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Sports & Fitness Marketing

The ROI of women’s sports sponsorship shouldn’t surprise you (but should impress you)

By Danielle Smith, Vice President



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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July 4, 2024 | 9 min read

For The Drum’s sport & fitness focus week, The Collective’s Danielle Smith surveys recent research on the huge opportunity for sponsorship in rapidly-growing women’s sports.

A woman playing football

Women's sport sponsorships: an opportunity we should all know about by now? / My Profit Tutor via Unsplash

We’ve all seen the Togethxr t-shirts: “Everyone Watches Women’s Sports.” Girls and boys, men and women, sports fans and the disinterested: all can now name a handful of professional women athletes. Many have a favorite Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) or National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) team.

This feels relatively new. But you know what isn’t new? The fact that women’s sports have long been providing value to the brands forward-thinking enough to invest.

Sure, 2024 brought headlines and growth like never before, and suddenly it’s cool to be a women’s sports fan. So why are most brands just now realizing the power that women’s sports sponsorships deliver? Women’s sports sponsorship isn’t just a flash in the pan; it's a calculated investment with proven, historical return-on-investment (ROI) that can ensure enduring growth.

It’s a strategic move many brands are behind in realizing.

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A safe bet – just look at the data

A study I co-authored with Dr Jonathan Jensen analyzed 790+ title event sponsorships, including some of the most valuable global brands. We found that sponsoring firms are equally likely to renew sponsorships for women's events as for men's events. Despite the historical reality of lower media ratings or in-person attendance, these results suggest that resources allocated towards women's sponsorships yield a similar ROI to men's.

Brands are just starting to report ROI on women’s sports investments. Rolex, a long-time sponsor, endorsed Chris Evert in 1978 and now sponsors all Grand Slam tennis tournaments and many LPGA events. Their investment has paid off, as women's sports fans are nine times more likely to engage with Rolex than the general US sports audience. Brands are rewarded for supporting fans’ favorite athletes and leagues.

Elsewhere, recent best-in-class example Ally Financial demonstrated significant growth since its 2022 announcement of the 50/50 pledge. Marketing ROI is exceeding expectations, with +20% awareness, +25% brand likeability, and +20% preference among women's sports fans.

Brands must educate themselves on the years-long, tangible returns generated by women’s sports – both the traditional and the innovative – so that they can redesign objectives and benefit from the momentum in this space.

Consider not only the purpose but the ways in which you invest in women’s sports to maximize business and societal returns.

Reconsider your definition of ‘ROI’

Brand decision-makers sponsoring a sports property first consider the value of the property, and what the associated assets will bring to their business. This might comprise metrics like awareness, consideration, or loyalty. With women’s sports sponsorships, fans expect more – and more properties everyday are meeting or exceeding this expectation.

NSWL team ACFC’s innovative sponsorship models gives back 10% of all sponsorship deals to the local LA community, and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) works with each official marketing partner to provide a tangible benefit to the macro player community. Consider exponentially impacting the full ecosystem with your women’s sports partnerships – across brand, athletes, property, and community. That return adds up very quickly. From our research, we know that it also provides tangible, authentic business impact.

A tip: rethink the growing tech category. A brand might create a 360 partnership where they receive powerful sponsorship assets like signage and digital engagement, but then add a unique brand benefit, like the offer to develop customized e-commerce apps for each player. That expertise and IP could create a video game development camp that not only benefits girls in Stem education, but also grows the women’s sports brand and its athletes. This win-win-win-win ROI transcends impressions.

Pick your cause and empower women athletes to tackle it

Society remains gender inequitable. Globally, girls and women deal with access to sports, reproductive rights, pay inequity, and beyond. Sport has always been a megaphone to leverage this passion for change. Brands that truly want to amplify their impact should use partnerships to join the fight for something meaningful.

We know that women’s sports fans seek support: 89% of women’s sports fans are more likely to have been inspired by an athlete to take some form of action.

The cause could be as specific as improvement of media representation. While the share of voice for women’s sports content grew from 4% just a few years ago to 15%, women’s sports fans still cannot easily access the content they crave. If brands fund and demand more primetime coverage, more investment in the at-home fan experience, and more overall visibility, media companies will listen.

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Refresh to stop the rinse/repeat

Many brands this year will say, ‘let’s invest in a women’s sports league/team/athlete’, and then apply the exact formula they’ve been using for men’s sponsorships. This approach overlooks the unique characteristics and opportunities inherent in women's sports. Investments should adopt a tailored approach acknowledging and leveraging this coveted demographic. Women's sports fans lean younger, more educated, and more affluent, presenting opportunities for targeted, innovative marketing.

Embrace this whitespace with experimentation and inventive strategies to develop bold initiatives. Our research indicates that that brand ROI is comparable for men's or women's sports. But in creative, messaging should differ to reflect this unique audience and context. This means emphasizing stories of empowerment, community engagement, and inclusivity – values that resonate strongly with women's sports audiences.

It's high time brands catch up and drive change to reap the rewards of a market that's both lucrative and transformative. Soon we’ll start to say, “Everyone invests in women’s sports.”

For more play-by-play on sports marketing in 2024, check out our focus week hub.

Sports & Fitness Marketing

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