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‘I like to feel we can do it differently’: What if women’s sport went its own way?

Experts from across the industry look at how those who govern and market women's sport are taking a fresh approach in areas like competition structure, content distribution, sponsorship packaging and fan acquisition.

1 November 2021 Michael Long

What if?

It’s a question many working in women’s sport will have pondered at length over the years, one which is loaded with possibility and yet simultaneously tinged with an aching sense of missed opportunity.

Born of a lack of media coverage, chronic underfunding and archaic attitudes towards female participation, the question itself speaks to what might have been. Within it lies the inescapable feeling that women’s sport would be far further down the road to commercial maturity had decades of institutionalised sexism and gender stereotyping not served to inhibit the potential of female athletes across the board.

From patriarchal ideologies to systemic inequality, myriad historic factors have served to stifle the growth of women’s sports and women within sports, giving rise to stark disparities between male and female athletes. In early 2021, Deloitte predicted that total revenues across women’s sports would amount to well under a billion dollars this year, a fraction of the global value of all sports, which in 2018 stood at US$481 billion. In Forbes’ most recent list of the world’s highest-paid sportspeople, just two women – tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams – made the top 50. According to Sportico estimates, no other women would have even cracked the top 1,000 overall.

But, of course, such inequity is nothing new. Research indicates that just seven per cent of the US$30 billion spent globally on sponsorships is directed towards sportswomen. It is also well documented that less than five per cent of sports coverage in the media includes women, despite females making up around 44 per cent of all sports participation.

And yet, these are changing times.

Recent events have highlighted a clear appetite among fans and mounting commercial interest in women’s sports. Attendances, viewership and merchandise sales are on the rise in many competitions, while rights holders and brands have begun to prioritise gender equality and increase their investments in female athletes. Expanded and improved media coverage, new professional competitions boasting equal pay or prize money and the unbundling of commercial rights to create standalone packages for women’s properties are all sure signs of progress.

But what if, commercially speaking, there was no established blueprint for women’s sports to follow? What if there was no preordained rulebook for how sport in general is governed, played, broadcast, packaged, marketed and monetised? What if centuries of societal convention could be set aside and a new path paved, one built on the cultural norms and attitudes of today rather than those dreamt up and imposed by men generations ago?

What if there was an opportunity to take a fresh approach altogether?

Content is queen

Unbalanced media coverage and biased representations in sport have not manifested overnight. Sport is viewed through a male lens because its tropes have been internalised over decades, if not centuries. Suffice to say, messaging is aimed either at men or audiences mostly comprised of men, and stories surrounding the female sporting experience have too often been under-appreciated. Together, those realities have fostered a lack of investment in consistent, high-quality coverage of women’s sports beyond large-scale mixed events like the Olympics.

Yet the picture today is beginning to crystalise, having progressed in line with an ever-evolving media landscape and changing societal attitudes spurred by movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. Coupled with the advent of social media, the arrival of digital-native platforms like Amazon Prime Video, DAZN, Eleven Sports and Twitch has led to a wave of fresh interest in sports content, opening up new opportunities to build audiences, to tell stories that might not have gained mainstream exposure in the past, and to connect with fans in more targeted, personalised ways.

As Sue Anstiss MBE writes in her recently released book ‘Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport’: ‘Digital presents a fantastic opportunity for women’s sport as we witness a shift away from linear TV and print media as the main route to consumption. While the survival of men’s sport often depends on broadcast revenue, that’s not been the case for the women, which might now be an advantage. Women’s sport has the opportunity to pivot its offering, to be more creative in the ways it serves its growing audience, as, unlike traditional media, digital time and space are unlimited and in effect ‘free’.’

Of course, eschewing traditional media outright is perhaps not the best course of action if the goal is to bridge the yawning visibility gap. Major broadcast networks maintain a level of reach and influence no upstart platform or independent media entity can possibly hope to rival, at least not initially. For that reason, content distribution strategies must embrace both established and emerging models, with broadcast television, social media platforms, owned and operated channels, and other nascent outlets all factored into structured rights packages that include a mix of free-to-air, pay-TV and short-form digital clips.

