for greater visibility is solely led by women was demolished by Nielsen Sport (2018), showing 84% of general sports fans were interested in women’s sports and of those asked, 51% were male, confirming a gender-balanced audience. 

Today, there’s a growing demand from fans to consume more online content as the average daily consumption on social media amounted to 147 minutes worldwide in 2022. Ex-professional footballer Jill Scott MBE saw her Instagram followers jump 35% between 26th July and 4th August following England versus Germany (Women’s Sport Trust Visibility Report). Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester United ladies’ teams meanwhile experienced a 22% growth rate across Facebook and Instagram since the start of the 2020/21 season, further demonstrating that change starts with representation. 

Furthermore, the ‘Closing the Visibility Gap’ report highlighted the importance of connecting visuals with audiences after it found action imagery was 12% more likely to result in engagement, supporting the movement to choose imagery based on power, skill and determination and not what female athletes look like. 

A game-changing era

The focus for 2023 is the continuation of building visibility across all platforms and a stronger foundation for greater commercialisation, professionalisation, and participation in sport.

Back in 2018, the Rise of Women’s Sport report (Neilson Sport), stressed 63% believe brands should invest in both women’s and men’s sport, with a fifth of the population admitting they’re more influenced by sponsors of women’s sport.

Brands have clearly recognised and understood its audience’s beliefs as sponsorship deals across women’s sport have increased 20% year-over-year with 3,500 brands buying 5,650 sponsorships or media across 14 pro women’s leagues. Of course, sponsorship at elite or grassroots level should be recognised to drive further female participation in sport.

Campaigns like #Correct the Internet exist to challenge the status quo by giving a greater storytelling to the most influential sportswomen by correcting the search results which prioritise the result of male athletes over women’s. Initiatives like these will drive greater awareness and encourage more girls to participate in sport.

The Alpine F1 Team launched its Rac(H)er initiative, a programme designed to raise awareness of inclusion issues internally and externally, and >= More than Equal is finding the first female F1 Drivers’ World Champion. These are just a couple of examples highlighting the hunger for equality through visual representation in sport.

The Women’s Sport Trust has predicted women’s sport alone could generate $1 billion per year by 2030 – up from £350 million per year – making it one of the fastest growing sectors in the sports industry. But that can only happen if women’s sport can sustain a central role in UK culture to maintain the ‘sport for all’ narrative in visual storytelling.

Contact Right Formula to find out how you can get involved in the visual storytelling of women’s sport.