How has Dutch women’s football evolved since the last Euro?

We could comfortably describe as a rocketing growth what women’s football in the Netherlands has experienced in the recent years, especially at an international scale.

From participating in their first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015 to perform an outstanding tournament in France 2019, reaching their first-ever final in the competition. From a record audience in Euro 2017 final with 4.1 million viewers to another record 5.5 million people watching the final against United States in 2019, becoming the most-watched women’s football match in Dutch TV history. The tournament reached 79.2% of the Dutch population.

Off the pitch, a roaring “orange wave” has faithfully followed the women’s national team wherever they have played. In France, more than 20,000 supporters cheered for the OranjeLeeuwinnen in Valenciennes. Their enthusiasm even led them to be nominated for the FIFA Fan Award.

To understand this significant growth from a business perspective, the marketing area at the Dutch KNVB has helped to evaluate the main marketing milestones. Manon Albers, Marketeer Fans, and, Stefan Agus, Head of Marketing Communication and Content, have kindly explained the business side behind the development of Dutch women’s football in the following interview.

The 2017 edition of UEFA Women’s Euro represented a turning point in Dutch and European women’s football. The tournament registered 50 million more viewers than the 2013 edition and a record-breaking viewership of 4.1 million was achieved in the host country. Besides, the Orange Lionesses sold-out every game in the tournament. From a marketing perspective, which were the key success factors?

With the assignment of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 to the Netherlands, we got the chance to increase the interest in and awareness of women’s football and the OranjeLeeuwinnen in our country, which at that moment in time were not very satisfying. Therefore, we developed a campaign aimed to achieve the following goals. On the one hand, increasing the awareness of the team and its players as well as the visibility of football as a sport for girls and women in the country, in order to build the foundation of a future legacy. On the other hand, strengthening the support for the national team. This strategy resulted in our main tournament campaign, #OnsEK (#OurEuropeanChampionship), designed in three phases: the Tournament, the Players and the Goal.

The first phase of the campaign was orientated to inform people that the tournament was coming to the Netherlands, our kick-off video “The countdown begins” drew a lot of attention in social media. The second phase was really content-driven, promoting the lifestyle, values as friendship and closeness, interaction and behind-the-scenes content from our selected seven ambassadors, from the national team. Finally, the third phase aimed to inspire everyone towards the main goal of achieving the championship, our media partners helped us to make everyone stand as one, from home, schools, pubs, clubs and in the stadium.

Since the start, we perceived a real change in perception. All the matches of our national team were sold out a month before the tournament. Clear goals, storytelling, appealing content, cooperation with players and their staff together with their accessibility and an overall theme, #OnsEK, were fundamental to the overall success.

On the international stage, the rise of the national team has been meteoric. From participating in a FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada 2015 for the first time to a remarkable performance that led the team to reach the final in France 2019. This success seems difficult to explain without the impressive support from fans, near 20,000 cheered for the Orange Lionesses in Valenciennes last year. What is the fan engagement strategy behind this movement?

The Orange Parade and Fan Zones are a Dutch tradition during tournaments, the first parade took place in 1996 for a men’s game. In 2017, it was the first time we organised them for women’s games, they were a big success. In WEURO host cities, we developed many fan activities to create a unique atmosphere and unforgettable experiences for fans, the local population and the host city. From a security standpoint, our set-up became key to ensure an effective safety when managing large fan crowds.

After the Euro, we perceived an immense growth in fan base, stadium attendances, social media followers and viewing figures. From then on, the national team has been playing in big and full stadiums. In relation to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, we knew it was a great opportunity to turn it into a big Orange fest. Host cities were on driving distance for our “orange wave” and they did not only travelled for the matches, but to live full-day experiences. Fan zones, streets and local newspapers in France were coloured in orange. We even were nominated for the FIFA Fan Award.

At a domestic level, the game PSV v Ajax was expected to gather a record fan attendance of more than 11,000 spectators on March 20th. How has the recent success of the national team at a global scale awakened interest from fans for the Eredivisie Women?

The Eredivisie is a stage where young girls dream to play, and at the same time it forms the basis for the achievements of the OranjeLeeuwinnen. We want to create a true elite environment by extending the grown commercial value and visibility. The same elite environment that you already see with our national team. We are convinced that this will give the Eredivisie an impulse on many fronts such that we can take the next step, both sportively and commercially. This is included in our vision for women’s football in The Netherlands 2018-2022, with one of the topics being a strong Eredivisie Women. However, we want to improve the level of the Eredivisie Women and its interest, commercial and public. We are working hard to accomplish this vision.

