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During the event, Leaders sat down with one of the presenters, Matthew Buck, Director of Player Management at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the union for all Premier League, Football League, and Women’s Super League players.
In his role, Buck oversees a team of eight FIFA licensed agents who provide an alternative to commercial representation for all players, helping them define their pathway through football while supporting them away from the pitch as well. Buck is also a licensed Football Association agent, and continues to represent both male and female players at the top levels of the sport, including England and Manchester City captain Steph Houghton.
30-year-old Houghton is one of the best-known female players in the UK, and her storied career has taken in multiple team titles, individual awards, and an evolving commercial programme away from the pitch that has also resulted in her becoming one of the best rewarded players in the women’s game.
The development of Houghton’s career, and the nurturing of her image and commercial portfolio, which Buck has managed since 2012, was the focus of his presentation at the think tank in March.
Buck began representing Houghton in 2012, when she became his first female client following her success as part of Team GB’s record-breaking performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. As the team captured the imagination of the home nations, winning their group with eye-catching performances before being dumped out of the competition at the quarter-final stage by the Canadians, so too did Houghton rise to prominence, helping herself to three goals, two of them winners. From that point, Houghton, Buck, and the rest of their team began formulating a plan to help her become one of the most successful female athletes of her era, both on and off the field.
Phase one of the strategy was to place significant importance on utilising social media to boost Houghton’s profile, resulting in a current following of over 200,000 across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Despite the lack of data to suggest it, some brands seem to believe that the demographics of followers of top female athletes are different to those of their male counterparts, and Buck says this “tends to be the leading conversation for commercial brands.” Following the development of Houghton’s social media presence, a website and media pack were produced for the England captain, which her team would use when approaching potential commercial partners. The final step in the process was to establish a commercial company and assign Houghton’s image rights from both her club and the Football Association to it, giving her total autonomy of her personal brand, and from here, Buck could engage in discussions with interested parties.
However, success on the pitch needed to come first, and from there appropriate partnership opportunities presented themselves. Buck says of Houghton’s journey that “fundamentally, it’s driven by football first.” Each milestone in her career, including her transfer to Manchester City, winning a World Cup bronze medal, and most recently winning the FA Cup in 2017, has seen the door to new commercial opportunities open. “All of these different milestones in her career have created a commercial development plan for her and opened up and accelerated that plan for her,” says Buck.
To find evidence of this, look no further than Houghton’s current roster of commercial partners including Npower, who were the first commercial partner signed after London 2012, Nike, who partnered with the footballer after Manchester City won the Continental Cup in 2014, and Virgin Media (plus a host of other brands), who joined forces with Houghton after the aforementioned World Cup bronze medal.
The need for change
There are, however, still differences between typical brand partnerships with male and female athletes, the progression of which often follow a very different path. As brand marketers flesh out ideas for a particular campaign, individual male athletes might be targeted as potential endorsers for that campaign, and the concept is then developed around them. Buck says that “when brands target a male player, they are the one and only target” because brands often see particular male athletes as the “perfect fit,” and “if the expectation level of the player exceeds the budget” then “the brand will try and adapt and work towards it.”
This identification process is far less likely to happen for female athletes. In the conception of a campaign, marketers will tend to think about ‘a female athlete’ rather than ‘this particular female athlete’ as an endorser for the brand, and consequently the potential athlete endorser has less leverage. Buck says of this that “if you do challenge the parameters of what their expectations as a brand are” then “the tendency is to go to the next option, and maybe player B or player C because they might be willing to do it for less, they might be more accessible, or they might be able to give up more of their time.”
Buck believes it is “for us (intermediaries) to educate and work with brands in order to bring that standard back up.” But brands are beginning to recognise the surface is barely being scratched in terms of opportunities in women’s sport – including the accessibility of its superstars, the chance to play an active role in the growth of a sport, and the perceived cleaner image of female athletes when compared with some of their male counterparts – means that the commercial landscape is “constantly improving.”
Learn to say no
The most important yet contradictory sounding step in the development of Houghton’s commercial stature was the fostering of a new mindset: don’t be afraid to turn things down – whether that be media appearances or paid commercial work that didn’t fit the ‘Houghton brand’ vision. Buck says that “saying no to a lot of bad deals or deals that weren’t appropriate to Steph’s personality and profile, and waiting for the right opportunities” to come along, was essential to the overall strategy. This would ensure that Houghton would not be overexposed in media, and be free to accept the right offers when they arose.
Saying no to deals is, of course, easier said than done. Buck says that many female athletes feel they must do their part to “grow the game,” making themselves as accessible as possible in the process. Houghton was no different and was almost too accessible when Buck began representing her, which had a negative impact on her time and on her training schedule. He said that her messages were “open to so many different outlets,” that it got to a point where things “weren’t really being listened to anymore because she said it over and over again.” So one of the pair’s first moves after they partnered was to adopt a policy of “saying no more than you’ll ever say yes” and that’s “when the tide started to turn.”
The art of being less accessible, but still accessible, is an important one to master before athletes can reap the rewards of commercial partnerships that align with their personal brand. Buck says that once that’s achieved, then athletes are “delivering important messages” and can more easily “do the right interviews on the topics that are important to the growth of the game.”
After six years of careful career and brand development, Houghton’s commercial portfolio is now more valuable than her playing contract. And, according to Buck, the path she’s followed may well act as a model for the other athletes that come after her. “The opportunities Steph’s taken will create better awareness and commercialisation for the women’s game and other players in general,” he says.