Marketers Keen on Women’s Sports Despite WUSA Demise

The Women’s United Soccer Association failed to attract enough sponsors to stay afloat, but its demise is being blamed on a flawed business model rather than a lack of interest in sponsoring women’s sports. In fact, advertisers remain upbeat about women’s sports in general, and soccer in particular.

Witness the enthusiasm marketers have displayed for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, currently under way in the U.S. Sponsors include Avaya, Philips Electronics North America, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Yahoo!, Budweiser and MasterCard. Even the California Milk Processor Board got in the game last week, launching a TV spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners that shows a montage of X-rays, with voiceovers by players from the U.S. national women’s soccer team, to emphasize that milk is essential to strong bones.

Jim Andrews, svp/editorial director at IEG, a research consultancy in Chicago, said the WUSA’s failures should not be viewed as an indication that women’s sports cannot attract sponsors. “They didn’t have a good base of fans,” he said. “Marketers will go where the fans are.”

Industry experts claim the WUSA failed to draw many fans partly because of sponsorship fees that were prohibitive for a young league and a TV package that offered only limited exposure on the PAX network.

Philips, which also sponsors the U.S. national men’s and women’s teams, will continue to invest in women’s soccer, said Paul Simonetti, director of global branding communications. “We’re disappointed with the recent [WUSA] announcement,” he said. “For us, it makes what we’re doing even more important. The family audience that women’s soccer attracts is really perfect for us. It speaks to all our consumer products.”

That includes even the company’s medical systems products, Simonetti pointed out, with U.S. women’s star Brandi Chastain serving as spokeswoman for its defibrillators.

“We’re more than open to looking at the Women’s World Cup opportunities in the future as well as individual endorsement opportunities with players,” said Kevin Adler, vp of sponsorships and events for Relay Sports and Event Marketing, a division of Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group in Chicago. “They are all brands that have established equity and are relevant to that target. That equity never translated to the WUSA.”

Launched in 2000 following the surge of public fervor surrounding the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the WUSA had a business plan, drawn up before 9/11, that called for eight charter sponsors to pay $2.5 million each. Only Hyundai Motor America and Johnson & Johnson signed on at nearly that level. Other companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Aflac, Gillette and Maytag signed agreements worth $400,000-850,000 annually, said Dan Courtemanche, a representative for the WUSA in Atlanta, adding that most of the companies had two- to four-year agreements.

“The companies we spoke with were either not spending dollars or were spending elsewhere,” said Courtemanche. “A lot of folks were spending money in Nascar,” he said, adding that the stock-car league is now encroaching on the WUSA’s audience of the active, “suburban, minivan family.”

Still, the league hopes to mount a comeback and is banking on enthusiasm surrounding the current Women’s World Cup to do so. Companies such as Maytag, Aflac and Gillette say they will consider continuing to sponsor the WUSA.

“I don’t believe it’s the death knell for women’s sports,” said Gillette representative Mike Norton. “We’re hopeful that instead of shutting down the league, it’s suspended until they get a different business model.”