TV Upfronts

Caitlin Clark Brings Increasing Brand Power Into WNBA Opening Day

Clark and other professional women’s basketball rookies have marketing, media and sponsor support as the 2024 season begins

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There’s bad news for onlookers betting that the 2024 WNBA rookie class won’t transfer their marketability to the pros: The league, broadcasters and sponsors already confidently support Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and others.

If anything, Clark’s momentum has only increased since her record-setting college scoring and viewership at Iowa ended with the most-watched WNBA draft of all time. That night, fans interacted with sponsor State Farm’s ads nearly three times more than they did with an average primetime commercial. Plus, draft-night sales of her Indiana Fever jersey set a record that only those of NFL No. 1 pick Caleb Williams have surpassed. 

This upcoming WNBA season, two of the Indiana Fever’s road games—in D.C. and Las Vegas—have been moved to larger arenas to accommodate crowds. In Chicago, fans are petitioning the Chicago Sky to move a game against the Fever to the United Center. 

Additionally, ESPN has already touted the more than 2.4 million viewers it received for the WNBA Draft and a 2024 WNBA broadcast lineup that features the Fever’s WNBA regular-season tipoff on Disney+ and eight Fever matchups—along with eight apiece for the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty and the WNBA All-Star Game in July. ION, meanwhile, centered its upfront pitch around a sports-heavy rebrand featuring Clark in eight Fever matchups on its network.

Brian Norris, the E.W. Scripps Company’s chief revenue officer, noted that ION has established the WNBA’s presence on Friday nights and helped raise the league’s viewership by 24% from a year earlier. Heading into its second season with the WNBA and its first with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), ION is selling its new identity as a live sports broadcaster from a foundation of women’s sports.

“We have made a commitment to women’s sports before the rest of the marketplace got on the women’s sports bandwagon,” Norris said. “We’ve been pretty clear about women’s sports being a movement and not a moment, and this was before the Caitlin Clark effect, before us knowing that we had eight Indiana Fever games on ION. We just knew that there was great competition.”

With the latest season starting May 14, the WNBA is already confident in the marketing power of Caitlin Clark and a rookie class that includes stars like Los Angeles Sparks Stanford draftee Cameron Brink and the Chicago Sky’s first-rounder Kamilla Cardoso from reigning NCAA champion South Carolina.

Why? It’s because the WNBA is already a strong and growing marketing force.

The 2023 WNBA season, without Clark and company, was the league’s most-watched in 21 years. Attendance increased 16% from a year earlier, while the WNBA Finals that saw the Aces defeat the Liberty had the largest viewership in two decades, a 36% increase from 2022. It’s why the WNBA had the 2023 WNBA No. 1 draft pick—and Clark’s Fever teammate—Aliyah Boston providing analysis on ESPN and visiting game sites during March Madness with other stars, including Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike.

The WNBA also joined creative partners Wieden+Kennedy in creating a spot with existing stars, including the Liberty’s Breanna Stewart and the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale, welcoming rookies to the league and connecting the W’s star-studded roster of 144 athletes to its incoming future.

“[Current WNBA athletes] are very excited to have the rookie class come in and bring more attention, bring more viewers, bring more eyeballs and bring more sponsors into the league with them,” said WNBA CMO Phil Cook. “So our ad campaign was a cheeky reminder: Welcome to the W—it’s going to be hard, but we’re here for you. We want you to succeed, and we want to help you succeed.”

Investing in the future

In Cook’s view, the modern WNBA and its marketing strategy have roots in WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert’s hiring back in 2019. The former CEO of Deloitte, Englebert negotiated the league’s collective bargaining agreement just before the pandemic in 2020. The eight-year agreement created the league’s Changemakers corporate investment group—Deloitte, Nike, CarMax, Google, AT&T and U.S. Bank—but also committed to increased player pay, benefits and league marketing.

When Cook joined the WNBA roughly three and a half years ago, there were “four or five” people in the marketing department and “very limited budgets.” Now, his team is close to 25 people who “know how to tell stories” and “know how to leverage analytics.” Within the last six to seven months, Cook said demand for WNBA marketing has only accelerated.

According to YouGov, 6.4% of sports fans say they are willing to give up time to follow the WNBA—the highest percentage since YouGov began tracking in 2018. YouGov also found that WNBA fans skew younger (47% aged 18-34, compared to 30% for all U.S. sports fans), with PwC noting that they’re among women’s sports fans who are three times more likely to attend a game or buy apparel than male sports fans.

“We’re not spending at the levels of our NBA brethren, so we have to be sharper with our investments,” Cook said. “But we’ve all started to align on what it is that is driving interest in the league, and it comes down to the athletes and the games on the court driving this momentum.”

The sponsors see it

But how do WNBA rookies who already accumulated a bunch of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights sponsors in college carry that momentum through the pros? As University of Connecticut point guard Paige Bueckers told media company Togethxr during a March Madness roundtable, many of those NIL deals just become sponsorship deals once a player begins their professional career.

Caitlin Clark, for example, went to the WNBA Draft in New York with State Farm billboards touting her achievements in Times Square and Jake from State Farm congratulating her on being the No. 1 pick. The weekend before the WNBA’s season-opening matchups, State Farm, ESPN, Disney Advertising and Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions debuted their “Full Court Press” docuseries on ABC following Clark, South Carolina star and WNBA first-round pick Kamilla Cardoso and UCLA standout Kiki Rice through their 2023-24 college season and March Madness.

State Farm and DisneyCreativeWorks—who notably teamed up before on an ad built into the ESPN Chicago Bulls documentary “The Last Dance”—built the players into a similarly cohesive campaign, ”Inner Baller.” The spots carry on the documentary tone of the series but allude to the value State Farm and its partners see in reaching younger generations through women’s basketball players as they make their professional debuts.

“We have a history of storytelling, whether it’s been through our relationship with Chris Paul or Patrick [Mahomes] and now Caitlin,” said Patty Morris, marketing executive for State Farm. “We’ll work with these players to help them bring out their personalities with stories that we can tell from an advertising perspective, but also honor and celebrate this transition into the WNBA, where they’re coming off of a couple of years of changing the landscape of NCAA.”

State Farm isn’t the only brand following through on its college commitments.

NIL sponsor Nike spent a reported $28 million to follow Clark into the WNBA with a signature shoe and followed up by giving two-time WNBA champion and MVP A’ja Wilson a signature shoe as well. With YouGov’s WNBA survey finding that the league’s fans believe sponsorship can keep companies socially relevant (77%), grab their attention (71%) and encourage them to buy a product (65% to 70%), Nike and fellow Clark NIL holdover Gatorade connect with those fans by creating custom products and marketing that fit an athlete’s personality and playing style.

Gatorade, for example, collaborated with Clark on a limited-edition bottle drop during March Madness that sold out in an hour. While the brand has worked with athletes like Michael Jordan and Neymar before they went pro, global head of sports marketing Jeff Kearney noted that Gatorade’s support of WNBA players including Clark and its most recent signee—A’ja Wilson—is as much about their future capability as it is about their marketability.

“As we learn more about them, where they want to go and what they want to do, we try to cater things specific to that we have in our montage spots,” Kearney said. “We want to make a commitment: We want to be a part of the journey to help them into the future, wherever their hopes and dreams may lie.”

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