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If You Build It, She Will Come

(8 min read)

What a match. What a tournament. What month. Sometimes things come together in a way that makes it hard to believe that someone somewhere hasn’t been orchestrating it all along. Our journey into footballing history began several months ago, working closely with Nike and our fellow agencies collaborating on a campaign that needed to be as flexible as it was impactful – if there’s one thing you know about England and football, it’s that defeat and disappointment can arrive at any time. But this year was different.

We have been privileged to be on the ground with the Lionesses thanks to Nike’s unwavering support of them, working across team appearances, screening events, media experiences and being commissioned to design and build the Lionesses’ relaxation room at their base camp, as showcased by the incomparable Jill Scott for the BBC

The first stop on this journey was actually pre-tournament, the final friendly against Belgium in June. For the first time, the players’ names would be printed on their match jerseys – a decision designed specifically to support public recognition of the players and the achievement of being named in this squad. We designed and produced bespoke presentation packs for each player’s jersey to be placed in the dressing room at Molineux Stadium in Wolverhampton. In retrospect, the Chinese proverb “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” seems ever more prescient.

Playing our small part in the meticulous preparations for the tournament itself, we worked closely with Nike and The FA to design and build the squad’s relaxation room at the team base camp, The Lensbury in Teddington. A month is a very long time to spend in a place that isn’t your home while balancing the elite level performance expectations of training and matches, with rest and recuperation is vital to maintain peak performance for any period of time. Fun and games can sometimes be a serious business. Gathering insights from the players as to what their downtime distractions of choice would be, it was clear that this would be a space filled with unpretentious joy and laughter – a cornerstone request was large screen lounge so they could keep up to date with Love Island, along with darts, basketball, table tennis, XBOX consoles and a pool table. All activities that created opportunities for conversation, light-hearted rivalry and distraction. One of the more progressive ideas we were able to bring to life that again marked this as something new, was the inclusion of a doodle wall – a giant colouring book on the wall of the lounge, that we commissioned Doodle Boy to produce. It has long been recognised that creative activities can contribute significantly to relaxation, lower stress levels and a sense of personal achievement – all things vital to tournament performance. The colouring wall proved to be a big hit with the Lionesses, who could simply pick up one of the dozens of vibrantly coloured marker pens and lose themselves in a mosaic of shapes and lines.

On the eve of the tournament, we kicked off proceedings with a send-off event at NikeTown London, designed to show the Lionesses what they mean to their fans and help create a bond between them.  Our organising thought for the experience design was to show the players that their strength could come from our strength – unwavering support every step of the way. Dual experience journeys were designed – for the Lionesses and for the fans at NikeTown, even down to the coach journey to the store from the training camp – care packages and playlists – nothing left to chance. On arrival at the store both players and fans passed through a tunnel that celebrated the pioneers and trailblazers of the women’s game, along with images of grassroots football today, integrated with Nike’s iconic “You’ve never seen football like this” campaign. We wanted to honour the blood, sweat and tears (more than there should have been) that it had taken to bring us to this point.

Fans were encouraged to customise their shirts with graphics we had collaborated with the Nike By You team to provide – the creativity and expressive nature of how these young fans shared their passion was an early indicator that the tone and attitude to this tournament was going to be unique, no matter what the results. As veteran partners of Nike’s on a number or World Cup and European Championship cycles for the men’s team, it was clear that this was different – apprehension was being replaced with excitement, careful expectation replaced with carefree celebration. Something was building.

As the tournament kicked off, we converted the ground floor of the store into a Lioness matchday viewing hub, hosting viewing events for hundreds of fans who might otherwise struggle to find a place to celebrate together. Inclusivity and accessibility were core to how we designed and managed these events with the NikeTown store team. This mentality and attention to detail was beautifully illustrated at that historic final when a consumer approached one of our producers, telling her that they had attended every match screening event. They said that as someone who identified as non-binary, it simply wasn’t an option to watch the games in a pub, but they had felt the events at the store welcoming and safe, and as such their experience of the tournament was, for the first time, a collective and socially inclusive one. We also had positive feedback from a number of young Muslim girl fans, citing our provision of halal food as being another instance of creating a welcoming space for those often overlooked when football culture is on autopilot. Taking into account the sense of inclusivity present in the Lioness squad, with several openly LGBTQ+ players, it is only fitting that any space built in their name affords the same support to fans. Looking out at the young girls, the families and those other members of society who may feel excluded by more male-oriented mainstream football culture, it was clear that we were part of building a new kind of space for a new kind of football fan – to paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you build it, she will come.

Even before the final whistle of the emphatic 4-0 Semi-Final victory over Sweden, we knew that we would have to work fast. There would be a final and win or lose, the way the Lionesses had captured the heart and soul of the country would be something worth celebrating on Sunday night. Working with the top secret “Home” creative developed by our friends at Weiden+Kennedy, we set about designing an experience that would be flexible enough to celebrate the endeavour as much as the result, should the final end in disappointment as it had done a year earlier. As it turned out, much to the universal relief of the country, our fears were unfounded (aren’t they always?) – demonstrating resilience, teamwork, world class skill and humility, the Lionesses answered the call and delivered a victory that was quite simply, so much bigger than football. Sunday night’s victory celebration saw attendance from several men’s England team players, British and international track and field athletes in support of an historic moment for sports and culture.

Now, in the warm afterglow of a July like no other, tired but happy, we can look back on something truly special – something we were privileged to contribute a small but (for us at least) significant. In no way are we suggesting any credit comes our way for the Lionesses being crowned European Champions – that belongs to them and them alone. The significance for us comes from what we saw in those spaces we created to support the Lionesses. We all saw that the squad is filled with unique characters who demonstrate the whole spectrum of what it means to be both an athlete and a woman, in a society that has for so long equated football excellence with men, they tore that preconception down emphatically. The mix of individuality and unity brings to mind a quote from author G. D. Anderson:

“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”

The strength and the power that came from what we saw this past month, both on the pitch and in the experiences, we designed for fans, was not something to be measured against what happens in the men’s Euros, it was something distinct and unique – to be valued and appreciated on its own terms. Perhaps the bright future that beckons for the Lionesses and one hopes, for women’s football, is best served by understanding that what has come before isn’t necessarily the best way forward. Here at XYZ we talk about the importance of non-binary thinking, accepting and embracing the shades of grey and nuances as strengths.  The time for either/or is over, a brighter and more progressive future lies with a “yes, and…” mentality. Through accepting and celebrating a team of Lionesses who do not conform to expectation, and creating spaces for fans who reflect that, has brought us to somewhere new and exciting that opens up opportunities none of us can fully comprehend yet. In the words of Alex Scott MBE, one of the football pioneers we celebrated with our gallery at the Lionesses’ send-off event at NikeTown, the train has left the station and is picking up speed…