Why brands need to embrace women’s sport
As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, Geoff Miller, director of client services at Interbrand, says it’s not a question of ‘if’ or ‘when’ women’s sports are worth investing in, but ‘how’ and ‘where’ brands can best do so.
For many of us, fandom is a lifelong pursuit. Whether this fandom is derived from a family connection, a university degree, a childhood experience or a casual encounter, our affinity for sports is deeply rooted in our innate desire to find and maintain tribes and communities that can, in turn, help us both connect with others and escape from reality.
For far too long, however, the tribes that we have created, marketed and consumed as ‘models’ at the amateur and professional levels have been disproportionately focused on men and men’s sports. In 2010, a study conducted by the University of South California found that 96% of sports coverage was devoted to men’s sports. This imbalance is still present today; more recent research found that the top media outlets in Spain devoted 96% of Twitter coverage to sportsmen over sportswomen and Forbes estimates that outside of landmark quadrennial events such as the World Cup, less than 10% of global coverage is focused on women’s sports.
This imbalance is also present in sponsorship. The value of the industry is on the rise: the European sponsorship market currently sits at €27bn, a 17.8% increase compared with previous years. Events hold huge value for brands – this year’s Super Bowl generated around $170m worth of in-game brand exposure from sponsorship embedded within the game, a 19% increase from 2020. Investment in women’s sports, however, has been considered a niche exercise, with recent investment only a paltry 0.4 % of total sports sponsorship.
While on the surface these are discouraging signs, it is critical to not mistake historical disregard with broader consumer disinterest.
Contrary to (and in many ways defying) the legacy state of imbalanced media coverage, women’s sports are riding a wave of popularity that promises to be as lasting as it is long overdue. According to Nielsen, 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports. Across attendance, viewership and revenue metrics, women’s professional sports have experienced significant growth in the last few years that reveals rising consumer interest and deepening engagement.
This year, more than 15 million viewers tuned in between January and March to watch women’s sports in the United Kingdom – nearly triple the amount compared with 2021. In the United States, on the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, further proof points abound. Electronic Arts continue to add women’s teams and athletes to its popular sports gaming titles and the United States Soccer Federation has broken ground on a landmark agreement to ensure the women’s national team receives equal pay to the men’s team.
Attendance, viewership, coverage and expansion opportunities continue to trend positively for the National Women’s Soccer League and Women’s National Basketball Association, respectively. On an individual level, female athletes are earning more than ever before and gaining increased exposure well beyond the world of sports, through vocal leadership on critical topics such as gender equality, social and racial justice and mental health. Brands are taking notice of the change in consumer behavior and the wave of athlete activism.
Last year Guinness tackled the lack of media coverage that women’s rugby received with the tagline ‘Never Settle Until Everyone Belongs in Sport’. Highlighting the lack of female sports personalities on Wikipedia, Guinness invited Wikipedia editors, rugby fans, writers and journalists to add stories of female players past and present. Buick similarly addressed this issue with a campaign launched during this year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, serving up only the audio commentary of highlight reels to pointedly illuminate the lack of equitable coverage for women’s athletics. Other global brands, from Budweiser to Visa and Delta to Nike, have doubled down on their financial stake in women’s professional leagues.
These moves reflect a growing recognition from brands – predicated on changing customer expectations, particularly among Millennial and gen Z audiences – that ethical leadership, grounded in transparent action, is critical for success. Professing commitments to equality and change are insufficient without concrete actions to address these challenges, and the ubiquity and power of sports serve as an ideal platform to drive and communicate change.
Beyond offering an opportunity to activate commitments to ethics and purpose, however, brands are increasingly recognizing that investment in women’s sports is good business. Women’s sports will cross the billion-dollar revenue mark in the coming years. Brands are able to find ways to authentically support women’s sports leagues, teams and athletes stand to gain from their efforts, both in perception, participation and engagement, as well as in bottom-line growth. For brands still on the sidelines, then, the question should not be ‘if’ or ‘when’ women’s sports are worth investing in, but ‘how’ and ‘where’ this can best be done.
Check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Sports Marketing Playbook, and learn the tactics employed by the world’s biggest sports organizations and their star athletes to stay top of their game.