‘It’s helping people understand the power of women’s sports’: Why Wasserman launched the Collective

Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, Wasserman’s managing director of EMEA, explains how the agency’s new dedicated women’s sport division plans to help brands boost the visibility of female athletes.

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This summer’s Fifa Women’s World Cup was notable for a number of reasons, but it was only when the tournament was over, the coverage had stopped and the streams of ad campaigns disappeared that there was time to reflect on just how ubiquitous the competition had been.

The events of this summer – which extend far beyond soccer alone – have undoubtedly raised the visibility of women’s sport, but even as the masses watched and the records tumbled, there remained a lingering question of what happens next.

Wasserman is one company that is not waiting to find out. A little over a month ago the sports marketing and talent agency announced the formation of the Collective, a new division dedicated to boosting the visibility of women in sport and entertainment.

For all the progress that has been made in recent times, the wider exposure that women’s sport has benefited from has only served to highlight some of the opportunities that are going untapped. By promising to connect major companies, consumers and fans of all genders with some of the world’s top female athletes, the Collective is seeking to address that issue.

“This is something that people have to understand how to activate and how to engage with, and how to look at the whole rise and the female revolution and relevance in this space,” explains Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell (right), Wasserman’s managing director of EMEA, who likens the Collective to a “translator” that will “aggregate the conversations”. 

“We need something like the Collective to put a spotlight on this issue and to educate brands and properties on how to engage, and why to engage with women’s sports and female athletes,” she adds. “But also to educate the athletes, the properties and the rights holders on where the value is to the brand. Right now it’s almost like they don’t speak the same language.”

The timing, on the back of one of the most successful women’s soccer tournaments in history, might seem opportune, but Ueltzen-Gabell points out that the formation of the Collective is a natural progression for Wasserman.

Indeed, over half of the World Cup-winning US women’s national team (USWNT) feature on Wasserman’s talent roster, along with more than 150 female athletes spanning 21 sports, including Tokyo 2020 Olympic medal hopeful Katie Ledecky, American ice hockey star Hilary Knight, and 26 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players.

Beyond talent representation, though, Wasserman also offers advice to brands that want to advertise through sport, whether that be with the agency’s own sports stars or others.

“I think it’s resonating so well because it’s not a far-fetched play for us,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “It’s not so out of our DNA, and we feel very validated that we have the proof points. We created the Collective to act a resource for our clients – brands, properties and talent – to better drive business to and through a female consumer, using two decades of experience and expertise in this space as a backbone.”

Making the right play

The past 12 months have seen one sponsorship deal follow another in women’s sport, with each signed contract contributing to a snowball effect that has spurred other brands to make their first move into the market.

In the UK, for example, Barclays banking group became the first title sponsor of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in March, committing a reported UK£10 million over three years. Since then, the top-flight women’s soccer leagues in France and Germany have also announced new headline partnerships.

Outside of long-term commitments, however, Ueltzen-Gabell suspects that some companies investing in women’s sport are doing so as a box-ticking exercise rather than for the right reasons.

“There are a lot of big announcements, but the reality behind some of those investments is that not all of them are as altruistic as they seem to be,” she begins. “People are doing them almost not for sustainable growth, but for the PR story.”

The problem is that brands are failing to grasp exactly what they are investing in, and Ueltzen-Gabell likens the current level of understanding of women’s sport to when the digital revolution first started to break through. As a result, a big part of the Collective’s role will be an educational one.

“When making decisions, people that are buyers in this market know who they need to reach with their product, they know they have a finite amount of dollars, and they know that they have a lot of different options out there,” she explains.

There are a lot of big announcements, but the reality behind some of those investments is that not all of them are as altruistic as they seem to be.

“It’s helping people understand what the power of investing in women’s sports – or investing in female leaders or investing in decision makers – is. It’s understanding the audiences, understanding the power of the sport, and understanding what you’re going to get.”

The Collective, therefore, will help brands to determine whether women’s sport is the right play for them. Ueltzen-Gabell points to Procter & Gamble’s ‘Thank you, Mom’ campaign, regularly launched around the Olympic Games, as one that ties in with the consumer goods company’s brand identity. She also cites beauty brand Boots, which recently entered women’s sport through its sponsorship of all five soccer associations of the United Kingdom, as a natural fit.

For others, though, it simply doesn’t make sense.

“It’s got to be authentic to their brand,” Ueltzen-Gabell asserts. “You can’t have it if it’s completely out of your DNA to invest in women. There has to be either a product or a relevance and a need.

“If you’re trying to drive awareness you might not put all of your money into marketing of women, you have to look at your own brand and what your needs are, and then you have to figure out how to fit it into your marketing mix and then who you’re trying to reach.

