Women's Sports Is at an Inflection Point. Here's How Brands Can Step Up

The espnW Summit highlighted the importance of creating an equitable media landscape

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Historically, there has been an argument that women’s sports were not profitable, with a perceived lack of demand. Recent events show a very different story.

This was abundantly clear in Ojai Valley at the espnW Summit, where athletes, executives and brands gathered to discuss the year in sports and highlight what they’re seeing across events, media and advertising. It is all at once empowering and a signal of untapped potential.

Here are key learnings from the summit to show how brands can help shape the future of women’s sports.

The demand

The record-breaking attendance and viewership of the 2022 Women’s NCAA Basketball Final Four, Iowa vs. DePaul, and the 2023 WNBA season have demonstrated that women’s sports are no longer a nice-to-have market but a thriving one. Brands are now finding themselves drawn to the intersection of women’s sports and media equity. This shift not only signifies a core change in the power of women’s sports but also in the ability for brands to have a seat at enhancing their future.

Ally’s 50/50 Pledge to advertise equally across women’s and men’s sports by 2027 highlights the power the brands can have. One such highlight of the initiative saw the online bank elevate the NWSL’s championship game to primetime on CBS, with a million viewers tuning in.

Media coverage for women’s sports is traditionally between 3.5% and 5% of coverage, but has grown to 15% and is on track to be 20% by 2025, according to the latest report from sports marketing agency Wasserman and The Collective. This shows there is room for scale as more investment and opportunities are provided.

Fans have proven there is demand when there is the chance to watch and support women’s sports. These fans present an opportunity for brands to convert customers more efficiently, reaching a dedicated and passionate audience with purchasing power in the trillions of dollars. The girl economy, as it were, is already showcasing what happens when brands specifically create content for women—they make bank.

The business case for brands

Women’s sports are evolving and becoming more mainstream, but it isn’t enough. What will make executives take the step and invest as advertising partners and advocates for women’s sports?

Omnichannel impact

When advertising with sports programs, you aren’t just showing up in the linear distribution spots. While many of us are watching sports on streaming and linear channels, we also join conversations about the games we’re watching on social.

Social has provided an interactive component where we as viewers and fans are empowered to be a voice for what we’re seeing. As coverage of women’s sports grows, so does the omnichannel distribution, providing a larger share of voice for the brands that play a role as supporters.

Marketing growth and opportunity

This week, Kim Kardashian’s Skims was announced as the official underwear partner of the WNBA. The brand deal signals that Skims recognizes these fans as a core demographic they want to attract and grow.

“Advertising for women’s sports is less expensive than men’s sports from a reach standpoint,” shared Angel City Football Club co-founder Kara Nortman at the summit. “You have a younger and more diverse audience watching. You can capture greater mindshare as you aren’t competing to cover every patch of grass or red zone, so your advertising dollar is working harder for you.”

Brand affinity and lower CAC (customer acquisition cost)

Ally’s head of sports and entertainment marketing, Stephanie Marciano, pointed out, “Fans want more women’s sports. … We have some scale issues with women’s sports, but what we don’t have in women’s sports is brand affinity issues.”

Marciano went on to highlight that the data gathered from the 50/50 Pledge shows that fans of women’s sports love Ally, and they have affinity and preference toward the brand. “We are six times more likely to convert you to a customer, and it costs us 90% less to convert you.”

Brand differentiation and demographic appeal

“Marketing leaders often ask me, ‘How do I reach the next generation sports fan?’ and I tell them that 62% of Gen Z fans say they would watch women’s sports if it was easier to find. So for a brand, it’s a huge opportunity to work with media partners to make more women’s sports available to fans and reach this coveted demographic,” said Sara Gotfredson, founder of Trailblazing Sports Group.

“There is an opportunity in women’s sports for brands to build and create franchise positions across platforms in a relatively uncluttered environment.”

How to get started

Brands should first commit to genuine, long-term partnerships that go beyond mere tokenism. By celebrating the achievements and stories of female athletes, promoting their events and supporting grassroots initiatives, brands can inspire the next generation of talent and fans.

Carolyn Braff, head of Gatorade brand strategy and founding member of the Gatorade Women’s Advisory Board, shared three key takeaways on how to innovate for women:

  • Do not shrink or pink anything. Do the work. Understand what women want. Understand how that’s different from what women need. Understand how you can meet them in that opportunity space in the middle.
  • Get women a seat at the table. Surround them with really strong women and men who will help them raise their voices and make sure that they are always heard.
  • Find your own personal advisory board.

The intersection of women and athletes of color is where brands can step up to not just impact the future of women’s sports but inclusivity as a whole.

Black in Sport Business founder and CEO Marsha-Gaye Knight went on to highlight the importance of building up the industry and creating environments where women of color (WOC) can thrive. To start, here are her recommended four questions to ask when advancing WOC in sport:

  1. What have I done to help to create an environment that allows WOC to grow and thrive?
  2. How have I supported WOC to advance in the industry?
  3. Have I taken the time to understand and learn about the experiences of WOC in the industry?
  4. When we all gather together, do we ever ask ‘who is missing?’

The new era of women’s sports represents a turning point for brands to align with a growing and passionate fanbase. With the shift in media equity, storytelling, and a measurable impact on revenue and sentiment, the business case for brands investing in women’s sports is stronger than ever.

As women’s sports continue to thrive, brands can be a driving force in their success. It’s not just about growth; it’s about the scale and the potential to shape the future of sports marketing. Brands can offer more than ad spend, as their investment has the power to position women’s sports for primetime opportunities that drive fandom, viewership and engagement for brands that want to empower today’s and tomorrow’s athletes.

For brands that want to plant a flag in the future, this is your sign.