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Five ways sponsors are showing up for women’s sports

On the back of International Women's Day, SportsPro looks at some of the strategies brands like Ally and Google are adopting as they move into women's sports sponsorship.

9 March 2023 Sam Carp

Getty Images

Most industry forecasts you read will tell you that women’s sports properties are set for increased sponsorship investment in the coming years, but it’s also true that female teams and competitions still see only a fraction of the money brands are investing in their male counterparts.

Some companies might be looking for a route into women’s sports sponsorship but are still trying to figure out what will work for them. So, on the back of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d highlight some of the most common strategies I’ve noticed from brands that are already entering the space.

1. Splitting your ad spend between women and men

Last June, Ally Financial made a very public commitment to spend equal ad dollars across both women’s and men’s sports programming within the next five years.

Led by a self-described “team of badass women”, Ally most notably increased its media spend with CBS last year to ensure that the 2022 NWSL Championship game was aired in a primetime slot on the US commercial network. 

More recently, Ally became the title sponsor of several Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) women’s properties and signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Disney that will see 90 per cent of the company’s investment go towards increasing women’s sports coverage on ESPN. It also struck a new deal with Rocket League Esports specifically to promote female gamers, including through a new women’s esports tournament. 

Equalising ad spend across men’s and women’s sports is a marketing strategy that other brands are beginning to follow, with Canadian Tire announcing this week that at least half of the money it spends sponsoring sports will go towards women by 2026 – starting with Canada’s first professional female soccer league

2. Improving visibility and discoverability

It’s been well documented that women’s sports get minimal media coverage compared to men’s, so what better way for a brand to get involved than by helping to make female athletes more visible? 

Some companies will be able to drive that change more naturally than others, and none more so than Google, whose search engine serves as the perfect tool to push women’s sports to the front of the line.

Under the direction of Kate Johnson, the technology giant’s sports marketing team has focused much of its sponsorship spend on improving the discoverability of female athletes and competitions. In fact, that was a specific target laid out as part of its partnerships with the WNBA and then Fiba around the 2022 Women’s Basketball World Cup

Meanwhile, at the end of last year, Google agreed a partnership with The Athletic to provide the digital media publisher with the tools required to double its women’s sports coverage, including financial resources to hire more journalists.

Google has used its sports sponsorships to improve the discoverability and visibility of women’s sport

3. Taking ownership of a specific property

While some brands are choosing to make their presence felt in various corners of women’s sport, others have opted to attach themselves to a specific property.

One of the most obvious examples in the UK is Barclays bank, which has been the title sponsor of English soccer’s WSL since 2019. At the end of 2021, the company extended the deal until 2025, pledging to double the amount it is investing into the women’s and girls’ game to UK£30 million.

Another brand taking a similar approach is mutual insurer Royal London, which in 2021 announced that it would be funding a feasibility study into the possible formation of a women’s Lions rugby union team. Last month, the initial findings revealed that forming a female equivalent of the touring team ‘is possible’.

For the likes of Barclays and Royal London, investing in these properties while in their relative infancy means they will come to be associated with their respective growth journeys in the long run – something that is only likely to generate goodwill for their brand. 

4. Launching new tools and initiatives  

Valuing a sponsorship in women’s sport can be challenging. Female competitions are still in the early stages of commercialisation and brands have traditionally used broadcast reach to measure the success of their partnerships, something that many women’s properties are still fighting for. 

In other words, some brands don’t think there are enough eyeballs to warrant a sponsorship, while broadcasters aren’t convinced that the advertising appetite is there to justify media coverage. 

That’s why there’s also an onus on companies operating within the sponsorship sector to deliver solutions that help those on the buy and sell side understand the benefits of investing in women’s sport. 

There have been a couple of interesting developments on that front in recent weeks. The first is from Relo Metrics, which is offering UK women’s soccer teams a free season of access to its social media sponsorship analytics, alongside workshops and in-person events that will encourage knowledge-sharing between clubs.

Over in the US, Ally (yes, the same Ally) has partnered with Angela Ruggiero’s Sports Innovation Lab to create the Women’s Sports Club, a coalition of major rights holders and brands – Nike, Gatorade and the LPGA among them – that will work to tackle some of the challenges in buying inventory in women’s sports.

“Everyone agrees it’s smart business to invest,” said Ruggiero. “But there are real barriers inhibiting brands from placing scaled media buys.”

The LPGA is among the founding members of the Women’s Sports Club

5. Making sure the money goes to the right place

Some brands might be reluctant to sign deals that cover a rights holder’s men’s and women’s teams because they have little control over how much of their investment is benefitting female athletes. 

However, sponsors are increasingly using official comms to make clear where they are allocating their rights fees. Only this week we saw GE Appliances offer Canada Soccer CAN$100,000 in additional sponsorship funding to help resolve the ongoing pay dispute between the federation and its women’s national team. 

Other brands have also been more targeted with their investments, including PNC Bank, which last week announced that it would be leveraging Angel City’s unique sponsorship model to put ten per cent of its rights fee into a fund supporting retired NWSL players looking to build businesses. 

Meanwhile Ally (yes, the same Ally) structured its league-wide sleeve sponsorship deal with the NWSL to include a ‘Player Impact Focus Programme’, ensuring that a portion of its rights fee went directly to the players.

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