“It’s not going to be for every brand, it’s going to be for the right brand and the right place, and they’re going to have to create the right message around it.”

This season's FA Women's Super League is the first to be title sponsored by Barclays

Knowing your audience

Brands might know that they want to get involved in women’s sport, but there is a big difference between signing a partnership and knowing how to activate it.

With that in mind, the Collective is aiming to deliver unique strategy, insights, and ideas for talent and brands that are focused on empowering and speaking to women. In doing so, Wasserman hopes it can encourage companies to make lasting commitments to women’s sport, rather than to simply look at their investment as a means of achieving short-term gains.

“Everyone’s clambering over it now,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “There are a lot of companies that are seeing this as it’s almost like a stamp of approval that they’re investing in the women’s space. Yes, they make the first investment, but for us it’s about helping them understand how to make the most of it to make the second investment and to be a real player in order to move this forward.”

Key to that will be in helping sponsors identify exactly who they are marketing to and how to reach them.

Ueltzen-Gabell says that a common misconception among brands is the belief that they can apply the same marketing strategy from men’s sport to the women’s space. Women’s sport sponsorship, however, requires brands to move away from traditional measures of success – such as broadcast reach – to focus more on the targeted audience they will be able to engage with.

“It’s a totally different buy,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “Global football is the biggest sport in the world, but you’re going to compete with a lot of different brands that are going to be there, and they’re going to be on signage, they’re going to be bombarding you with all sorts of different messages.

It’s not going to be for every brand, it’s going to be for the right brand and the right place, and they’re going to have to create the right message around it.

“In the women’s space you reach less people, but it’s about that deeper engagement, it’s about that emotional engagement, it’s about getting people inspired by more. So we have to improve the whole sport, but then we have to develop the understanding of how we get that message out and what that means.

“It’s not going to be millions and millions of eyeballs, but it’s going to be people that you can aspire to, and that are mums that have other jobs and have other lives. The storylines behind them are really important to unearth.”

The Women’s World Cup saw more brands making a conscious effort to tell some of those stories. Financial services company Commerzbank, for example, partnered with the German national side for an ad spot drawing attention to the discrimination still experienced by women’s soccer teams. Visa, meanwhile, used its ‘One moment can change the game’ initiative to highlight some of the inspirational characters at the tournament. 

In keeping with the messages that those examples were able to communicate, Ueltzen-Gabell adds that Wasserman will be drawing on its own “reams and reams” of case studies and data to help brands work with female athletes to create campaigns that resonate best with the women’s sport audience.

“It’s only good for our talent if people understand how to use them,” she says. “It’s only good for the brands we work with if they are able to invest and leverage these investments in the right way.”

Ueltzen-Gabell says brands need to understand who they are marketing to before getting into women's sport

Athletes as media channels

The Collective, Ueltzen-Gabell explains, is not suddenly “going to unlock dollars” for female athletes, but will instead “give them a platform in order to build a personality and build up marketability”. 

“I think in order to be marketable people have to care, people have to know your name, and I think there’s a job to be done,” she adds.

Indeed, the profile of women’s sport might be on the rise, and more brands will soon be looking to female athletes as their next ambassadors, but there are still only a handful of high-profile stars that have, up until now, truly been able to break into the mainstream.

One way in which the Collective hopes to enable more female athletes to do that is in conjunction with Athlete Exchange, a new service launched by the agency that plans to evolve athletes into a network of individual media channels.

“For a long time Casey [Wasserman, the company’s founder] was talking about the old media models and the old sort of mouthpieces, and the real drivers of chatter and buzz in the industry were big traditional outlets,” Ueltzen-Gabell begins. “Now, where a lot of the dialogue and the discussions are coming from is actually shifting it down to the athletes themselves and using them as media vehicles.

“On our side we’ve seen it takes that sort of traditional model and then actually uses those athletes, and it aggregates those athletes to really get that message across in a very authentic way.

In the women’s space you reach less people, but it’s about that deeper engagement, it’s about that emotional engagement, it’s about getting people inspired by more.

“So it’s taking advantage of where the chatter and the industry is going, and leveraging the depth and breadth of our network that we have.”

Ueltzen-Gabell adds that Athlete Exchange “brings the entire digital endorsement model in-house” by providing creative services, talent, production and media distribution, and notes that the service was already in action during the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Draft.

The Women’s World Cup saw the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Ada Hegerberg speak out on issues that resonate with large sections of society, and Athlete Exchange will now work with the Collective to create campaigns featuring female athletes in order to help them capitalise on their growing influence.

