Women’s Sports: A Winning Proposition for Brands

What marketers need to know about the power of female athletes in today's world

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We are barely through the first quarter of 2022, and already women’s sports have made history. Last month, the fight for equal pay hit a milestone when the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a $24 million settlement with 61 players on its national team—winners of four World Cups and reigning No. 1 in the world—in their high-profile gender discrimination suit.

The deal includes millions for the athletes, but more importantly, a pledge from the Federation to make equal pay for men and women the policy going forward. Tellingly, the women’s victory came with the enthusiastic support of the men’s national team.

It’s been a long time coming. Women’s sports are not just a phenomenon. They are not a mere trend. It’s a sea change in our culture, with powerful societal benefits.

That means there is any number of options for brands to realize more efficient alignment with female athletes and leagues relative to their male counterparts. Plus, the proliferation of top female players would offer breadth and depth to the choices available to marketers and agencies. Here’s what marketers need to know.

The momentum keeps on building

Women have been competing professionally at least since 1867, when the all-Black Dolly Vardens became the first documented women’s baseball team in the country. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the subject of the hit 1992 film A League of Their Own, began in 1943 and lasted 11 seasons. Women have been competing in the Olympics since 1900 and in college sports since the 1920s.

The momentum will build even more later this year when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the landmark U.S. Department of Education mandate that bars sex discrimination in any program receiving federal financial assistance. Title IX sparked a revolution in women’s sports, which continues to have an enormous upside for brands.

Almost half of National Football League fans are female. Women make up one-third of the National Basketball Association audience. ESPN telecasts of women’s gymnastics, soccer and basketball are setting records.

And this year, EA Sports will include women’s teams in its National Hockey League video game series. Forty-four percent of all professional athletes are female, per the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

The teams are there, the eyeballs are there, the participation is there and the passion is powerful and rising. Yet the marketplace leverage inherent in Americans’ enduring love of sports is barely tapped in women’s competition. Research reveals that women’s sports total only 4% of all sports media coverage and a mere 1% of all sports sponsorship.

Why marketers should care

Brands can tap this well of possibility with a smart, informed approach to media planning and buying that favors authentic representation and portrayals. They shouldn’t just move money around from male sports to female sports. They need to develop plans that are true to their mission and core strategies.

They can push for media coverage to include both sides. And they must actively champion gender equality. This year, for the first time, the women’s college basketball tournament will use a March Madness bracket, in large part because marketers (male and female) worked together to make it happen.

In terms of creative, not surprisingly, efforts to support women’s sports also are effective when they are representative and authentic. Don’t do something negative against men to build up women. Don’t showcase a girl with a ponytail holding up a trophy when your boys’ ad has the players down and dirty and sweating on the field.

Is your campaign diverse and inclusive on both sides of the camera? How athletes, professional or otherwise, are shown in advertising should be the same no matter what the gender of the athletes may be.

Organizationally, brands that prosper through women’s sport build gender equality and diversity metrics into their KPIs. Ad agencies, working side by side with their marketing partners, should be accountable for gender authenticity in storytelling.

The atmosphere has changed. Millennial and Gen Z consumers demand that brands stand for purpose and authenticity. Women’s sports are a big player in that evolution.

Gender equality in media and entertainment is good for society and drives brand reputation, purchase intent and increased sales for brands. If you can see her, you can be her.

This article is part of a special Voice series, Voices of Tomorrow: A More Equitable Working World for Women in Advertising, intended to educate marketers on how to continue making advances toward equity and supporting women in the workplace, business ventures and male-dominated industries.