Why brands need to embrace women’s sports

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As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, Geoff Miller, Director of Client Services at Interbrand, says it’s not a matter of ‘if’ or ‘when’ women’s sports are worth investing in, but “how” and “where” brands can best do it.

For many of us, fandom is a lifelong pursuit. Whether this fandom is derived from a family connection, a college degree, a childhood experience or a casual encounter, our affinity for the sport is deeply rooted in our innate desire to find and maintain tribes. and communities that can, in turn, help us connect. with others and escape from reality.

For too long, however, the tribes we’ve created, marketed, and consumed as “role models” at amateur and professional levels have focused disproportionately on men and men’s sports. In 2010, a study conducted by the University of Southern California found that 96% of sports coverage was devoted to men’s sports. This imbalance is still present today; more recent research found that Spain’s mainstream media devoted 96% of Twitter coverage to sportsmen rather than sportswomen and Forbes estimates that outside of quadrennial milestones such as the World Cup, less than 10% of the global coverage focuses on women’s sports.

/ Guinness

This imbalance is also present in sponsorship. The value of the industry is on the rise: the European sponsorship market currently stands at €27 billion, an increase of 17.8% compared to previous years. Events have huge value for brands – this year The Super Bowl generated around $170 million value of in-game brand exposure through in-game sponsorship, an increase of 19% over 2020. Investing in women’s sports, however, has been seen as a niche exercise, with a recent investment of only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship.

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While on the surface these signs are discouraging, it is essential not to confuse historical contempt with broader consumer disinterest.

Contrary to (and in many ways defying) the legacy of lopsided media coverage, women’s sports are riding a wave of popularity that promises to be as enduring as it has been long overdue. According to Nielsen, 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports. In terms of attendance, viewership and revenue, women’s professional sport has seen significant growth in recent years, indicating growing consumer interest and deep engagement.

This year, more than 15 million viewers tuned in between January and March to watch women’s sports in the UK – almost triple compared to 2021. In the US, over the 50e anniversary of the passage of Title IX, other evidence abounds. Electronic Arts continues to add female teams and athletes to its popular sports game titles, and the United States Soccer Federation has paved the way for a landmark agreement to ensure the Women’s National Team receives equal pay of 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 gaining more than ever and enjoying increased visibility far beyond the world of sport, through vocal leadership on critical topics such as gender equality, social and racial justice and mental health. Brands are waking up to changing consumer behavior and the wave of athlete activism.

Last year Guinness tackled the lack of media coverage women’s rugby has received with the slogan ‘Never settle until everyone is in the 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 also addressed this issue with a campaign launched during this year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, featuring only the audio commentary of highlight reels to ostensibly illuminate the lack of fair coverage for women’s athletics. Other global brands, from Budweiser to Visa and Delta to Nike, have doubled their financial stake in women’s professional leagues.

These changes reflect a growing recognition by brands – grounded in evolving customer expectations, particularly among millennial and Gen Z audiences – that ethical leadership, grounded in transparent action, is essential to success. Professed commitments to equality and change are insufficient without concrete actions to address these challenges, and the ubiquity and power of sport provides an ideal platform to drive and communicate change.

Beyond providing an opportunity to activate commitments to ethics and purpose, however, brands are increasingly recognizing that investing in women’s sports is good business. Women’s sports will cross the $1 billion 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 terms of perception, participation and engagement, as well as in terms of earnings growth. For brands still on the sidelines, the question should therefore not be “if” or “when” it is worth investing in women’s sport, but “how” and “where” it 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 on top of their game.

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