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Four misconceptions brands have about sponsoring women’s sports

Saving some standout examples, the goodwill towards female athletes has yet to translate into sustained sponsorship investment. SportsPro debunks some of the excuses brands might be using not to spend on women's sport.

14 July 2023 Sam Carp

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How many companies can look themselves in the mirror and honestly say “I’m doing enough”?

I’ve been to countless industry events over the past few years where I’ve heard brand representatives talk up the opportunity in women’s sport and the work they are doing to support both female athletes and their own female employees.

But apart from a few standout examples, I’ve yet to see that translate into sustained sponsorship investment in women’s sport and media buys. To me it feels more like a trickle, when the industry narrative would have you believe that there has been an avalanche of deals. 

Gina Waldhorn, the chief marketing officer at Sports Innovation Lab (SIL), calls this new phenomenon “support theatre”. 

“There’s a lot of great support theatre going on,” she tells me. “No doubt you need some of that, but I think the gap between support theatre, and talking the talk, and walking the walk, is still too wide right now.” 

Waldhorn has been spearheading the Women’s Sports Club, a deal-making programme SIL established earlier this year in partnership with Ally, the financial services company which in 2022 committed to reaching equal media spend across women’s and men’s sports in the next five years.

With participation from sponsors, leagues and broadcasters, including the likes of Nike, the NWSL and Fubo, the aim of the club is to bring the buy and sell side around the table to not only help brands understand that there is money to be made in women’s sports, but also to educate rights holders about what changes they need to make to attract more sponsor investment.

Waldhorn says that has led to some “difficult conversations”, but ones that have also encouraged brands to be open about what would need to be true for them to invest, whether it be more GRPs, more content, or better timeslots. 

Those discussions have also highlighted some of the most common misconceptions brands have about women’s sports, which I’ve summarised below…

1. No one watches women’s sports

Ah yes, an excuse as old as time itself. So often the putdown of choice for ‘boomers’ on social media, the ill-conceived notion that not enough people watch women’s sports also speaks to the traditional – and perhaps dated – practice of using eyeballs alone to measure sponsorship performance.

Either way, there’s plenty of evidence that now points to the contrary – at least when media companies give women’s sports the platform they deserve.

Last year, for example, the audience for the NWSL championship game shot up 71 per cent to 915,000 after increased media spend from Ally pushed CBS to broadcast the fixture during primetime.

This week, meanwhile, NBC Sports reported that its coverage of the recent US Women’s Open was the most watched since 2014, which came after the golf tournament was given the first primetime slot in its history.

Last week’s US Open delivered strong viewing figures for NBC after airing during primetime

The more broadcasters put women’s sports centre stage, the more those numbers will continue to come in, and the harder it will become for brands to ignore.

“The networks have not yet fully invested in women’s sports,” Waldhorn notes. “There’s not enough content, bad time slots, which leads to a perceived lack of fan interest, which then leads to a lack of advertiser interest. So you end up with a vicious cycle.”

2. There’s no business case for women’s sports

For many brands, sponsoring women’s sports properties lives in the world of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In other words, they’re investing because they think it’s the right thing to do, not because they think it’s going to move the needle for their business.

However, that line of thought ignores the buying power of women’s sports fans and the loyalty they show to brands who sponsor their favourite properties.

Indeed, comprehensive research published last week showed that 29 per cent of UK adults think more favourably of brands that sponsor women’s sport, compared to 17 per cent for men’s sport. The Women’s Sport Trust study also revealed that 16 per cent of the UK population are more likely to buy from a company sponsoring women’s sport, compared to 13 per cent for partners of men’s sport.

That’s in addition to SIL’s own research, which shows that the rate of purchase for the likes of DoorDash, Nike and StateFarm – companies prevalent across men’s and women’s sport – is 30 per cent higher among women’s sports fans.

“We’re not asking brands to go find tens of millions of dollars,” Waldhorn notes. “If you’ve got sports media dollars being spent, consider spending them with women’s sports – not only in traditional sports.

“So you have to make up what’s going to happen to their business when you do that reallocation. And the misconception is that there won’t be ROI there.”

3. Only women watch women’s sports

While acknowledging that this mindset is starting to change, Waldhorn says another misconception among brands is that the audience for women’s sports is almost exclusively female, which limits the reach for sponsors also wanting to market to men. 

Based on SIL’s research, though, Waldhorn believes the split to be closer to 45 per cent male to 55 per cent female, and there are a growing number of studies to back up the idea that men are increasingly showing interest in women’s sports. 

A Nielsen study conducted as far back as 2018, for example, found that 51 per cent of fans interested in women’s sports were male. That share is only likely to have increased in the last five years. The results of a Kantar survey published this week, meanwhile, found that around a quarter of British men plan to follow the upcoming Fifa Women’s World Cup, an increase of seven per cent on the 2019 edition.

Plus, you don’t need data to see the footage and pictures of more men attending women’s sports events to introduce their children to live action in a more affordable, family-friendly environment.

Brands who think it’s only women that watch women’s sports need to think again

4. It isn’t worth the money

Waldhorn points out that there is still a discrepancy on both the buy and sell side regarding how much women’s sports deals should be worth. 

That could be for several reasons. Historically speaking, there aren’t many points of comparison to help brands or rights holders value standalone women’s sponsorship inventory. Some marketing executives might have a hard time justifying the spend internally to their bosses. It might also come back to the argument about eyeballs. 

But Barclays’ Katy Bowman recently told me that when the bank spent UK£10 million to sponsor the Women’s Super League, it was buying into “what could be”. That mindset is something that Waldhorn thinks needs to be adopted more widely.  

“What we talk about in the Women’s Sports Club,” she begins, “is how you frame up the business case for investing in buying media in women’s sports as an investment versus a purchase. 

“Sure, it may sting right now, you may feel like you’re overpaying, but if it stays on the growth trajectory that it’s on, then anybody who’s investing in women’s sports today, that investment is definitely going to be worth more than they paid in 12 months.”

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