Is sexism the forgotten little sister in sports advertising?

Is sexism the forgotten little sister in sports advertising?

Ethics in football have never been as prominent in public discourse.

In the last 24 months, all of football’s skeletons have been laid out in the open; racism, sexism, homophobia and corruption. As such, a cacophony of brands have been clamouring to show they’re on the right side of history with targeted PR activities. But beyond these small spikes of focus, for the day-to-day football fans, is change being felt on the ground?

As a season ticket holder to a Premier League club, I’m well versed in the motions of entering the macho space of men’s football, both on and offline. 

When I was little, my dad was too cautious to take me to an actual game. Excuses like “It can be a bit aggressive” were a weekly soundbite, as I resigned myself to listening on the radio. Now, with the autonomy of going alone every week, my dad will ring me and make sure I’m alright, every game, without fail.

So whilst it's possible for a young woman to go to a match on her own, with matchday sexism improving in correlation with wider societal trends, the level experienced at football games can still range from frustrating micro-aggressions to full blown misogyny.

In 2019, only 14% of men thought sexism was a prevalent issue at football games, yet 58% of women have experienced abuse at football grounds or watching games in the pub and 91% have seen it online. 

Evidently, something’s not connecting. Plenty of fans still sing misogynistic chants, still use gendered language to degrade players who aren’t performing well. 

In 2023, women are still listening to their own fans sing about ‘t*ts’, ‘f*nny” and sex-workers. They’re still hearing male pundits patronise their female colleagues. They’re still getting little jibes during their half-time pint and lewd stares at stadium bars. They’re still seeing their teams start players with quite damning allegations surrounding their name. 

How are women supposed to feel supported by a club when they put possible rapists on the pitch, whilst brands still laud them as heroes?

Then there’s the scary elephant in the room—matchday transport.

The trend in violent behaviour is increasing, with a 36% growth in matchday disorder incidents since the pandemic.

Once you’re on that train, bus or tube, there’s nearly always a sense of trepidation. Sure, you can text the transport police, but on a crowded train, a text isn’t going to stop someone touching or pressing into you inappropriately, or an angry away fan sending his frustration in your direction in a barrage of misogynistic nonsense. Trust me, those fanbase rape and death threats aren’t just from anonymous avatars. At that moment, you’re in no-man's-land, and you’ve got to cross your toes and hope for the best.

Whilst younger generations do seem more inclusive, it is impossible to escape the influence of the ‘old guard’ at games. 

Of course younger fans will pick up discriminatory behaviour when it’s all around them, perpetuating an endless cycle. Then there’s the intense vitriol seen on social media, normalising cruel chat and thinly veiled discrimination. Some fans may be learning, but the custodians of football seem hell-bent on keeping the gates closed for anyone who could be hurt by discriminatory behaviour. It is these custodians who rebuke calls to make the game more inclusive as mere ‘wokeness’. Indeed, many even see sexism and harassment as an essential part of the experience.

That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts in football to combat misogyny. 

In 2018, Juventus and Napoli players painted red stripes on their faces to raise awareness of domestic violence. Organisations like HerGameToo and ThisFanGirl were started to build a community of female fans and are tackling sexism head-on. But not enough is being done.

So if they’re falling short now, what can brands do about such a colossal issue in the biggest sport in the world? 

Simple. Stop treating ingrained cultural sexism as a CSR project timed impeccably to coincide with spikes of interest. 

Brands need to centre their response to discriminatory behaviour in the heart of their sponsorships and activity if they want to really ‘do the right thing’. 

Approaches need to be intersectional, tackling the issue across the sexism, racism and homophobia divide. They need to challenge and call-out fans themselves, as terrifying as that may seem. To stop paying lip-service every time a major tournament rears its head, before disappearing back into the shadows.

We need to shift the focus from heroising the minority of change-seekers to calling out the majority of old guards telling female fans that “If you don’t like it, tough”, because frankly, we’ve had enough. Sexism is still deep-rooted in football, time to stop turning a blind eye and start taking meaningful action.

Lead image credit: iStock/Dmytro Aksonov

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