Fiona Bugler at Ironman Barcelona finish


Women are driving endurance sport

In 2018, I wrote a piece for Sports Insight magazine – abridged and updated for 2019 below.

In the big endurance events, women are leading the way. London’s Winter Run, held in February 2019 was typical of this new trend, with 60 per cent of the 23,000 entrants being women. It’s time marketers in sport paid attention to women.

Women are the driving force when it comes to household spending. If a woman enters an event, it’s likely the family will follow. Women are powerful and the biggest growth market when it comes to consumer spending, too, as reported in this Bloomberg article.

In running there’s been a growing number of women taking part in mass participation events, according to Craig Dews CEO of Limelight Sports, a company who are responsible for mass participation events, such as the Blenheim Triathlon (you can read more on this in the next issue, March 2019, in Sports Insight, in my feature charting the growth of endurance events).

Endurance Women in Action!

It’s no surprise women are on the endurance agenda. Sport is transforming women and they are smashing through the ceiling by winning ultra events outright (i.e. beating all the men – check out Jasmin Paris’s story), and by saying no to bad branding (check out the recent iron ‘girl’ backlash against Ironman ).

Money Talks

Twenty-18 was the year of the woman. #MeToo, a campaign to help survivors of sexual abuse come ‘out’, had a revival when Hollywood exposed its sexual deviants and the messages went viral. It was also marked the 100 year anniversary of women getting the vote. The gender pay gap in the UK between men and women was put high on the agenda when more than 10,000 large firms provided details, and three-quarters of them were found to be paying men more than women.

We live in a transparent, digital age, so the first things brands need to do is, ‘get their housekeeping in order,’ says Sandra Peat from the digital marketing agency, We Are Superhuman (, set up to help brands connect with women. ‘Are you paying your women a fair wage? If you aren’t doing this you will get found out,’ she adds. 

The gender pay gap can at times seem to be simplistic but it’s a very transparent way for consumers to see whether the brand they are buying from is doing more than just talking the talk. The report showed that 78 per cent of companies have a pay gap that favours men (interesting stats include: Arsenal Football Club, pay men 2.5 per cent lessthan the average woman. At Marylebone Cricket Club, women are paid 14 per cent less than men, and at the Lawn Tennis Association it’s 18 per cent less – even Sport England (behind This Girl Can) pay women 5.8 per cent less than men).

Need help with your Gender Pay Gap report? Contact Natasha at Genderbuzz

When it comes to brand loyalty, research has shown that brands with a conscience and social awareness are more likely to engage customers. And some a taking a position where women are concerned, for example, in the US in 2018 Clif Bar offered a 20 percent discount on all LUNA Bars sold on the Luna website (, and promised to match the discount amount with a donation to American Association of University Women (AAUW), up to $100,000. The money raised will help fund salary negotiation resources for women. They’ve combined ‘women’s issues’ with the trend for millennials to expect brands they like to back a cause.[i]

What’s the business case for reaching out to women?

Do sporting brands really need to worry about reaching out to women? Sport England’s campaigns, such as This Girl Can have been brilliant, but participation in sport is still low, and 23 per cent of men and women remain inactive. But women are important for sporting brands and there is evidence that when it comes to watching sport, women’s sporting events are growing in popularity and that these offer sometimes untapped advertising and marketing potential. In an article for Campaign entitled: What you need to know about sports marketing in 2017 and beyond Key trends for marketers and agencies who want to win in today’s sports marketing environment, it was predicted that female fans would become equal to male fans, ‘more Americans watched the Women’s World Cup final in 2015 than the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup’. Here in the UK, the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup attracted a global television audience estimated at up to 100 million (the MCC should take note!).

In the broader health, fitness, wellness story, ‘women are passionate about looking after themselves,’ says Peat. ‘Older women have a disposable income – and are interested in investing in this passion.’ In their survey The Invisible Middle, which questioned women over 40, 78 per cent said that they feel they have a strong appetite to explore and have new experiences. And this is reflected in the growth of older women participating in big challenges and ultra races.

The bottom line thought is that as Peat points out, it makes complete business sense to target women. ‘It’s really simple, 85 per cent of purchase decisions are made by women, or influenced by women, so they have huge power of the global spend,’ she says.

In marketing terms there has been a lot of noise, and tokenistic gestures. On International Women’s Day it seemed that everyone was deciding to take a stand on social media. But bad judgement can be a PR disaster. ‘McDonald’s decision to turn their M upside down and make it a W was a big mistake and they were heavily criticised for it,’ explains Peat.

Sport England’s research, (Go Where Women Are? has found that 13 million women say they want to take part in sport, but over six million are inactive. They’ve identified barriers that include over-use of the word ‘sport’ which is associated with aggression, competitiveness and seen as unfeminine. 

So, how do brands reach women?

Brands like Under Armour saw that focussing on the traditional alpha female and her spending habits meant they were not capturing and making the most of reaching out to the women sports apparel market, said to be worth $14 billion in the US. They responded with hugely successful ad campaigns, such as I Will What I Want (2014) and Unlike Any which told stories and tapped into emotions about overcoming adversity and empowered women, regardless of race or other barriers. Storytelling is key, and women want to hear about real women doing sport, they want to be able to relate to the product and the brand. Women in sport support each other and work together to find solutions to problems and advertising needs to reflect that.

Providing Solutions

‘If you really want to engage women, find a shared problem, and try to solve it,’ says Peat. ‘This Girl Canrecognised that women had a fear of being judged and they needed flexibility and encouragement. And many women find that the basics are ignored. For example, sports clothing isn’t designed with them in mind and ignores the need to fit different breast sizes and bums.’

Forward-thinking brands such as Athleta (bought by Gap), are a leading sports brand for women in the US who have gone a long way to find and test clothes that work for women of all shapes and sizes. They are also talking to women in a way that gets results as the brand continues to thrive in a challenging market. Campaigns have included the ‘Power of She’ which is all about inclusion and empowerment of women, as well as the worthy-sounding, ‘Permission to Pause’ and ‘Grateful for’. And of course, they support a cause, Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (PACE) ‘a programme that provides the women who make our clothes education that helps them build the skills, knowledge and confidence to advance.’

It’s very clear that sports brands need to get to know all their female customers, and understand their individual needs, and their stories. With every passing year, more women are taking part in sport, being empowered by sport and spending money on sport. It’s time to talk to them.

For more on participation in endurance events check out this article written for Sports Insight by me:

Read more at Endurance Women