Athletes like WNBA star Arike Ogunbowale are capitalising on new media opportunities to tell their own stories

Such hybrid strategies are already evident at the top level of women’s sports. In the US, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) notably struck a multi-year deal with Amazon in May to become the first women’s professional league to be streamed on Prime Video. That deal complemented its existing national broadcast arrangements with CBS Sports and Disney and was subsequently bolstered by another first for women’s sports: a landmark agreement with Buzzer, the new mobile platform that enables users to set up customised content alerts during live events.

This approach is clearly paying dividends for the WNBA. At a time when nearly every major men’s property in the US struggled to retain viewers throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the league recorded significant increases in its domestic TV audience this year, with viewership up 51 per cent over the 2020 season and 24 per cent on 2019. Not coincidentally, similarly notable increases have been registered by the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), thanks in part to more exposure on cable and broadcast TV, as well as a global streaming deal with Amazon-owned Twitch, which now shows every match outside North America for free.

Each of these deals is structured to maximise both reach and revenue, but they are also evidence of the extent to which the leading properties are embracing more novel, digital-first approaches to content distribution. Indeed, creativity in the media space can be found right across the industry. Earlier this summer, for example, Burnley FC Women became the first UK soccer side to live stream games on TikTok as part of a multi-year deal that would see the video-sharing platform also become the third-tier club’s sleeve sponsor.

In tandem with these emerging media opportunities has come the launch of all-new outlets dedicated to covering female athletes. Legacy publishers like the Los Angeles Times and the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, which was widely lauded when it created Telegraph Women’s Sport (TWS) back in 2019, are notably investing more resources into women’s sports. Multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports has also created a new Eleven Women division with a remit to acquire rights to women’s sports globally.

In the US, espnW has been the foremost platform dedicated to female voices in sports since its creation in July 2010. Now, however, several upstart ventures are emerging with the stated aim of boosting the visibility and accessibility of women’s sports.

Two of those platforms, Togethxr and Just Women’s Sports (JWS), share many similarities, not least the fact that their business models differ greatly from those of the established media players. Cut from the same social-first, community-driven cloth as other youth-focused outlets like Overtime and House of Highlights, both companies are aiming to build multi-channel media brands that combine sports, lifestyle and culture with other core revenue streams such as original programming and merchandise.

“Increasingly, the gatekeepers are irrelevant,” says Jessica Robertson, Togethxr’s chief content officer. “Because the power is in your own hands, you can connect directly with your own community and your own audience.

“Media organisations and brands are recognising that women’s sports isn’t a cause, it’s actually really good business. There’s really rich communities to be built and really incredible brand value alignment to be had. I genuinely believe this is the one space where a rising tide does lift all boats.”

The power is in your own hands, you can connect directly with your own community and your own audience.

Jessica Robertson, Chief Content Officer, Togethxr

Launched in early 2020 by Haley Rosen, a former professional soccer player, JWS started life purely as an Instagram account but now operates its own branded platforms providing news and analysis through exclusive interviews, podcasts, videos and other content. Hailed as the first female-led media company that is fully VC funded, the company raised US$3.5 million in May through a seed financing round led by Will Ventures, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures, OVO Fund, Supernode Global, and Drive by DraftKings.

On its website, JWS sets out its stall in no uncertain terms: ‘This isn’t a token sub-brand or at the bottom of some dropdown menu. We aren’t doing this for charity. And don’t expect pink and glitter.’

Like Togethxr, which was co-founded in March by Olympic champions Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel and Sue Bird, JWS has the backing of several top sportswomen, including WNBA stars Arike Ogunbowale and Elena Delle Donne, ice hockey great Hilary Knight, and soccer players Kelley O’Hara and Sam Mewis. Each of those star names act as content creators for the platform as well as equity investors, thereby helping to lend JWS immediate profile and credibility.

