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How Ally’s 50/50 pledge is changing the way brands look at – and invest in – women’s sports

Last year, Ally Financial vowed to equalise its media spend across women's and men's sports by 2027. Stephanie Marciano, the brand's head of sports and entertainment marketing, outlines the company's three-pronged approach to achieving that goal and reveals the business results so far.

14 July 2023 Stephanie Marciano

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For Ally Financial, sports marketing has proven itself as one of the most effective ways to engage our customers and reach new audiences that share a passion for sports.

Media investments and sponsorships across professional and collegiate sports have consistently served our brand well, and in May 2022, Ally made a ’50/50 pledge’ to spend equally in paid media across men’s and women’s sports by 2027. This was not a PR stunt. It was an intentional business decision that has not only expanded the breadth of our sports portfolio, but it has also resulted in double-digit growth in brand awareness, affinity and preference.

In 2021, prior to the pledge, Ally Financial became the official retail banking partner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). We added a presenting sponsorship of the Women’s International Champions Cup (WICC) and aligned with the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA) as well as several professional athletes. This work reinforced what we’ve always known: over 80 per cent of fans are interested in women’s sports and want more access. It has also provided us an inside look at the barriers that exist for brands to maximise the business potential of the women’s sports space.

As we looked to increase our investments in women’s sports, we encountered various exclusivity issues and a vicious cycle in sports media: limited coverage, off-peak timeslots and low-cost ad inventory resulting in fan access issues, low viewership and soft brand returns. All of this feeds into the undervaluation of the leagues and the assets within the leagues, which negatively impacts players and fans. We quickly realised that with very intentional media investments, we could disrupt the status quo and stimulate change that would positively impact the entire women’s sports landscape. Thus the 50/50 pledge was born.

Our first major act to support the pledge was unprecedented – we collaborated with CBS and the NWSL to move the league’s championship game into primetime on broadcast television for the first time ever. The game pulled in nearly one million viewers, up 71 per cent year-over-year – another proof point of the fan demand. The marketplace response towards Ally was incredible. In my 15-year career in sports, I’ve never seen such a genuine outpouring of excitement and appreciation (from fans, athletes, and industry leaders) – validation that there was more work to be done.

Ally Financial helped ensure that last season’s NWSL championship game aired during primetime on CBS

We began charting our course with a three-pronged approach. One, attack the vicious cycle head-on with intentional media investments. Two, grow our sports sponsorship portfolio meaningfully by doing deals with properties and athletes that include media mandates. Three, collaborate with other brands and share our playbook (because it will take all of us to expedite growth).

1. Attack the vicious cycle head-on

To start, we focused on legacy sports media properties with national audiences. Most of these networks don’t get asked often to customise packages with a majority of the spend in women’s sports. We had the most productive conversations with Disney-ESPN, a leader in women’s sports coverage. Together, we built a first-of-its kind multi-year, multi-million dollar deal that was 90 per cent weighted in women’s sports media. It featured a robust Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) sponsorship with three women’s championship tournament entitlements, including the first-ever title sponsorship of the Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Next, we added several emerging sports media properties (many that are women-founded, women-owned) to our roster of sponsorships, including EspnW, Just Women’s Sports, The Gist, Goals, Re-Inc and Women’s Sports Network. These outlets are leading the way in delivering consistent, extensive, and thoughtful women’s sports coverage, and investments in these platforms only continue to mainstream women’s sports.

2. Grow our portfolio with a media mandate

What is a media mandate? To us this means that we’ll only add new property and athlete relationships that allow us to either integrate into best-in-class coverage, or help elevate the property’s current visibility and distribution.

Our first move was to recruit a group of influential athletes and creators to be members of a newly formed Team Ally. Their ongoing mandate is to help make women’s sports hard to miss, spreading the word about upcoming games – where and when to watch – and providing a behind-the-scenes look at events throughout the year. Our intention with these player-direct, social-led relationships is to increase access to women’s sports, drive year-round fan engagement and create social currency – all while injecting money directly into players’ pockets. We’ll also be doing some deep work with the team, using their direct feedback to help guide our future efforts in women’s sports.

