This was going to be “the” year…2020 was going to be the year sports played by elite athletes who happened to also be women were going to keep breaking through to the casual, mainstream fan. And with that breakthrough, the dollars from brands would flow into women’s sports like never before.
We were coming off quite a successful 2019. Everywhere you turned, there was the huge cultural and business success of the Women’s World Cup, the increased interest and storytelling of the WNBA, the rise in investment and prize money of the LPGA, the competitive interest in the WTA, the new leadership reinvigorating the NWSL and even the reorganization of the NWHL. Combine those with mounting reams of data on high school and college participation and a massive push for growth in social engagement and what do you get?
Women’s sports were up there with sports gambling, CBD and wearables, in almost every conversation as a growth business. We even had a new multi-sport business platform unveiled in Athletes Unlimited, which was set to launch women’s pro sports leagues starting with softball and volleyball this summer and fall.
Especially in a year with the Tokyo Olympics set to showcase the world’s best athletes, 2020 was definitely going to be a tipping point for women’s sports.
And then COVID-19 came along, halted everything and put a stop to the large swell of momentum. No games, no activations, no massive grassroots gatherings. Just Zoom.
Was it a mirage, now swept back out into a desert overcrowded with traditional—a.k.a, men’s—sports that will be a safer bet to give the limited dollars of brands more opportunity and more short-term eyeballs? Or, can a match be lit to get things going quicker and put women’s sports back on the fast track.
Recent weeks appear to see that the latter may actually be the case, and here’s a few reasons why.
Brands That Invested Early On Are Poised to Double Down
Last year, Anheuser-Busch made a big splash on its investment in women’s sports, especially the NWSL. We saw that support unwavering as the league came back around and was the first back with its Challenge Cup earlier this month.
“It’s absolutely real. Those deals take time to work through but, for us, success here is raising awareness of the league and its amazing players,” Monica Rustgi, Budweiser‘s VP, Marketing, told Yahoo! Finance. “Consumers and people resonate more with brands that they feel genuinely believe stand for something. That’s why you’re seeing this happening across the board. Just advertising alone doesn’t cut it—they can see right through that. That’s why when you share your values, you transcend advertising and there’s a genuine connection. Instead of being a sponsor where you’re going to see ‘sponsored by’ slapped in the stadium, we wanted to show up as a supporter, just like a fan.”
Cause Marketing and Social Responsibility Are Key
If the idea of a brand driving dollars tied to a cause was a byproduct before the March shutdown, it is now a priority. We saw car brands from Toyota, Ford, General Motors and Hyundai pivot to tie almost all spending tied to cause, be it pandemic-related, reinforcing “Black Lives Matter” or other recent issues, and now consumers, especially younger demos—and women—are making cause and social responsibility an essential part of that buy.
The rise of women’s storytelling fits naturally with that narrative, and it appears to be here to stay. We saw ties to causes pushed hard by athletes such as Megan Rapinoe over the past year. This summer, it has been amplified by WNBA stars such as Brittney Griner as they return to play with Breonna Taylor’s name on every jersey—or not play, as is the case with several of their top stars electing to sit out this season and dedicate their time to social issues.
WNBA players observe a 26-second moment of silence for Breonna Taylor before tip off
They're all wearing Breonna Taylor's name on the back of their jerseys pic.twitter.com/sRPw7IFdEI
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 25, 2020
“All the data has shown that the female consumer is more brand loyal and savvy in the North American household, whether she is leading the buying power or not,” adds Harrie Bakst, co-founder of WCPG, a firm that works with brands, athletes, celebrities and causes on marketing solutions and growth. “You combine that with a younger consumer regardless of gender who is highly motivated in their purchasing power by cause, which has been amplified over the past four months, and you have an audience that asks the question of ‘brand values and activation’ first or second when aligning with a company, not fifth or sixth.”
“Where can elite athleticism be tied with cause best, with a relatively solid point of entry? The growing platform across women’s sports,” Bakst continues. “After all this time of talking, we are now seeing companies realize these alignments aren’t ‘nice,’ they are necessary, and if you don’t take advantage, you may be left behind.”
Timing is Crucial
As traditional sports plotted their return to play on the men’s side, the NWSL burst through the door first, and gave themselves a stage that few would have thought of only a few months ago.
Next, we had the WNBA grabbing a cause marketing window motivated by some of its key players who were looking at a much bigger picture. Focusing their attention on matters way beyond the court, and by using social media effectively, showed that their unified power and athleticism were standing out in a pretty self-evident fashion. At a time of year when we would have been watching Olympic storytelling, we were watching, in solid numbers, soccer and following women’s hoops stars, and the brand world started to take notice.