“We’re working closely with them on content and ideas and getting feedback there because they’re on the ground,” says Rachel Quon, the head of operations at JWS. “Our institutional investors are also super supportive in giving us feedback on our goals and also introducing us to people in the industry. We have Will Ventures, we have Drive by DraftKings, who are in the betting space. They’re able to help us get in conversations so we can continuously learn and then adapt based on that.”

According to Quon, a former soccer player who represented Canada, JWS has set out to build the infrastructure necessary to make it easier to be a fan of women’s sports. In July, the company launched the JWS Scoreboard, a live scoring widget that has been a staple of men’s sports for years but has never existed on the women’s side. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, too, it created a dedicated women’s-only medal count and also rolled out an original video series, Best Seat in the House, which gives audiences an exclusive look inside the homes of athletes’ families as they watch their loved ones compete.

In time, Quon says JWS intends to become a “a full 360 media company” and a destination for streaming live sports and highlights, but for now the brand is focusing on laying the groundwork for regular year-round coverage.

“For women’s sports to take that leap, games need to be accessible,” she says. “Right now they’re on at 10pm, they’re at times that are not consistent, they’re on networks that are not consistent, or you have to search and find where it’s going to be. So games need to be accessible but also the content around the games, so the analysis, the player stats, the highlights, everything that should be around women’s sports 24/7. That’s the bigger vision for Just Women’s Sports and we’re in the beginning stages of that.”




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The whole package

Signs of the commercial momentum in women’s sports are everywhere, not just in the media space. Studies projecting future growth are certainly not hard to find. In the UK, for instance, the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) estimates that revenue generated by women’s sports will grow to UK£1 billion by 2030, up from UK£350 million currently.

In June, the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury announced a deal, reported to be worth some US$66 million over its 15-year term, with Bally’s Corporation that was described at the time as the ‘largest official team sponsorship’ in the history of women’s sports. But if one measure of the current trajectory is increasing rights fees, the growing trend of unbundling women’s rights from the equivalent men’s properties clearly illustrates rising demand and sponsor interest, with more and more rights owners now seeing the value in separating out their commercial assets.

Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, first unbundled sponsorship rights around its women’s competitions back in 2017, and has since secured agreements with the likes of Visa, Heineken, PepsiCo and Grifols. Elsewhere, World Rugby recently launched a dedicated Women in Rugby commercial programme that sets out to build ‘further profile, engagement and sustainable growth’ as part of its Women in Rugby Plan up until 2025.

Visa backed the Uefa Women’s Champions League in a landmark standalone sponsorship deal signed in 2018

Interestingly, this trend of unbundling rights has coincided with a push to bring women’s properties more in line with their male counterparts. The result is that, in many sports, women’s propositions are straightforward replications of those long built up around men: the same identities and kits, the same competitive structures, the same sponsors. Yet not everybody agrees with this approach. Some believe women’s leagues and clubs – particularly those in popular team sports like soccer and basketball – should be spun out into their own independent entities and left to stand alone on merit, largely because they have typically been perceived as an afterthought or subordinate to their corresponding men’s competitions.

Notably in 2019, reports that English soccer’s Premier League could look to take over the running of the Women’s Super League (WSL) were met with resistance among players and clubs who baulked at the prospect of coming under male control.

“I like to feel we can do it differently,” says Anstiss, the chief executive of Fearless Women and the Women’s Sport Collective who also sits on the board of trustees at the WST. “We don’t have to follow the path that men’s sport has done and some of the negative elements also within men’s sport. But it isn’t just black and white.

“If we look at football as the biggest growth opportunity, aligning ourselves to the men and wanting the backing and support of the men’s clubs is really important to the growth of the sport, too. So I think there’s almost a little bit of a dilemma for women’s sport. We can go and plow a new field and we can do it differently and that’s exciting, and we should be. But at the same time it will benefit from being associated with men’s sport.”

So I do feel there is a huge opportunity for investors to come in. Whether it’s venture capital or it’s sponsors, they can make a significant difference without the level of money they would need to make a similar splash in men’s sport.