“It’s investing in building the brands and using these players and their personalities as media outlets, and I think that’s something that hasn’t always happened,” Ueltzen-Gabell explains. “So even some of our female athletes here, are we saying and guaranteeing to them that all of a sudden they’re now going to make more money?

“No, but you’re going to be part of a movement, and you’re going to help us shape and develop and create a role in this industry for you that probably people have ignored in the past.”

This summer’s Fifa Women’s World Cup was notable for a number of reasons, but it was only when the tournament was over, the coverage had stopped and the streams of ad campaigns disappeared that there was time to reflect on just how ubiquitous the competition had been.

The events of this summer – which extend far beyond soccer alone – have undoubtedly raised the visibility of women’s sport, but even as the masses watched and the records tumbled, there remained a lingering question of what happens next.

Wasserman is one company that is not waiting to find out. A little over a month ago the sports marketing and talent agency announced the formation of the Collective, a new division dedicated to boosting the visibility of women in sport and entertainment.

For all the progress that has been made in recent times, the wider exposure that women’s sport has benefited from has only served to highlight some of the opportunities that are going untapped. By promising to connect major companies, consumers and fans of all genders with some of the world’s top female athletes, the Collective is seeking to address that issue.

“This is something that people have to understand how to activate and how to engage with, and how to look at the whole rise and the female revolution and relevance in this space,” explains Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, Wasserman’s managing director of EMEA, who likens the Collective to a “translator” that will “aggregate the conversations”. 

“We need something like the Collective to put a spotlight on this issue and to educate brands and properties on how to engage, and why to engage with women’s sports and female athletes,” she adds. “But also to educate the athletes, the properties and the rights holders on where the value is to the brand. Right now it’s almost like they don’t speak the same language.”

The timing, on the back of one of the most successful women’s soccer tournaments in history, might seem opportune, but Ueltzen-Gabell points out that the formation of the Collective is a natural progression for Wasserman.

Indeed, over half of the World Cup-winning US women’s national team (USWNT) feature on Wasserman’s talent roster, along with more than 150 female athletes spanning 21 sports, including Tokyo 2020 Olympic medal hopeful Katie Ledecky, American ice hockey star Hilary Knight, and 26 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players.

Beyond talent representation, though, Wasserman also offers advice to brands that want to advertise through sport, whether that be with the agency’s own sports stars or others.

“I think it’s resonating so well because it’s not a far-fetched play for us,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “It’s not so out of our DNA, and we feel very validated that we have the proof points. We didn’t just do this and then try to come up with proof points after. We’ve always done it; it’s just realising that there is such a need for it. We’ve looked at it and said: 'Actually, we’ve done this, so why aren’t we talking about it more? We can help people.'”

Making the right play

The past 12 months have seen one sponsorship deal follow another in women’s sport, with each signed contract contributing to a snowball effect that has spurred other brands to make their first move into the market.

In the UK, for example, Barclays banking group became the first title sponsor of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in March, committing a reported UK£10 million over three years. Since then, the top-flight women’s soccer leagues in France and Germany have also announced new headline partnerships.

Outside of long-term commitments, however, Ueltzen-Gabell suspects that some companies investing in women’s sport are doing so as a box-ticking exercise rather than for the right reasons.

“There are a lot of big announcements, but the reality behind some of those investments is that not all of them are as altruistic as they seem to be,” she begins. “People are doing them almost not for sustainable growth, but for the PR story.”

The problem is that brands are failing to grasp exactly what they are investing in, and Ueltzen-Gabell likens the current level of understanding of women’s sport to when the digital revolution first started to break through. As a result, a big part of the Collective’s role will be an educational one.

“When making decisions, people that are buyers in this market know who they need to reach with their product, they know they have a finite amount of dollars, and they know that they have a lot of different options out there,” she explains.

“It’s helping people understand what the power of investing in women’s sports – or investing in female leaders or investing in decision makers – is. It’s understanding the audiences, understanding the power of the sport, and understanding what you’re going to get.”

The Collective, therefore, will help brands to determine whether women’s sport is the right play for them. Ueltzen-Gabell points to Procter & Gamble’s ‘Thank you, Mom’ campaign, regularly launched around the Olympic Games, as one that ties in with the consumer goods company’s brand identity. She also cites beauty brand Boots, which recently entered women’s sport through its sponsorship of all five soccer associations of the United Kingdom, as a natural fit.

For others, though, it simply doesn’t make sense.

“It’s got to be authentic to their brand,” Ueltzen-Gabell asserts. “You can’t have it if it’s completely out of your DNA to invest in women. There has to be either a product or a relevance and a need.

“If you’re trying to drive awareness you might not put all of your money into marketing of women, you have to look at your own brand and what your needs are, and then you have to figure out how to fit it into your marketing mix and then who you’re trying to reach.

