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Why brands and rights holders should be putting women athletes at the centre of their marketing plans

The Fifa Women's World Cup drove huge numbers but the players have now returned to a system that undervalues them. Thayer Lavielle, EVP of Wasserman's The Collective, outlines the long-term benefits organisations will see from investing in women athletes today.

14 September 2023 Thayer Lavielle

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Between Taylor Swift and Beyonce tours each producing over US$2 billion, a Barbie movie grossing over US$1 billion and a Fifa Women’s World Cup that outpaced all expectations on ticket sales, attendance, and viewership, this summer has been a reminder that when women are in the spotlight, female fans turn out in droves – dressing up for these occasions in pink, in sparkles, and in team colours at watch parties, as if on a months-long girls’ night out.

In the US and beyond we have just spent the summer celebrating the prowess, power and sexuality of women in record engagement numbers and dollars.

Celebrated and held up as beacons of competition and competence, the players at the recent Women’s World Cup have given everybody a reason to celebrate the game’s growth. Across the globe, women’s soccer is quickly becoming big business, boasting valuations and revenues that frequently reach into the billions.

These are just some of the groundbreaking numbers from the tournament:

  • 736 women from around the world made it to their country’s World Cup roster. 32 teams made up of 23 individuals, each contributors who have trained for years to reach this place in history.
  • 12 new teams entered the 2023 tournament, which means new countries invested in their entire soccer ecosystem to show up on the world stage.
  • Fifa offered three times the prize money to what it was in 2019 and with almost two million tickets sold over 64 matches in ten venues, the crowds showed up in droves.

Fans across the world watched despite the awkward hours for many home countries and Fifa reports that its global community following women’s soccer on social media is now nine million strong. All in, the betting community also saw an uptick in bets placed, thereby validating the significance of the women’s game in monetary terms.

Fifa reported that the tournament broke even for the first time ever, generating US$570 million in revenue and increasing the number of official partners by 12, reaching a sold-out inventory of 30 sponsors. All of these are great signs of growth, but what is not talked about is the fact that most of these women return to play in a system that undervalues and underinvests in them as contributors.

In a recent North American pay equity study by Wasserman’s The Collective and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), it was found that professional women athletes across multiple leagues make on average 21 times less than male athletes. It also found that because of that financial disparity, women need to drive 82 per cent of their income from off-the-field endorsements – yet only ten per cent of sponsorship dollars are directed towards women.

This requires women to work to have an outsized relationship with their fans, whom they are finding, cultivating and supporting on social media. However, because of this proximity to their own fans, as individual athletes, they can shift purchase behaviour and provide brands who invest in them as individuals with greater halo effect.

While these world events captivate audiences and showcase their abilities, it is the day in, day out play that needs our support – as fans and as companies. Women athletes have proven their success time and time again and, as articulated in this recent study, are proving it off the field as well.

Yet when these players return to their day jobs, they are faced with continued underinvestment and undervaluation.

To balance the scales of investment and valuation in women’s sports, brands and rights holders need to put women athletes at the centre of their marketing plans, not as add-on endorsements, as fan loyalty and purchasing power will pay off in the long run.

With massive momentum across women’s sports and the proven passion of their followers, there is an opportunity for brands and rights holders to shape new campaigns around women athletes. Here are the most strategic opportunities…

Play the long game with women athletes

Investing in women’s sports should put women athletes at the core. Brands should structure their investment for long-term success – choosing to work with women athletes is intentionally opting in to an ecosystem that values women for their differences. Successful partners will challenge traditional models and align investments to the dynamic value offered by women both on and off the field of play.

Fill gaps in broadcast coverage by over-indexing on media and amplification for women athletes. Powerful media dollars can drive partnership value by building awareness among new fans in untapped markets.

Truly believing in women’s sports means understanding impact and visibility will continue to build over time. By looking at women athletes as a long-term investment, commercial partners have the opportunity to scale alongside a rapidly growing fanbase, driving increasingly higher returns over time.

Don’t just sponsor or endorse but get creative with your deals. Deviate from conventional funding models and consider a collaborative approach to partnership. In addition to paying them equitably to men, offer women athletes the opportunity to build long-term, mutually beneficial equity with your brand through revenue sharing or long-term joint ventures.

Reinvent community around women athletes

Harness the power of the fan community. Leverage the connection that women athletes have with fans by developing a strategy that cultivates genuine interest and engagement. Positioning your organisation at the corner of profit and purpose will be critical to long-term success with a new generation of fans who have outsized appreciation for organizations centred in purpose.

By placing value on women athletes as conduits to social purpose, commercial partners can make a difference in the areas that matter most to consumers. Actively seeking opportunities to align brand and athlete values will enable authenticity and increase brand equity.

No one is more skilled at reaching and cultivating these fans more than women athletes. With twice the engagement, women athletes stand alone when it comes to consumer engagement and driving purchasing power. Continue to build the community by collaborating with women athletes to tell their stories on game day and beyond. Emphasise athlete-owned social media channels to maximise fan activity.

Build athlete-centric structures for women

Through meaningful fan connections, women athletes offer commercial partners unparalleled brand value and business impact. Everything a growing team and league wants.

Understanding that fans of women’s sports and athletes are twice as engaged – 54 per cent of women’s sports fans are more aware of products of brands supporting women, while 45 per cent are more willing to purchase from those companes – we must consider and firmly value the unparalleled momentum, fan interest and cultural relevance of women athletes and their sports. These premiums are critical to pinpoint so we can understand the true growth and value that women athletes are driving in the new economy of sports.

This approach will open up new assets for rights holders and help to create a new investment model.

The first, essential step to all of this is to adjust your vision. The Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Barbie moments become possible when we erase tropes and outdated tradition, and simply let women lead the narrative. Women athletes are not an add-on or an also, and when we imbue them with “main character energy”, their stories expand and connect, creating fanbases and markets that grow the economy – at a time where it’s sorely needed.

Build for them, and they will deliver for you – as the heroes of the tale.

For the full ‘The New Economy of Sport’ report, please visit www.wearethecollective.com/new-economy-of-sports.

Wasserman is a partner of NEW ERA, SportsPro’s year-round programme and community advocating for a new era of gender equality and representation within the international sports industry. To find out more, click here

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