Sue Anstiss, MBE

Across all sports, there are clear differences between how men’s and women’s properties are positioned commercially. With women’s sports generally viewed as more family-oriented and inclusive, marketing around them is often more cause-focused and purpose-driven. With that in mind, one of the ways in which marketers in women’s sports are differentiating their sponsorship propositions is by gearing brand partnerships towards community impact rather than media exposure.

NWSL expansion franchise Angel City FC are a case in point. Backed by a consortium of investors including actress Natalie Portman and retired soccer stars Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm, they have been able to fill all three of their main sponsorship slots – including the most lucrative front-of-shirt deal in the league, worth eight figures overall – a full year out from their debut season in 2022. Tellingly, their sponsorship philosophy dictates that a portion of the money they receive from their partners is reallocated to local causes – team sponsor DoorDash, for example, has committed to donating US$5 for every order placed on its platform to restaurants in Los Angeles owned or led by women.

“How many gambling sponsors can you have in men’s football?” posits Anstiss. “You know, there’s only so much you can do there before you want to do something differently and position yourself differently. So I do feel there is a huge opportunity for investors to come in. Whether it’s venture capital or it’s sponsors, they can make a significant difference without the level of money they would need to make a similar splash in men’s sport.”

Indeed, it is not only rights holders that are actively seeking out untapped commercial opportunities; brands are also changing the way they evaluate women’s sports.

In August, to mark Women’s Equality Day, beer brand Michelob Ultra committed to spending some US$100 million on improving gender equality in sports over the next five years. As well as pledging that half its ad creative, lifestyle media inventory, talent endorsements and sponsorships will feature female athletes by 2025, the brand also launched its ‘Save It, See It’ campaign, which encourages fans to save women’s sports highlights they watch on social media. Other brands such as AT&T, Google and Barclays have been notably active in the space, ramping up their investments across many major competitions.

It is clear, then, that investors in women’s sports see nothing but upside, not least since the cost of entry remains relatively low. Brian Reilly, a managing partner at Will Ventures, which led the JWS investment round earlier this year, has described the space as a “venture-scale opportunity”. That phrase certainly seems apt, for if the overly saturated, often conservative and highly politicised world of men’s sport is awash with immovable juggernauts, multinational corporations and long-established relationships, women’s sport is a comparatively dynamic, fast-growing ecosystem of high-growth startups and entrepreneurial founders willing to think differently.

“We built a team like it’s an enterprise software company,” Kara Nortman, a co-founder of Angel City FC and a managing partner at Upfront Ventures, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “We have investors who are amplifying our brand, sponsors coming to us to reach an audience that isn’t the NFL. Sports is a prized asset, and men’s teams are very expensive. For us, there is this energy around building something and buying in at a price that could literally [rise in value ten-, 20- or 30-fold].”

Strong female leads

For many, the term women’s sports is a frustrating generalisation. The mere fact that the term is gendered implies that women’s sports are for women and sports – or, to paraphrase, men’s sports – are for everyone.

“I think women’s sports has to be right-sized,” says Robertson. “I don’t think comparing and modelling off of men’s sports sets women’s sports up for success. The investment, for so many years, has been behind men’s sports, so the investment structures haven’t been there to replicate those male models.

“It’s incredibly hard to have a model, a copy and paste model, when the level of investment isn’t the same. So you know, it’s sort of overdue for brands and federations and broadcasters to invest and undo the inequity that’s existed.”

Most comparisons between men’s and women’s sports are indeed unfair. One criticism often levelled at the loss-making WNBA, for instance, is that because the league is largely bankrolled by the men’s NBA, it could not stand on its own two feet. Yet if that is the case, it is undoubtedly a consequence of economic reality and historic under-investment. As has been noted elsewhere, while ESPN is reported to pay US$25 million for domestic rights to the WNBA, its deal for the NBA totalled US$2.6 billion as of 2019.

