Ad Giant GroupM to Double Down on Investment in Women’s Sports

If the recent surge in ratings isn’t enough to convince naysayers that the growth of women’s sports represents one of the biggest media stories of 2024, then perhaps the money will grab ‘em by the lapels. Listen: When the investment arm of the advertising monolith WPP decides to double down on its investment in women’s sports, it’s probably time to start paying attention to what’s really going on in the C-suites at some of America’s biggest brands.

In advance of the 2024-25 upfront bazaar, GroupM—which last year controlled an estimated $64 billion in global media spend—not only plans to supercharge its annual investment in women’s sports but is also working toward developing a marketplace exclusively dedicated to transacting against an often-overlooked segment. GroupM clients that already have committed to up their women’s sports spend during the spring/summer ad sell-off include Adidas, Unilever, Google, Discover, Mars, Nationwide and Universal Pictures.

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“It’s extremely important now to get in front of this,” Martin Blich, executive director, sports and live investment, GroupM U.S., said in an interview with Sportico. “There’s a lot of white space in the women’s sports marketplace, we’ve seen a lot of growth over the last few years now, and even though the ground floor has probably already been occupied, we really wanted to expand that. And not just among the clients that are already doing it so well, but also for those who have yet to get involved in this growth market.”

Heading into his 26th upfront as a media buyer, Blich already has a formidable roster of marketers eager to take full advantage of the women’s sports boom. And while Unilever alone pours a significant chunk of its marketing budget into the U.S. ad market—$1.49 billion in 2021 alone, according to Kantar estimates—convincing the big spenders isn’t the end goal for GroupM.

“We’re looking to advance the commitment of all clients within the space, and across all categories,” Blich said. And while he declined to provide any specific dollar targets (a fool’s errand, given that the clients’ upfront budgets have yet to be registered), Blich said the agency is asking all of its advertisers to “commit to some level of support within women’s sports, to whatever level they are comfortable with.”

A longtime investor in women’s sports, Unilever’s comfort level in the space is downright cozy. Having increased the conglomerate’s stateside investments over the last few years, Aaron Sobol, Unilever’s head of U.S. media investment, said he believes the “media buying opportunities [will] continue to mature.” As marketing spend begins to become commensurate with the tons of impressions generated by women’s sports, early adopters like Unilever are enjoying an enviable first-mover advantage.

And the time is ripe for a big splurge on women’s sports, which continues to draw larger and larger crowds as so many other forms of televised programming hit the skids. Season-to-date, the average primetime network TV show is now drawing 3.25 million viewers per episode, of whom just 488,130 are members of the almighty 18-49 demo. Broadcast prime is aging so rapidly that only 15.02% of the people who watch the ads during the breaks are in the under-50 set, which relegates the rest of the audience to a form of demographic chaff.

Women’s sports are projected to generate some $1.28 billion in revenue in 2024, according to Deloitte projections, and as the media math has demonstrated in recent years, the appetite for events such as college basketball, the WNBA, soccer and volleyball shows little sign of abating. And media impressions are only part of the story; last summer, the Nebraska Cornhuskers volleyball team drew 92,000 fans for a match at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium.

GroupM’s initiative goes well beyond merely buying spots and dots; as Blich notes, the push to get more clients locked into opportunities around women’s sports is designed to boost the impact the ads have on the fans who will encounter them on their screens of choice. “We’re looking to increase ad effectiveness, and we’re looking to optimize our clients’ business outcomes,” Blich said, before adding that NIL has made it possible for brands to work directly with collegiate athletes in ways that were once off-limits. (While stars like Caitlin Clark were just three years ago prohibited from endorsing products and services, even a casual glance at the ad breaks during this year’s women’s hoops tournament should be enough to underscore how much the commercial landscape has changed since July 1, 2021.)

As it happens, a former college athlete has played a key role in the development of GroupM’s upfront initiative. Last year, Andrea Brimmer, the chief marketing and PR officer at Ally Financial, initiated a series of conversations with the agency in a bid to advocate for the establishment of a standalone advertising marketplace for women’s sports. Brimmer, whose résumé includes a stint with Michigan State’s first-ever women’s varsity soccer team, shook up Ally’s TV investments with a commitment to place 90% of the company’s sports spend in women’s ACC events and across female-focused installments of SportsCenter. She was instrumental in sparking GroupM’s new investment scheme.

“Creating a dedicated marketplace for women’s sports beginning at this year’s upfront marks a significant step forward in driving real impact in the business of women’s sports,” Brimmer said, adding that the effort to re-evaluate the manner in which women’s sports media is bought and sold has been a key factor in “driving systemic change” across the industry.

As Blich sees it, the cumulative growth of women’s sports in the U.S. isn’t limited to March Madness or such quadrennial events as the World Cup or the Summer Olympics. “We’re not looking to pigeonhole or tier women’s sports; I think the opportunities present themselves on a regular basis,” he said. “There’s a lot of Caitlin Clarks across all the different sports, and that’s just building and maturing and growing. And so, we’re looking to grow women’s sports, and at the same time, we’re looking to provide new opportunities for these athletes to take advantage of.”

In other words, GroupM is looking to corner the market on a virtuous circle, one in which the increasing popularity of women’s sports helps generate more advertising impressions for the agency’s clients, while the heightened star power of the athletes serves as a means for marketers and jocks to work together in a state of heightened symbiosis. (If nothing else, viewers tend to engage more comprehensively with ads that feature someone they’ve just been watching dominating on the court or track or field; attention is everything, and there are few more effective ways to ensure that a would-be consumer is hyper-focused on your commercial than by way of a contextually relevant testimonial.)

The impetus to try and shake marketers of their misconceptions about the U.S. sports market is long overdue. “Our industry has seen the incredible impact of investing in women’s sports over the last several years, but even with continued momentum, those investments only comprise a fraction of total media spend in sports,” said Matt Sweeney, chief investment officer, GroupM US. “GroupM advertisers have challenged the marketplace to flip the script on how to invest in women’s sports, and they will continue to play a pivotal role moving forward.”

For Blich’s part, the enthusiasm around the GroupM initiative is palpable, and he can’t wait to get down to business later this spring.

“Our clients recognize that there’s been this disparity between men and women’s sports distribution and access and viewership,” Blich said. “But we’re hoping that our commitment here, from all our brands, will help drive a more holistic investment strategy.”

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