How Caitlin Clark and Women's Basketball Scored Big for Disney and Its Partners

Exclusive: Huge viewership for March Madness and the WNBA Draft yielded big returns for ESPN advertisers

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Where men’s sports often receive brand and broadcast support based on their potential, proponents of women’s sports note that investment in their game hinges on proof of its value.

This year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament—with help from Caitlin Clark and Dawn Staley—just provided its broadcasters at the Walt Disney Company and their brand partners a small forest’s worth of receipts.

When the second round of the tournament aired more than a month ago, Disney’s ESPN noted its 1.4 million average viewers represented a 121% increase from a year earlier. With the Sweet 16 (2.4 million average, +96% year-over-year increase), the Elite 8 (6.2 million, up +184%), the Final Four (10.8 million, +138%) and Staley’s crowning moment in the championship game (18.9 million—4 million more than the men’s game—up +90%), this year’s women’s March Madness was the most-watched in ESPN’s history—with viewership for the later rounds constituting the best on record.

That energy carried over into ESPN’s broadcast of the WNBA Draft, which drew 2.45 million viewers (and a peak of nearly 3.1 million) to watch a packed rookie class led by Clark. That’s nearly four times the previous draft record for viewership—including the most-viewed WNBA Countdown show ever—and the most viewers the WNBA has drawn to any broadcast since 2000.

“The audience growth is a reflection of the momentum that has been building,” said Danielle Brown, svp of data enablement and category strategy for Disney Advertising. “We’ve been invested in women’s sports from Day One over the past 40-plus years, and now it’s reaching a point where they’re surpassing some of the men’s sports that are on our air … while we are deeply invested in both, we’re seeing the tide is turning.”

While increased viewership had helped visibility for women’s basketball and its case for more time on Disney networks—which are already touting ESPN and ESPN2’s slate of up to 52 Google-sponsored WNBA regular-season games, ABC’s AT&T WNBA All-Star Game and the company’s 27 Google-backed WNBA playoff matchups—it’s good news for brand sponsors as well. Television data and analytics firm EDO noted that women’s March Madness increased ad engagement across multiple categories, including financial services, consumer products, insurance, movies and restaurants—with that consumer excitement continuing into the WNBA Draft.

Much as fans will flock to a media outlet that showcases their sport, they’ll support a brand that invests in the game.

“Brands are noticing the high watermarks, but they’re also noticing the effectiveness,” said Deidra Maddock, vp of sports brand solutions for Disney Advertising. “It isn’t just about chasing or rating, it’s about chasing an effective viewer who they know is going to be engaged with their brand. When we see multiple brands and we’re able to diversify the kinds of brands who are participating in our content, that to me is a great measure of success.”

Putting up postseason numbers

As the Sports Innovation Lab’s Fan Project points out, women’s sports fans are acquired and retained at a 40% higher rate than average sports fans because they’re incredibly engaged with their sport and community. As a result, they also tend to spend more with supportive brands.

According to EDO’s data, engagement with ads during women’s March Madness surged with audiences. Fans paid more attention to brand spots during the first two rounds (up +42% from 2023), the Sweet Sixteen (up +68%), Elite Eight (+5%), Final Four (+98%) and title matchup (+8%) than they did at any point in last year’s tournament. For all of this year’s women’s March Madness, ad engagement increased by an average of 39%.

In some categories, the difference was far more pronounced. Ads for movies running on ESPN during Women’s March Madness saw double the engagement rate of similar ads aired during the latest Super Bowl. During the women’s Final Four and title game, engagement for those movie trailers nearly tripled similar Super Bowl spots.

“We’re getting the flywheel going—the economic flywheel,” said Kevin Krim, CEO of EDO. “The audiences are engaged with the programming and stars. The brands are following the audience and seeing positive engagement rates on the ads that are placed in these programs. That’s driving more money into the sports, and it’s giving a broadcaster like ESPN a great return on investment.” 

The Caitlin Clark [side] effect

Throughout March Madness and the WNBA Draft, Caitlin Clark was a presence on the court as the No. 1 pick and in the brand ad lineup.

As EDO noted, viewers were 8% more likely to engage with ads during the 2024 WNBA Draft on ESPN than competing primetime programming, making those ads 52% more effective than their 2023 counterparts. For State Farm, which backed Clark with name, image and likeness (NIL) deals throughout her career and sponsored the WNBA Draft broadcast, viewers were 275% more likely to engage with its ads that aired during the draft than typical primetime ads.

“State Farm has jumped into NIL in a way that is smarter, more data-driven and more aggressive than any brand I can think of,” Krim said. “The fans are gonna follow Caitlin into the WNBA. State Farm is going to follow with them, and that kind of money is going to flow through.”

But you don’t necessarily have to have Clark or any other player on the roster to reap the benefits of women’s basketball fandom. During the Final Four, another insurer—Geico—saw ESPN viewers 393% more likely to engage with its ads than a standard primetime spot. By the national championship game, they were 710% more likely to hear what the gecko had to say.

That passion worked in Wendy’s favor as well, as the fast-food chain’s ads during the title game proved 439% more effective than its normal primetime ads.

“I think there’s the perception that you have to have a specific creative for a certain environment, which is fantastic and contextual creative definitely works,” Brown said. “But there’s also an alternative, which is just to have great creative.”

As Disney’s Maddock added, it also helps when a brand’s great creative shows up for women’s sports marketing. EDO pointed out that the top-performing brand in all women’s sports programming last year was New Balance, which was 203% more effective than the average women’s sports advertiser thanks to a campaign with Coco Gauff

That intent, according to Deloitte, is why every dollar spent marketing within women’s sports generates more than seven in “customer value for that organization.”

“I don’t know that there’s an exact science to what the recipe for success is,” Maddock said. “But I do think that the first step to that is the intention … being very thoughtful about supporting women’s sports in a way that is new and that makes fans sit up and take notice.”

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