Revolutionaries are often found in unlikely places. A cursory glance over Colin Banks’ CV shows a career in sponsorship and marketing that has encompassed some traditionally “blokey” areas from working with Tennent’s Lager to over a decade with the Scottish FA before joining energy provider SSE in 2014.
Yet Banks has become one of the driving forces in putting the sponsorship of women’s sport front and centre in Britain. With the recent announcements around Barclays and Boots coming on board with women’s football, and high street fashion retailer Oasis joining forces with Netball England, it is easy to forget that when SSE became title sponsor of the Women’s FA Cup in 2015, the final was played at Wembley for the first time.
The Scot, SSE's Head of Sponsorship, does not shy away from how his company’s decision to take on the sponsorship was a brave one, not just for sport but also for the energy industry. “It was a pretty bold move, this was about us taking a reasonable challenge because in the engineering industry we are in, it is predominantly male orientated,” he says. “While the customer service side of the business has more females. What was great was that it came from the top.”
Fast forward four years and the partnership is going from strength to strength with last year’s SSE Women’s FA Cup final attracting over 45,000 fans, while the brand's innovative use of marketing has been recognised at this year’s BT Sport Industry Awards, which Banks describes as “the Oscars of sponsorship.”
Telegraph Women’s Sport will be proud to be principal media partner of the awards which will be held at the Battersea Evolution next Thursday, April 25.
SSE’s work with the Women’s FA Cup has been nominated in two categories including the prestigious Event or Competition Sponsorship Award, which sees competition from the likes of Budweiser’s sponsorship of last summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Banks does not shy away from the fact that the energy sector can be perceived as an uninspiring market, so the ground-breaking sponsorship of women’s football was something he and his team believe has helped their brand to stand out. “At the end of the day, we work in a fairly dull market, some people get excited about renewables but generally it isn’t something people get excited by,” he says. “It is something you need, it is not something you actively want.
“We have to show our difference. So, in order to engage customers in a market that is not very engaging, you have to come up with some pretty bold ways of doing it and you have to stand for something.”
Just as he is candid about perceptions of the energy industry, Banks also gives frank insight into the topic of prize money for the SSE Women’s FA Cup, for which SSE provides funds. There has been criticism recently that the prize pot needs to increase as it currently stands at one per cent of the £30.25 million, which goes to the men’s competition.
He says: “We have to be realistic, I would absolutely love to see parity as has happened in the likes of tennis but ultimately you have to link it to the market the sport is in and the audience it attracts. If you over invest in prize money, you haven’t got the money to invest in the grassroots of the game.
“You have to make sure that the money is dispersed properly rather than saying they should be paid the same as the men. We talk about the whole thing as a campaign; it is not just the Cup Final, it about all the teams who take part from start to finish. The investment is passed back to clubs.”
To the point of supporting the women’s game from the ground up, SSE invest in a programme with the FA supporting girls’ football.
Banks is firm that as more brands start to back women’s football, the more monetary rewards there will be for clubs and players. “We should award the time and commitment but we have to do it in a sensible way that grows the game. The more brands that come on board, the more money that will be available.”
In their part in growing the game SSE worked with the FA to put in place a “kids go free” ticketing policy for the final while with tickets priced at £15 per adult, the event is marketed as an inclusive event and one which is often spectators' first taste of a big stadium football experience.
The cut and thrust of the business world can leave many cynical but Banks speaks with the enthusiasm one of those first time fans when he describes his standout SSE Women’s FA Cup memory. “When the teams walked out onto the pitch at Wembley for the first time in 2015. Everybody talked about it; we made a mark that was for all of football, not just for SSE. You knew from there it was going to kick off, no pun intended!”