ON THE MORNING of 20 January, news of a landmark deal in women’s sports filtered through on Irish media outlets.
The Galway camogie team, who are the current All-Ireland champions, had just agreed a significant sponsorship arrangement with a leading high-tech manufacturing company with headquarters in Maynooth.
The figure of €250,000 over the course of five years for Galway camogie inter-county sides from underage up to senior was a compelling headline for sports fans to wake up to.
Westerwood Global, founded by Galway native and Athenry clubman Basil Holian, are responsible for this incredible financial windfall for the Tribeswomen. It marks the beginning of a new era for the county who previously enjoyed a 20-year sponsorship link with the famous fast-food chain Supermac’s.
The deal with Westerwood Global also kick-started a series of similar announcements in camogie.
The following month saw Tipperary find a new sponsor in Alpha Drives Ltd while the Premier County also struck up an athletic development partnership with Setanta College. In March, the Cork camogs signed a three-year sponsorship deal with Kearys Motor Group.
That time period also witnessed the Camogie Association announce a new five-year joint sponsorship with Glen Dimplex and Carmel Naughton. This was a particularly important move, given that the association had no title sponsor in place for last year’s All-Ireland championship.
For Holian and Westerwood Global, the motivation for partnering up with Galway was not for financial gain. His love for his home county wasn’t the primary reason either. Rather, they identified traits in the Galway set-up which mirrored their own values for conducting business.
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“I’ve always had a very strong interest in all kinds of sport,” Holian begins in conversation with The42 about the background of Westerwood Global’s sponsorship deal with Galway camogie.
“And when we, as a business, were considering how we might give something back to our community, we were taking a long, hard look at different opportunities across various areas and sports before we simply kept coming back to women in sport and Galway camogie.
“We realised very quickly that Galway camogie was very special and there’s a lot of synergy between Westerwood Global and Galway camogie. I guess aside from them being current All-Ireland champions, the county board and the teams at all ages share the same values and beliefs that drive us as a team in Westerwood Global.
“We’re just so happy for the young ladies in Galway camogie who benefit from this sponsorship. We’re also delighted that Galway camogie will be the first county to wear the pride emblem on their sleeve, highlighting inclusivity and diversity in a challenging world.
“No-one should feel that they can’t come inside and looking over the fence when they should be playing. So, that’s very important to our mindset of being supportive and inclusive.”
These camogie sponsorship arrangements may perhaps indicate an increased sense of interest among companies to explore business opportunities with female sports teams.
The timing of the announcements coming so closely together might illuminate that trend even more so. But they are not isolated cases, and the history of women’s sports teams earning major sponsorship deals stretches further back in time.
And it’s not just teams in GAA sports that are drawing the attention of major businesses.
Consider the Republic of Ireland women’s team for example, who announced last year that Sky would become their first standalone shirt sponsor. In what is a four-year deal, Sky will be on the front of the Irish shirts throughout the qualification campaigns for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and the 2025 Euros.
Kelli O’Keeffe, managing director at Teneo Ireland, explains that what we are seeing in recent times is more of an evolution of this pattern.
“It’s fair to say,” says O’Keeffe, “that it’s a long time coming and we’re seeing it in the last couple of weeks. But if we’re to turn the clock back a little bit and say, in 2013, we were working with Dublin GAA to attract a sponsor and AIG. And they insisted at the time that they would have to take all four codes similarly if they were coming in as sponsors.
“I know everyone references Lidl and Ladyball in 2016, and that was another major milestone in the women’s sponsorship industry if you like. What that did was really show how a brand can drive massive value from women’s sports.
“There was an element around eight or nine years ago that it was a box-ticking exercise in some cases. Whereas brands are really waking up to the fact that women’s sport is a whole new market. It’s a market that can deliver far better value.
“If you look at men’s sports and the sponsors that are involved. It can be quite a cluttered market so in order for brands to really get noticed, they have to have really strong positioning first and foremost. But also, they will have to spend a significant amount whereas in women’s sport, because it’s not as populated by brands — and I will stress the word ‘yet’ there — it can be easier to get through.
“It’s definitely on the rise. I hope we get to a place where it’s a very cluttered marketplace and I think we will. The other big piece will be parity and parity of prize money. I think that will be really interesting to follow from a competition perspective.”
In 2021, the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index (TSSI) published some interesting findings in relation to this topic.
The research found that 65% of people believe that businesses should increase their investment in women’s sport. 64% of people believe that sponsors who invest in men’s sport should also invest in women’s sport.
These figures were released after what was an exceptional year for women’s sport. Boxer Kellie Harrington brought the nation together after winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August.
Katie Taylor was continuing her unbeaten run in professional boxing by successfully defending her world titles, while Rachael Blackmore was the toast of horse racing with her six winners in Cheltenham as well as her Grand National triumph.