“Typically, during this time of year, we are watching men and women from all over the world compete at the highest levels at the Olympics,” explains Laurajean Holmgren, Deputy Academic Director, Sports Management and a professor teaching Olympics business at Columbia University. “Despite the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we are seeing women’s sports among the first to get back to play; and from the latest crop of upcoming stars such as the WNBA’s number one draft pick, Sabrina Ionescu, (by the N.Y. Liberty) or the Houston Dash‘s Rachel Daly in soccer, we are getting significant star power and interest in these players.”
“With over 650,000 viewers for the NWSL Challenge Cup opener and the rising buzz surrounding the start of the WNBA Season in the ‘Wubble,’ why not get involved?”
Business Side More Solid Than Ever…
Early last winter, veteran sports and entertainment exec Jon Patricoff announced the launch of Athletes Unlimited—a new business which would give women in a growing number of sports essentially a place to play and showcase their talents.
The first push was going to be to create competitive leagues in softball and then volleyball with the biggest stars in each sport and use the social and the media space to amplify their stories and talent.
Current success aside of tennis, golf, basketball and, to some extent, beach volleyball—women’s pro soccer has struggled to find a business foothold and the NWHL, though making strides, is still TBD on business success, so we can’t count them as sustainable yet—there have been more failed efforts around women’s sports than we care to tally up.
That said, Athletes Unlimited has the dollars and experience in scaling that it could grow into a very unique engagement as women’s sports continue to rise. The dollars come from investor Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire George Soros, while the vision is Patricof’s, riding his experience both in soccer and with Tribeca Enterprises (operator of the Tribeca Film Festival).
…With Two More Proof Points This Month
Over the past week or so, two new announcements garnered headlines, buzz and positive interest for the future on a business side.
First came the NWSL’s announcement of an L.A.-based expansion team, Angel City FC. Marking the league’s first foray into Calif., Angel City is slated to begin play in 2022. The investor and advocate group includes actress Natalie Portman, venture capitalist Kara Nortman, tennis legend Serena Williams and her husband, the tech entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian; media consultant Julie Uhrman; and more than a dozen former members of the U.S. Women’s National Team—all with the idea of using soccer as the business bridge to causes and financial success.
The time has come to reshape expectations on & off the soccer field.
— We Are Angel City (@weareangelcity) July 21, 2020
“We have been working for nearly a year to bring Angel City to life, finding the right investors, refining our mission and building our team,” Uhrman, Angel City FC’s Founder & President, explained via email on Monday. “L.A. is an incredible sports market where fans find and support their teams with great pride. With over nine professional teams and USC and UCLA, teams have consistently won championships, sold-out games and even attracted new teams like the Rams and the Chargers. We also know Los Angeles is a strong soccer supporter market with LAFC and L.A. Galaxy games selling out, USWNT friendlies here averaging over 15,000 fans, and USC-UCLA games attracting huge crowds. Finally, we are totally committed to our community, giving them a great team to cheer for and a game-day experience, unlike anything they’ve seen. 2022 can’t come soon enough.”
Next up we learned not about the expansion of women’s sports, but around a women’s sports business expanding by adding a men’s team to their portfolio. The owners of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings announced that they would be bringing the NLL to Texas, with a 2022 expansion team to play at Dickie’s Arena in Fort Worth.
The Wings, one of the more successful WNBA businesses after their move from Tulsa, now had the market knowledge, and the right people in place, to add scale in another highly competitive market, led by President and CEO Greg Bibb.
However, even with all the “corner turning” thanks to the explosion of authentic cause and social responsibility ties combined with and elite storytelling, the roadmap to the future of women’s sports is still in its early stages.
“I think women’s sports has come a long way, yet also has a long way to go,” Bibb said last week amidst the NLL announcement and the start of the Wings season at IMG Academy, in the WNBA wubble. “The WNBA signed an historic CBA with the WNBPA this past off-season and the growth metrics for the league and member clubs have never been stronger. That said, the size of women’s sports businesses—and subsequently the earning power of the female athletes in women’s team sports—is nowhere near their male counterparts. The WNBA began the league’s 24th season with six games all on national networks. That says a lot, but there is still much work to be done and ground to be gained.”
So, as we head through Q3, has women’s athletics regained the momentum in a landscape drastically different from where we started the year?
Brands and media in the midst of making challenging decisions on spending—in what will be a very crowded marketplace for the fall—will heavily impact the level of success leagues (and athletes) will have for the short term. But most importantly, being in conversation about getting a slice of the pie is key.
Given recent business activity, brand support, social and digital share of voice and even public sentiment asking for more, that bright, sunny future we saw heading into 2020—which along with men’s sports dimmed greatly thanks to the pandemic—appears to be on the horizon yet again.
If you don’t think so, just ask those involved on the media side…the data, as well as the passion…is there now more than ever.