Next, to expand our college sports footprint, we added the first-ever Ally Tipoff, a premier, season-opening matchup between the University of Iowa and Virginia Tech women’s basketball teams in Charlotte and broadcasted on ESPN platforms.

3. Share the Playbook

In all of these efforts, we are simultaneously working to empower, and collaborate with, other brands to use their budget intentionally to join the quest for media equity in women’s sports. We’ve built relationships across the industry, and we’ve teamed up with the Sports Innovation Lab to create the Women’s Sports Club presented by Ally, which is a group dedicated to deal-making and increasing media investments. Leaders from brands like Google, Puma and Michelob Ultra, as well as rights holders and agencies, can share ideas, challenge conventions and build relationships.

The results

Our approach has surpassed even our own expectations in terms of impact on the sports industry, our brand reputation and our company’s bottom line.

We’ve made tremendous early progress against our 50/50 pledge, we’ve recalibrated our paid spend in men’s sports and increased our media investment in women’s sports by 300 per cent, moving us from a roughly 90/10 men’s/women’s split to approximately 60/40 split in one year. This commitment alone has proven to be one of the most meaningful brand acts in Ally’s history.

Our early and consistent investments in the NWSL and the NWSLPA, specifically our media focus, have helped increase fandom and viewership of the sport. According to the league’s mid-season growth metrics, average game attendance is up 48 per cent and total viewership is up 47 per cent year-over-year. While we know this isn’t a direct result of our investments alone, we are proud of the work we have done to chip away at the vicious cycle, driving a healthier overall economy for women’s sports

In terms of Ally’s bottom line, the numbers tell it all. Our marketing ROI is now on a higher trajectory than we could have ever imagined. Our sponsorship tracking shows awareness of Ally has grown 20 per cent among women’s sports fans, while brand likeability is up 25 per cent and preference is up 20 per cent among those same fans. Additionally, among all consumers who associate Ally with women’s sports, likeability has grown 13 per cent and preference has grown 12 per cent.

We’ve also learned that consumers are becoming more favourable towards Ally, and our research shows a favourable consumer is six times more likely to become a customer. Not to mention, it costs almost 90 per cent less to convert them.

The business benefit is undeniable, which is why we have much more in store for the year ahead, including activities around the Fifa Women’s World Cup. We’ll be launching a new women’s sports TV spot, driving tune-in with Team Ally members and investing in creative takeovers with ESPN’s SportsCenter featuring Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) legend Sue Bird. Beyond the World Cup, we’ll be going deeper in women’s college sports through our ACC and NIL relationships, as well as the Ally Tipoff.

Virginia Tech will take on the University of Iowa in November’s inaugural season-opening Ally Tipoff, which will air across ESPN platforms

These positive results did not come easy. All brands are faced with similar challenges – premium inventory to buy is sparse, leagues are still growing and category exclusivities limit brand investments. For 2024, the Women’s World Cup has created an incredible opportunity for brands to invest, but what happens next year when that tentpole event doesn’t exist?

Our blueprint has been to show up where it counts, invest in what we believe in and work intentionally. By putting a stake in the ground with our 50/50 pledge last year – and yes, it’s only been a year – we’ve delivered outsized results and deepened our position as a brand that matters. As we celebrate the progress of women’s sports and how far we’ve come, let’s remember how much further we need to go and how we’re going to get there. Real and sustainable change is ahead if we show up and stay present, if we are bold enough to say no to deals that perpetuate inequities and if we work collectively to help each other along the way.

We’re starting to see what can be achieved when we work together. Invest in and watch women’s sports – it’s good for the game, it’s good for the athletes and it’s good for business.

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Women’s Sport Week. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

To find out more about future themed weeks, click here.

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