Additionally, we have played twice with our national team in Eindhoven. The first time resulted in a new attendance record of 30,238 supporters, in the last home game before the World Cup. Recently, we have played again in Eindhoven for almost 24,000 fans, on a Tuesday evening. Obviously, women’s football is popular in this area, which explains the public interest for this PSV v Ajax match. The goal is to fulfil this expected record fan attendance in the upcoming season, which will mean another great step in bringing the Eredivisie Women to an even higher level.

Iberdrola, Budweiser or Visa are some of the brands that have strongly committed to partner with women’s football to build a more equal and inclusive society. According to the latest FIFPro report, only 30% of the surveyed federations said to have exclusive sponsors for the women’s team. Have brands shown a greater interest in investing specifically in Dutch women’s football?

Yes, brands in the Netherlands certainly do. Around the World Cup 2019, we run lots of activations for the OranjeLeeuwinnen with many sponsors. For the first time in the history of Dutch football, we had a license deal with a renowned retail chain in the Netherlands, Blokker. They created a loyalty and savings campaign before and during the tournament. In addition, Unilever, through their brands Andrelon and Calvé, is an exclusive partner only focused on women’s football and the Lionesses. Many players of the national team are ambassadors of these brands.

Likewise, it is also important to mention that our biggest sponsors take women’s football very seriously. ING has launched several large campaigns with our national team. They also make a lot of content with individual players for their YouTube channel ING Only Football. Together with KPN, another loyal sponsor, we made a program around the World Cup called “Leeuwinnentalk”. The day before and after each match we had a broadcast with our players and a well-known Dutch person talking about the tournament and personal topics, providing unique behind-the-scenes content.

Lastly, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, became sponsor in the domains of fans and women’s football. They are so enthusiastic about the possibilities of the sponsorship that they have increased their investment in sponsorship rights and activation. An example is the “Panini album” with football pictures of our Lionesses and the signing of three ambassadors to their brand: Sari, Jackie and Lineth.

The “orange wave” at France 2019 I KNVB

The current health crisis entails a serious financial threat for clubs, competitions and stakeholders in general. In Spain, the suspension of Primera Iberdrola is predicted to cause an estimated broadcasting loss of 600,000€. Given KNVB’s decision to cancel football competitions due to COVID-19, what recommendations could Dutch clubs follow to financially recover after the pandemic?

Of course, the Eredivisie Women has suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic, as all professional and recreational football have. However, the Dutch women’s league is less dependent from broadcasting loss, gate money or catering income than, for example, the Eredivisie for men. The Eredivisie Women is especially depending on sponsorship income and it remains to be seen how companies will survive the corona pandemic and how this will influence the sponsorship income.

In the meanwhile, the Dutch FA keeps supporting Eredivisie Women clubs with an annual contribution. The COVID-19 pandemic will not change this. Regarding recreational sports, the government has promised to support with 110 million euros and talks are ongoing about support measures for professional football. It is yet unknown what part of these measures will be allocated to the clubs in the Eredivisie Women, or the rest of clubs.

The global health challenge has provided the opportunity to connect with fans in a different way. While the digital landscape in sports is more saturated with content and online events, fans seem to be more open than ever to keep interacting with women’s football. From a communications perspective, what practical lessons would you give to continue reinforcing fan engagement?

We are very fortunate that the players of the Dutch women’s national team are very willing to participate in content formats and activations. We created a “corona content strategy” which differentiates three objectives. Firstly, we focus on helping the government and health authorities in sharing content with a socially engaging message. In order to make these campaigns more powerful, we have asked players to get involved. Secondly, part of our strategy is aimed to engage with our fan audience through inspiring “Oranje” content, looking back at historial moments where players help us to recreate them, so our fans can experience them again. Finally, we also focus on adding value to our partners with branded content formats and, particularly now that games stopped, our players are aware of the importance of continue delivering value to our partners.

The accelerated development of women’s football makes it difficult to predict how the game will evolve in the near future, especially considering the general stop. Where do you see Dutch women’s football five years from now?

We are already very proud of what we have achieved in such a short time notice, but we are not there yet. Now, it is time for the next step, which we take one step at the time. We want to create even more and better opportunities for players in the coming years and do everything we can to have women in other football roles. For example, directors, trainers, referees or supporters. The ambition is that, by 2022, women will be further integrated on all fronts and will become an unconditional part of football. In the coming years, the focus will be on five areas to achieve this objective: more women in football, football opportunities for everyone, an optimal top sports environment, a strong national competition and more collaboration in the landscape.

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