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Women’s sports provide a direct avenue for brands to reach younger audiences

7 Dec 2023   ·   

Journalist specialized in culture and sports innovation. Analyst of the technological, economic, and social changes that are shaping the sport of the future.

In 1991, the first Women’s World Cup in soccer was held, but it wasn’t called that. FIFA didn’t want its World Cup brand image associated with a women’s tournament, so it was awkwardly named the “Women’s World Cup for the M&M Cup.” The United States won the tournament, which took place in China, and upon their return, the players were greeted by just three people, with one of them being the driver, as recounted in a documentary by ESPN.

For the American players, it was a long journey to becoming a sporting phenomenon in their country and worldwide. They had to put in extra hours signing autographs and even sell their own game tickets. They also endured unimaginable conditions at their training camps, with no electric light, lit only by candles, and surrounded by cockroaches, practicing on fields riddled with potholes. 

The memories of women’s soccer in Spain aren’t smoother either. Female players who were part of mixed youth teams often found that their opponents refused to shake their hands after matches, and sometimes even their own teammates didn’t do so. Unfortunately, the repertoire of discrimination stories is vast, rivaling the male sporting epic. While some remember heroic feats, goals, and spectacular experiences, women in women’s sports speak of poor conditions, inequality, limited professional prospects… However, now, all that legacy is turning into something positive. Women’s sports are more than just entertainment or sentiment; they represent a stance in society. 

The current situation is undoubtedly the best moment in history for women’s sports. According to Samba TV’s viewership report, during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the three most-watched events in the United States were all women’s: alpine skiing, bobsled, and snowboarding. Interestingly, in Canada, the most-watched events were also women’s events, but different ones: the hockey final, freestyle skiing, and the third was mixed, team figure skating. 

The Collective representation agency noted, “Fans of women’s sports are younger, wealthier, and better educated”.

Samba TV’s study also detected signs of exponential audience growth. Women’s college basketball had an 81% increase in average viewership compared to an 18% increase for men’s college basketball. The first game of the WNBA finals saw a 171% increase from the previous year, while the NBA only saw a 25% increase. Soccer recorded a staggering 453% growth. Moreover, between June 2022 and June 2023, there was a 22% increase in the number of women aged 18 to 24 visiting sports websites or apps, marking the largest increase in any age and gender group.

All these changes are driven by the most coveted advertising demographic: the younger generation. In a study by AdAge, 39% of Generation Z fans reported watching more women’s sports, compared to 29% of millennials, 23% of Generation X, and 19% of baby boomers. A spokesperson for the advertising agency Team One acknowledged in the same report that “brands are increasingly seeking ways to align with the spirit of this era and help develop a new generation of female sports stars”. Additionally, the representation agency The Collective pointed out that “fans of women’s sports are younger, wealthier, and better educated.” 

Furthermore, young audiences are boosting women’s sports viewership due to a paradox. The inequality in broadcasting and visibility between men’s and women’s versions of the same sport is still shocking. A 2021 study found that on March 15 and 30, the 14 most prominent media outlets in the United States posted 5,100 social media posts about college basketball finals, with only 98 of them related to the women’s finals, and half of those were about a viral video highlighting the disparities between men’s and women’s gyms and pay.

This phenomenon arises from decades of discrimination, not from any promotional or marketing campaign, and that discrimination has become the loyalty factor for fans.

Player Sedona Prince posted a TikTok video complaining about the poor quality of facilities for women, gaining support from Stephen Curry and going viral. That same night, Dick’s Sporting Goods mobilized its teams to provide women with decent sports facilities at no cost. The social media posts of the brand’s trucks arriving with gym equipment also went viral, reaching a billion impressions and providing the brand with visibility valued at tens of thousands of dollars.

 

This is just one example but illustrates a phenomenon: female athletes have so little visibility in mainstream media that they turn to social media to gain recognition. They have no choice but to create their own visibility, much like the U.S. women’s soccer team did in the analog era. 

However, younger generations predominantly follow sports through social media and streaming, the space that the sports industry is eager to conquer to avoid a gradual decline in fans. Women’s traditional invisibility in mainstream media (UNESCO once reported that only about 4% of sports news was dedicated to women’s sports) has led them to occupy a privileged space, where the hardest-to-reach audience resides, coincidentally the generation most inclined toward women’s sports in history. 

This is an uncontrollable and unplanned phenomenon. It arises from decades of discrimination, not from any promotional or marketing campaign, and that discrimination has become the loyalty factor for fans. It’s a paradox, but it has sparked a revolution. Some experts suggest comparing the growth of women’s sports to where men’s sports were at the same age to project their potential. For instance, where was men’s soccer when it was 30 years old? Where was the NBA, at 27 years old, compared to the current age of the WNBA?

The 14 most important media outlets in the United States published 5100 social media posts about college basketball finals, of which only 98 were about the women’s finals.

There are constantly emerging signs, like shoots of a plant, predicting a significant paradigm shift that challenges the traditional inequality between men’s and women’s sports that still persists. According to The Collective’s recent report, while male athletes earn 21 times more in salaries, female athletes generate twice the social media engagement. In professional American sports, the gender pay gap is narrower in tennis, with men earning only 1.2 times more, but much wider in basketball, where men earn 108 times more. In Europe, in the most-watched sport, soccer, the gap is similar, with women earning 100 times less than men.

In summary, 90% of sports organizations’ funding is directed toward men. This situation has pushed female athletes into a kind of promotional Darwinism. Their reliance on commercial revenue is much greater (82% compared to 37% for men), with the drawbacks of having to work more than twice as hard to achieve the same results. However, there are advantages too. 

Fans tend to have a more positive perception of female athletes, trust them more, and find them more inspiring. 89% of fans are more motivated by actions proposed by social agents or brands associated with female athletes. Women are cultivating deeply loyal fan bases. At the same time, female athletes have successfully connected with social media users on topics beyond sports, such as behind-the-scenes content, healthy living, fashion, etc. Here, the gap is in favor of female athletes, as they engage with 72% of fans on non-sports topics, compared to only 45% for male athletes. 

Major brands are already focusing on specific campaigns for this sector. Women’s sports have become a direct pathway to reach the younger audience.

The impact of women may be smaller at the moment, but it’s much more potent. Men may have more followers on social media, but significantly less engagement. For every million followers, men have a 2.7% engagement rate, whereas women double that with a 5.7% engagement rate. This isn’t due to biology but social factors. Until very recently, elite female athletes had to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet. Multitasking was part of their sporting life, and even now, despite making a living from sports, the perception is that they will need a career once they retire, which is much stronger than for male athletes. 

This has led to a situation where the future seems more promising for women’s sports, despite the persistent massive inequality. Tomorrow’s fans are currently being introduced to sports through social media. Market analysts are already targeting Generation Z girls, 75% of whom find women’s sports as interesting as men’s. Major brands are already focusing on specific campaigns for this demographic. Women’s sports have become a direct pathway to reaching younger audiences

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