Follow the money: Data shows visibility and sponsorship in women’s sports is the right play

For years, female professional athletes were fed the narrative that no one wanted to watch women’s sports. In reality, too many media companies and brands looked past the value of women’s sports.

The 2021 NWSL and WNBA seasons have the potential to shift the mentality around women’s leagues for good – and the data proves it.

NWSL’s season commenced on May 15, capitalizing off a successful opening Challenge Cup weekend where the finale was the fourth-highest watched program of the weekend. On May 18, the WNBA opened its 25th season on ABC up 25% in viewers from 2020.

Viewership declined in nearly every major men’s sport this year, from the NBA Finals to the Super Bowl. Amid these drops, the NWSL and WNBA scored notable increases due to greater social media exposure and broadcast deals. The NWSL inked new partnerships with CBS and Twitch in 2020 and saw TV ratings up 493% including seven of its most-watched games ever.

“Focusing on broadcast deals is incredibly important because accessibility to the games, whether it's domestically or internationally, is an important component to the growth of the game,” said Alyse LaHue, general manager of NJ/NY Gotham FC. “The more matches you're able to have access to as a consumer, the more interest there's going to be for potential sponsors coming into the league to work into the market.”

Women’s leagues can do one thing the men can’t – get bigger – yet in 2019, 95% of TV coverage focused on men’s sports. Despite the inequality, Deloitte predicts TV and sponsorship revenue for women’s sports will soon exceed $1 billion globally.

EVERETT, WASHINGTON - MAY 15: (L-R) Candice Dupree #4, Jewell Loyd #24, Sue Bird #10, Katie Lou Samuelson #33 and Breanna Stewart #30 of the Seattle Storm look on during the second quarter against the Las Vegas Aces at Angel of the Winds Arena on May 15, 2021 in Everett, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
On May 18, the WNBA opened its 25th season on ABC up 25% in viewers from 2020. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

It’s a Catch-22 gaining women’s sports coverage and inspiring more investment from sponsors. Publishers blame advertisers for the lack of money put into women’s sports content, while advertisers say publishers don’t air enough content to advertise against. Both don’t see the potential of breaking into an untapped market, and it reflects in viewership and salary disparities between men’s and women’s athletes. As the data shows already in 2021, the more visibility women get, the more viewership reflects it.

As a result, women’s sports turn to social media as a free tool to increase awareness. Directing creative energy towards social campaigns equals dollars benefiting sponsors, league operations and player salaries, proving to publishers why more games should be shown.

Athlete-run media companies continue to grow with an emphasis on highlighting women’s sports and social justice issues. TOGETHXR, a lifestyle and sport brand co-founded by Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel and Sue Bird, launched in May 2020, and Just Women’s Sports, a new media venture founded by former professional soccer player Haley Rosen, announced it raised $3.5 million in seed funding, supported by Kevin Durant, Elena Delle Donne, Kelley O’Hara and other athletes.

Despite improved social media coverage and engagement, brands miss out on the idea of intentional sponsorship with female athletes and leagues. In fact, less than 1% of sponsorship money goes into women’s sports.

“The [audience] demand is there, and investment could be there if people are willing to believe that women can be profitable,” said Ari Chambers, social creator at HighlightHER.

Women’s league fans post significantly higher engagement rates than those of men’s leagues and show strong brand loyalty to league sponsors. Sports sponsorship allows brands the ability to target a demographic interested in buying their product or service, yet due to the lack of visibility, few tap into the female-dominated audience surrounding women’s sports.

“When you think about the women being decision-makers in their household, and women also being 70% of the majority of women league fans, it's a no brainer that you would be able to very closely target these women that are watching these sports and get them to develop an affinity for your brand,” said Mary Frances Ierlan, marketing analytics specialist at Zoomph.

Orlando Pride celebrate with the fans after the NWSL soccer match between the Orlando Pride and theWashington Spirit on May 16, 2021 at Explorer Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NWSL inked new partnerships with CBS and Twitch in 2020 and saw TV ratings up 493% including seven of its most-watched games ever. (Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

During the 2021 Challenge Cup, Zoomph calculated NJ/NY Gotham FC had 12 million Twitter impressions — the most of any team in the league – and the NWSL as a whole garnered 53 million impressions over the event weekend, totaling $985,000 in social value. This type of engagement shows an eager fan base with the potential for growth. Brands can capitalize on teams and athletes with significant social followings and choose partnerships intentionally, based on consumer data, for a better return on investment.

Budweiser, the official beer sponsor of the NWSL and the presenting sponsor of the Challenge Cup finals, has already seen its partnership paying off. The beer brand amassed 4.6 million impressions, a value of $137,000, across the league’s social channels during the Cup. When analyzing NWSL fans on social against the average sports fans, they are now 1.7 times more likely to have an affinity for beer and 2.5 times more likely to favor Budweiser over other beer brands.

“All of this data just being handed to us is crucially important for our women's sports leagues to be able to say ‘hey, we've been trying to tell you, but now here's the data.’ Now we can back it up with real numbers and show a real return on investment,” said LaHue.

The women continue to do more with less. To both brands and media companies, the money and audience are there – with data to prove it.

Invest in women’s sports. It’s the right play.

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