“For a long time,” says Robertson, “there was this question of: is the ROI there? And that’s why there wasn’t an investment in the women’s sports space. Well, that’s not the only reason there wasn’t investment. Women’s sports is ground zero for every ism. We can get into social conversations and constructs that have also held women back but, you know, for a long time it was considered not worth the ROI.

“What I would say now is the risk is that you don’t invest and you miss out on the massive opportunity that’s right before you.”

I think women’s sports has to be right-sized. I don’t think comparing and modelling off of men’s sports sets women’s sports up for success.

Jessica Robertson, Chief Content Officer, Togethxr

Though the W still appears in the acronyms of most of the very biggest properties, a growing movement to remove gender references from the names of teams, leagues and competitions is gathering pace. World Rugby, for example, dropped gender designations from its flagship World Cups back in 2019, while the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) rebranded to the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) this September. In US college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has finally moved to permit the use of its powerful trademark ‘March Madness’ for its Division One Women’s Basketball Tournament having for years reserved that highly marketable moniker for its men’s competition.

Yet, as Robertson notes, progress for women’s sports is more than just a rebadging exercise.

“I think you can tell when it’s performative and when it’s genuine,” she says. “And it does start with decision-makers, which largely are white men in very powerful positions. It’s not just incumbent on putting more women in decision-making positions – you know, women who will support women in the growth of the space. It’s also the male allies and the male decision-makers who have to recognise the business opportunity that’s at hand.”

Alongside the ongoing, industry-wide rebranding effort has come a push to put women’s competitions on a par with their male equivalents. During Tokyo 2020, where 18 mixed-gender events were staged across a range of sports, Olympic organisers made gender balance and fair scheduling a chief priority. To afford female athletes greater prominence and visibility, the number of women’s competitions held in prime time across key territories was increased, as were the number of medal events staged on the big-ticket middle and final weekends of the Games.

Other organising bodies have taken steps to create entirely new competitions and formats from scratch. In motorsport, for instance, the all-female W Series launched in late 2018 with the expressed aim of boosting opportunities for women to build careers in racing. In triathlon, too, men and women compete for equal prize money at events organised by the newly formed Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO). Elsewhere, from 2023, World Rugby is set to introduce a new three-tiered, 16-team annual 15s competition called WXV as part of its broader plans to overhaul the international women’s game globally.

Athletes Unlimited gives its female proponents a share in league profits and a say in decision-making

Another organisation leading the way for sportswomen is Athletes Unlimited. Described as ‘a network of next-generation professional sports leagues’ spanning softball, indoor volleyball and lacrosse, the American entity has put diversity, inclusivity and gender equality at its core. It also enables its athletes to share in league profits and gives them a say in day-to-day decision-making. As Robertson notes: “They’re building a community, they’re telling great stories, they’re pulling off leagues for women that haven’t existed in the past. They’re literally putting dollars into these women’s pockets.”

Such innovative concepts are the antithesis of the tokenism that has long dogged women’s sports. And yet, even today, there remain many brands and properties who appear to view investments in women as little more than a PR play.

When 12 of Europe’s elite men’s soccer clubs announced their intention to form a breakaway European Super League (ESL) earlier this year, for example, a half-baked plan to create an equivalent women’s competition at some point in the future was slung as an afterthought at the bottom of their joint press release, prompting widespread accusations of so-called ‘genderwashing’. That the NCAA only moved to rebrand its women’s basketball tournament after a social media backlash over posts that highlighted startling gender disparities in college sports hardly gave the impression that the organisation was being proactive when it comes to equality.

For Thayer Lavielle, who heads up agency giant Wasserman’s female-focused division The Collective, both of those cases highlight how genuine progress will only come about if society continues to call out organisations who fail to show women the respect they deserve.

“Shame is a powerful change agent,” she says. “We saw that last year at the NCAA tournament, where the men had this incredible gym, and the women had like four free weights and a yoga mat. Like, really? So maybe next year it won’t be like that.”

This feature series was originally published as part of ‘W is for progress’, a special report on women’s sport in Issue 115 of SportsPro magazine. Access a digital version of the edition here.

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