I have to admit, I had never heard of Alessia Russo before last night.
If you had asked me to guess, and given the clue that she was a sportswoman, I might have said “Italian tennis player?”.
Now, not only have I heard of her, but millions of football fans have too, following her amazing goal against Sweden in the Women’s European Championship semi-finals. The match overall was an incredible watch. Two teams, going head-to-head and toe to toe, with energy, skill, guile, and no end of commitment.
Russo’s goal effectively killed off any hopes Sweden may have had for a comeback and in an instant, the nation had a new hero.
We have heard these tales of young upstarts before. In 1998, it was a sprightly Michael Owen who scored against Argentina to grab the headlines. 5 years later, Jonny Wilkinson slotted a drop goal late into the Rugby World Cup final to send the nation in rapture.
Women in sport have been getting (a bit) more coverage in recent years. We have seen promotion by broadcasters giving equal billing to women in events such as the Olympic Games and Wimbledon. The new short-format cricket event called The Hundred has equal prize money and equal screen time for both women’s and men’s franchises – more of this later. However, this moment in this game, has lit the touch paper. A single extraordinary moment in an extraordinary game, shown (extraordinarily) on primetime free-to-air television epitomised what is now more than just a demonstration of equality.
Similar to Emma Raducanu winning the US Open, Russo’s moment gave a population of viewers a jolt of adrenalin. They stopped watching it because it was England doing well at something, this was an indication that it was genuine entertainment. And this is highly significant.
Why else do we watch sport? A narrow slice of the population watches because of the tribal association of us against them, beating the opposition regardless of the means and method. But overwhelmingly, fans tune in to be entertained. That is why they buy tickets. Merchandise is a commercial outcome of the desire for fans to enhance their enjoyment by connecting to the community of people sharing the enjoyment.
Watch now as sponsors and broadcasters’ clamour over each other the ride the coattails of the success and subsequent popularity of the national team. In 1995, Jonah Lomu crashed over Mike Catt in Cape Town, to announce himself as the first truly global superstar of the world game. And it is just as well he did. The game had gone professional and desperately needed the revenue that worldwide broadcast money would bring.
Russo and others will be poster-heroes for a new generation, and they will no doubt be appearing on billboards for products other than football. All a bit after the fact, but the evidence is now there for the money to flow. Such is the way of business.
However, there is something to be said for planning. The Hundred was launched as a new version of the game of cricket in 2021. On the surface, it was a rehashed version of other short versions and indeed many of the established cricket dismissed it as being something else to clutter up the calendar. The rules were different, but not much. What was different, was the fact that, as mentioned, women and men played back-to-back, and prize money and wages were the same. Importantly, these were not known as teams, but franchises, and a franchise is a business. What the competition realised and capitalised on, was in the eternal drive for growth, they had an opportunity to double their potential audience without having to try and sell cricket to America. What if we let the girls play?
The Lionesses are blazing a trail. An ego-free version of the beautiful game that the world is taking notice of. Led by names which now cover the back pages and will become familiar to many, many more people in the months and years ahead as the entertainment translates into commerciality, Names that will go down in history.
Representation is vital in all aspects of life and business is no different. If we see ourselves involved, if we see ourselves achieving, we can be inspired to do the same. Moreover, if we are running a business, can we afford not to consider ALL of our potential customers? How will you display your understanding of them? What impact can you have by opening up your funnel of opportunity to include anyone who might be interested? Does it need an audacious back-heel, or just an open mind?