Women's Sports-Focused NewFront Changes the Media Buying Game

Sports Innovation Lab's Women's Sports Club makes it easier for sponsors like Google and Ally to get in on the action

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Audiences and sponsorship for women’s sports grow in spite of a scattered broadcast landscape, not because of it. 

Sports Innovation Lab’s Women’s Sports Club NewFront gave marketers and ad agencies a clearer picture of women’s sports offerings during its event at New York’s NeueHouse Madison Square.

Joining its audience credit and debit purchase data with Trailblazing Sports Group’s Marketplace of sports inventory—including game programming; behind-the-scenes storytelling “tentpoles”; and team, athlete and media partnerships—Sports Innovation Lab’s Women’s Sports Club is trying to simplify the buying process for potential advertisers and “show up where the checks are written.”

“[It’s] being able to get to multiple sports and more women’s sports fans with single buys, versus trying to piece together softball over here and soccer over here,” said Gina Waldhorn, chief marketing officer at Sports Innovation Lab, who began her career buying media at Carat. “Then there was a feeling with a lot of our clients—especially the more savvy digital marketing clients—that what they saw in other areas of media and sports in terms of addressability and data-driven stuff was missing from women’s sports.”

Sponsored by companies including Trailblazing, Ally, EA Sports, Google, Scripps Sports and Morgan Stanley Global Sports and Entertainment, Women’s Sports Club was launched at South by Southwest in 2023 to address disparities in the women’s sports economy. Sports Innovation Lab’s own Fan Project found that women’s sports fans are not only acquired and retained at a 40% higher rate than average sports fans, but they also spent more with Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and luxury and travel brands as a result of being so heavily engaged.

However, women’s sports still only receive a fraction of the sponsorship—and media investment—of men’s sports. A study by Wasserman’s women-focused practice, The Collective, found just a 15% share of sports media coverage dedicated to women’s sports—tiny, considering women’s events comprise roughly 50% of all sports competitions in the U.S. Despite that, professional women’s sports get just 8% of sports media’s attention.

Last year, Women’s Sports Club began chipping away at that divide by forming partnerships between brands and women’s sports teams. It paired online gaming site PrizePicks and the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage, and also forged a sponsorship between NYX Professional Makeup (through agency Octagon) and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty.

Trailblazing Sports Group founder Sara Gotfredson noted that during her 18 years buying media and overseeing sales teams for ESPN, one of her proudest moments was building the first-ever WNBA Countdown studio with help from a partnership with Google.

I believe in the power of the purse with brands … brands can make things happen in women’s sports.

Sara Gotfredson, Trailblazing Sports Group founder

While Gotfredson noted that there was never a problem scaling up sponsorships at ESPN, she started Trailblazing and entered a partnership with Sports Innovation Lab to ensure that women’s sports receive similar opportunities no matter where they’re broadcast.

“I believe in the power of the purse with brands, so brands can make things happen in women’s sports,” Gotfredson said. “If I can play a role in helping brands invest in a lot of different properties within women’s sports beyond the big linear folks or big digital properties, then I feel like we are a firm with a mission.”

Teaming up on a brand playbook

The Women’s Sports Club NewFront is an attempt to escalate sales of women’s sports media packages and get more brands involved in the buying process. Focusing on athlete-driven, culture-driven and community-driven content packages, the NewFront used Sports Innovation Lab’s purchase data to determine fan behavior in addressable audiences: People who have bought tickets to Angel City FC NWSL matches, WNBA League Pass subscribers, USA Volleyball members who play in leagues, etc.

According to Jennifer Pelino, Sports Innovation Lab’s chief commercial officer and president of data cloud, consumers’ buying habits are 60% more accurate when classifying an audience than when using demographics, surveys or interest groups. 

By pairing that data with content in Trailblazing’s Marketplace, Women’s Sports Club hoped to present more than 25 entities—including Just Women’s Sports, Shannon Sharpe’s Hang Media, Togethxr, Bleacher Report, OneTeam Partners, She Media, The Gist, Darius Rucker Intercollegiate golf, data firm Tradable Bits and Naomi Osaka’s Hana Kuma—a clear picture of which audiences most valued certain content.

“Couple the right audience with a great storytelling creative, making it relative to the consumer, and you have a winning team improving the ad’s effectiveness,” Pelino said.

The Club partnered with USA Today, Altius Sports Partners and Impakt Partners on its NewFronts events, including a conversation between sports journalist Sarah Spain, football player Santia Deck, Sports Information Lab founder Angela Ruggerio and world motorcycle champion Mallory Dobbs; a panel featuring The Athletic senior soccer writer Meg Linehan, soccer freestylist Laura Biondo, two-time U.S. World Cup winner Tobin Heath and the national team’s players association’s executive director (and equal-pay champion) Becca Roux; and a talk between 13-year-old moderator Pepper Persley, former Las Vegas Aces player and Syd & TP Show star Theresa Plaisance and Sandra L. Richards, head of global sports and entertainment for Morgan Stanley.

‘Fish where the fish are’

The event’s presentations pitch women’s sports products but also dispelled many of its myths. As Waldhorn pointed out, recent viewership for women’s March Madness—including the record 18.9 million who tuned into ESPN for the final, eclipsing the men’s viewership by 4 million—found that men and women were watching in similar numbers. Not only have sports moved well beyond the point where the key demographic is males 18 through 24, but women’s sports can’t be defined as parents of teens playing youth sports.

Women’s sports fans aren’t bucketed into traditional personas, but Sports Innovation Lab’s data goes deep. For instance, it wants media buyers to know that they’re Toyota drivers or wireless customers who have subscribed to T-Mobile and AT&T more than Verizon. They have disparate interests and needs that should be addressed through multiple channels.

“There are media opportunities that brands should be buying into, but they should also be partnering with athletes in the NIL (name, image and likeness) space and social media, and then they should be investing in local teams,” Gotfredson said. “It’s not just about checking the box and buying your spots and your March Madness/Final Four—it’s about investing in the communities, investing in athletes and then telling stories through some longer-tail digital platforms.”

All of the above are making their pitch before an evolving array of curious brands. Waldhorn noted that the NewFront would be filled with brands that have been supportive of women’s sports from the beginning, including Google, Verizon and Ally, and also see newcomers such as Uber, automotive companies, quick service restaurant brands and cryptocurrency firms.

“That’s part of the reason why we decided to do this NewFront: Let’s fish where the fish are,” Waldhorn added. “You know where [brands] all show up ready to buy? Upfronts and NewFronts, so let’s bring that water to the horse and show him how delicious it is to drink.”

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