“It’s not going to be for every brand, it’s going to be for the right brand and the right place, and they’re going to have to create the right message around it.”

Knowing your audience

Brands might know that they want to get involved in women’s sport, but there is a big difference between signing a partnership and knowing how to activate it.

With that in mind, the Collective is aiming to deliver unique strategy, insights, and ideas for talent and brands that are focused on empowering and speaking to women. In doing so, Wasserman hopes it can encourage companies to make lasting commitments to women’s sport, rather than to simply look at their investment as a means of achieving short-term gains.

“Everyone’s clambering over it now,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “There are a lot of companies that are seeing this as it’s almost like a stamp of approval that they’re investing in the women’s space. Yes, they make the first investment, but for us it’s about helping them understand how to make the most of it to make the second investment and to be a real player in order to move this forward.”

Key to that will be in helping sponsors identify exactly who they are marketing to and how to reach them.

Ueltzen-Gabell says that a common misconception among brands is the belief that they can apply the same marketing strategy from men’s sport to the women’s space. Women’s sport sponsorship, however, requires brands to move away from traditional measures of success – such as broadcast reach – to focus more on the targeted audience they will be able to engage with.

“It’s a totally different buy,” Ueltzen-Gabell says. “Global football is the biggest sport in the world, but you’re going to compete with a lot of different brands that are going to be there, and they’re going to be on signage, they’re going to be bombarding you with all sorts of different messages.

“In the women’s space you reach less people, but it’s about that deeper engagement, it’s about that emotional engagement, it’s about getting people inspired by more. So we have to improve the whole sport, but then we have to develop the understanding of how we get that message out and what that means.

“It’s not going to be millions and millions of eyeballs, but it’s going to be people that you can aspire to, and that are mums that have other jobs and have other lives. The storylines behind them are really important to unearth.”

The Women’s World Cup saw more brands making a conscious effort to tell some of those stories. Financial services company Commerzbank, for example, partnered with the German national side for an ad spot drawing attention to the discrimination still experienced by women’s soccer teams. Visa, meanwhile, used its ‘One moment can change the game’ initiative to highlight some of the inspirational characters at the tournament. 

In keeping with the messages that those examples were able to communicate, Ueltzen-Gabell adds that Wasserman will be drawing on its own “reams and reams” of case studies and data to help brands work with female athletes to create campaigns that resonate best with the women’s sport audience.

“It’s only good for our talent if people understand how to use them,” she says. “It’s only good for the brands we work with if they are able to invest and leverage these investments in the right way.”

Athletes as media channels

The Collective, Ueltzen-Gabell explains, is not suddenly “going to unlock dollars” for female athletes, but will instead “give them a platform in order to build a personality and build up marketability”. 

“I think in order to be marketable people have to care, people have to know your name, and I think there’s a job to be done,” she adds.

Indeed, the profile of women’s sport might be on the rise, and more brands will soon be looking to female athletes as their next ambassadors, but there are still only a handful of high-profile stars that have, up until now, truly been able to break into the mainstream.

One way in which the Collective hopes to enable more female athletes to do that is in conjunction with Athlete Exchange, a new service launched by the agency that plans to evolve athletes into a network of individual media channels.

“For a long time Casey [Wasserman, the company’s founder] was talking about the old media models and the old sort of mouthpieces, and the real drivers of chatter and buzz in the industry were big traditional outlets,” Ueltzen-Gabell begins. “Now, where a lot of the dialogue and the discussions are coming from is actually shifting it down to the athletes themselves and using them as media vehicles.

“On our side we’ve seen it takes that sort of traditional model and then actually uses those athletes, and it aggregates those athletes to really get that message across in a very authentic way.

“So it’s taking advantage of where the chatter and the industry is going, and leveraging the depth and breadth of our network that we have.”

Ueltzen-Gabell adds that Athlete Exchange “brings the entire digital endorsement model in-house” by providing creative services, talent, production and media distribution, and notes that the service was already in action during the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Draft.

The Women’s World Cup saw the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Ada Hegerberg speak out on issues that resonate with large sections of society, and Athlete Exchange will now work with the Collective to create campaigns featuring female athletes in order to help them capitalise on their growing influence.

“It’s investing in building the brands and using these players and their personalities as media outlets, and I think that’s something that hasn’t always happened,” Ueltzen-Gabell explains. “So even some of our female athletes here, are we saying and guaranteeing to them that all of a sudden they’re now going to make more money?

“No, but you’re going to be part of a movement, and you’re going to help us shape and develop and create a role in this industry for you that probably people have ignored in the past.”

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