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Adidas Pulls a Bait and Switch by Highlighting Women’s Sports at the Men’s World Cup

A quick “FIFA World Cup” Google search returns link after link pertaining to the men’s competition—even as the women’s tournament of the same name, taking place this summer in New Zealand and Australia, is on the horizon. It’s a predicament that adidas was keenly aware of when it prepared to take the world stage as a leading partner of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, hosted Nov. 20 to Dec. 18 in Qatar. So as the event’s final matches approached, the brand unveiled a set of three murals on the shores of Doha dubbed the “Beach Club Billboard” to underscore its commitment to ensuring equity and access for female athletes, and remind sports fans that “the game has two halves.”

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The Beach Club Billboard debuted as a portrait of three male players before being transformed into a spotlight on female athletes.

When the 121-foot by 95-foot murals were initially crafted in November on Doha Beach, which is within walking distance of the World Cup stadium, the carved sand portraits showcased three male soccer legends: Lionel Messi, Pedri and Achraf Hakimi. (Artist Nathaniel Alapide was commissioned to bring the works to life with a team of 20 people in just 10 days.) At the end of the competition’s knockout stages, however, adidas wiped the portraits clean and invited fans on social media to predict which soccer legends they would portray next.

Overwhelmingly, men were named. But on Dec. 16, the brand revealed the legends to be famous female soccer players: Mary Fowler, Farah Jefry and Catarina Macario. The overarching message: There is another half of the global soccer story that deserves to be told.

“We care about competition and performance and being advanced, but it’s also about the daily athlete,” says Félix Bedolla, brand communications manager at adidas MENA. “In both those realms, if you think about how many women live on this planet, you’re almost seeing a 50-50 division between men and women. And if you see it as a business, that’s pretty obvious, right? You get to reach 50 percent more consumers. At the same time, it’s about recognition and for women out there to say, ‘I want to take part in it, and I not only want to do it as an everyday athlete, but also be competitive.’ It’s all about representation… And [the FIFA World Cup] is the biggest stage that we own as a brand. It doesn’t get bigger for us.”

According to Bedolla, drawing attention to female soccer players through the Men’s World Cup sponsorship was one of the “flashier” strategies adidas has leveraged in its work to drive gender equity and create opportunities for women in sports. But the brand also relies on lower-profile initiatives to support its efforts. During the men’s competition, which included providing the official match ball, Al Rihla, which was revealed before the tournament on a global 10-city tour designed to expand the company’s equity-focused work.

During stops, Al Rihla was showcased with the help of iconic female soccer players and a diverse mix of aspiring women players from Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even younger female athletes from Qatar’s Aspire Academy. At the close of the tour, the ball was donated to Challenge Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Women’s Football League championship team. Plus, 1 percent of Al Rihla’s net sales were donated to the Common Goal movement, aimed at driving social change and supporting grassroots soccer communities around the world. What’s more, adidas is in the process of adjusting its sponsorship contracts to ensure men’s and women’s teams are compensated equally by the brand.

“The [Beach Club Billboard] creative process was very interesting because sometimes you think you’re thinking of things that are ‘dangerous,’ and then you realize, OK, maybe that’s the reason why we have to do them,” says Bedolla. “There’s a lot of work to do from our side, from every sports brand, every non-sports brand, when it comes to sponsorships and when it comes to supportive tournaments. But it’s a big positive that the word is getting out there.” Agencies: Jack Morton Worldwide; FP7 McCann.

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Kait Shea
Posted by Kait Shea

Kait joined EM in 2015 and today enjoys her role as senior editor, digital content. When she’s not in reporter mode, rocking mermaid pants at Comic-Con or running laps at MWC Barcelona, you can find her at home listening to music.
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