Those achievements were reflected in the Teneo findings, as all three were voted as the nation’s top three most admired athletes. Taylor and Harrington took top spot in the vote, while Blackmore shared second place with Ireland rugby star Johnny Sexton.
The 2021 Ladies All-Ireland final between Meath and Dublin was also a historic moment for women’s sport in Ireland. Hill 16, which is traditionally an empty stand on Ladies All-Ireland final day, was packed for the occasion as the Royals famously halted the Dubs’ charge for five-in-a-row.
Jacksy Kiernan’s sports shop in Navan was sold out of the Meath Ladies jerseys in the build-up to the decider. Another key indicator that the dial has shifted for women’s sport.
All of these critical moments in women’s sport culminated in the striking statistics gathered in the TSSI.
“What we saw from our female athletes last year and the standard of their performances was just phenomenal,” says O’Keeffe about the outcome of that research.
“That has really woken brands up to the opportunities and kind of given them another reason to look at female sports.
“I don’t think we were particularly surprised by those figures. 76% of females would say they believe sponsors who invest in men’s sport should also invest in women’s sport. What we’re saying more and more of is that brands want to see a more balanced sponsorship portfolio, so wanting male and females.”
Holian’s Westerwood Global were “overwhelmed” by the positive response to their sponsorship deal with Galway camogie, and the amount of money they were willing to invest in the team.
As a former hurler, Holian can relate to the struggles that players face while trying to fulfill their obligations in sport. He played for both his club Athenry, and up to the minor grade for Galway during his career.
He can recall his younger years when he played sport in more primitive conditions, and now as the owner of a successful global company, he feels duty-bound to provide support to GAA players who face a different set of challenges in the modern game.
“Players need to be supported,” he stresses. “In my day, half the time I was togging out at the back of a ditch and it was lashing rain on top of you. You wouldn’t even have a dressing room and you’d be trying to get a bit of shelter and there was no such thing as a cup of tea and a sandwich after it. You did it for the love of the sport.
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“I feel players today are being challenged to do huge things, give up a lot of time and effectively compete at a professional level. For counties not to be able to support them and really look after them, that’s not really good enough.
“And that was the mindset of us saying, ‘Ok, we’re giving €50,000 per annum for five years. We’ll be supporting outside of that through a lot of things we’re doing, regardless of the money.’
“The real value comes when you identify a team that shares your own values and Galway camogie tick all the boxes.”
Another key area which has contributed to businesses paying more attention to women’s sport is the increased levels of media coverage. This in turn has resulted in more female pundits, presenters and analysts featuring on radio and TV programmes.
According to O’Keeffe, visibility is vital when showcasing women’s sport as a worthy business investment.
“Sport Ireland have the women’s sport policy and one of the pillars of that is visibility. And they’re really pushing female sports and their promotion of it. It’s shifting everything if you like and I suppose the crux of what’s pushing it and what’s of interest to media is that the performances are commanding media coverage.
“Whether they’re male or female, the elite performances that Irish female athletes are putting in are commanding the headlines. But it is true to say that media houses themselves are really pushing the female agenda.
“We’re noticing more and more that media houses are looking for female spokespeople, female analysts, female co-commentators. TG4 have done a phenomenal job over the last 10 or 15 years in promoting women’s sport, in particular Gaelic Games. The recent deal between RTÉ and Virgin to show all of the Women’s Six Nations games is massive.
“It wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t see anything or see those games on TV. Another good point of that is BBC’s coverage of the women’s soccer World Cup in 2019. Again, sports fans were tuning in to watch for the sport as opposed to [doing it] because it’s women.”
Holian’s commitment to providing sponsorship for sports teams extends beyond the alliance he has formed between Westerwood Global and Galway camogie. He remains a dedicated member of his Athenry club, and in recent weeks, he embarked on a sponsorship deal with the hurling, football and camogie teams in his home club.
The sponsorship money is provided by Holian’s private company called Watchman Holdings and the deal will ensure that equal levels of funding are afforded to each team.
In the future, he hopes that other companies take note of the significant sponsorship deals that have been announced in recent weeks, and pursue similar efforts to ensure sports teams are adequately supported and resourced.
“I think county boards need to rattle cages a little bit more,” Holian urges.
“The sponsors that exist are doing a great job, but really, when you’re asking teams at the most senior level to be professional, you really need to give back to the community.
“They’re competing for All-Irelands, they’re inspiring young people and they have to be looked after. They need to know that their well-being is being taken care of.
“I would embrace other companies to get involved and some companies may not be asked or asked in the right way.
“I’m glad to see we’ve stirred up a bit of passion. I’ve seen other teams like Tipperary and Cork and that’s what’s needed at all levels. There are major corporations that could and should be doing more in my opinion.
“We’re only a small tip of the iceberg.”
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