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How Marketers Can Benefit from Growth in Women’s Sports

Men’s professional sports leagues have long dominated both athletic and media landscapes with scores of fans and multibillion-dollar rights deals. Historically, women’s athletics tend to lag behind. Global viewers are twice as likely to watch men’s sports as women’s, according to a recent YouGov Sport report. And inequality exists in areas including news coverage, sponsorships and compensation. Soccer player Megan Rapinoe famously drew attention to this disparity with her “equal pay for equal work” speech that became a rallying cry for pro women athletes around the world. Yet this paradigm is poised to change. Experts believe women’s sports are ready to take markets by storm, thus providing exciting untapped opportunities for companies and brands. “I liken women’s sports to startups; they’re here but their growth is exponential,” said Angela Ruggiero, Olympic gold medal ice hockey winner. YouGov Sport looked at how women’s sports are perceived, and the marketing potential that may exist within this category.

Reasons for Low Engagement
The most common reason cited by consumers for not currently engaging in women’s sports is the lack of media coverage. A European research paper by UK-based group Women in Sport recently discovered that in four of five surveyed countries, women’s sporting events comprises less than 10 percent of total sports coverage. Stateside, a surprising 95 percent of airtime devoted to American sports focuses on male athletes, according to a USC/Purdue study. The same holds true globally: 30 percent of YouGov Sport responders pointed to limited marketing around women’s sporting events, while 27 percent said they found it hard to find games to watch. Those realities are relatively simple to address, as broadcasters and media outlets start working to heighten visibility around women-centric sports. As with men’s sports, storytelling and human drama are integral to the success of women’s athletics. Viewers tune into games when rivalries and competition come together to weave a compelling narrative.

The same holds true for compensation. Globally, 62 percent of YouGov Sport responders believe some inequality exists in women’s sport when it comes to issues like salaries and investment by governing bodies. Further, that same percentage agrees that when organizers sponsor an event for men and women, remuneration should be equal. Apart from being unethical, this disparity contributes to the idea that women’s sports are less important or appealing than men’s events. But that’s a narrative that can be changed.

Drawing in Viewers
Big events are ideal opportunities to hook viewers’ attention and garner interest in women’s sports. Four out of 10 YouGov Sport responders said a global gathering offers a great chance to follow female athletes. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup drew 14.3 million final-game viewers, while this year’s Tokyo-based Olympic Games plan to offer up to 18 mixed-gender events. Such catalysts often snowball into long-term viewing.

Childhood seems to be another contributing factor when it comes to following women’s sporting events. Approximately 35 percent of YouGov Sport responders said playing sports as a child translated to adult interest in those games, while 30 percent reported that having a child who plays a sport is a reason to engage in sports played by women. The upshot? Marketers have a unique opportunity to address young people on their journey to driving interest in women’s sport.

Star power likewise can’t be overlooked. Serena Williams is currently the world’s most iconic woman athlete, garnering a global awareness level of 34 percent. She’s followed by fellow tennis pros Maria Sharapova and Naomi Osaka. In other sporting arenas, Megan Rapinoe is the best-known soccer player while Simone Biles dominates the gymnastics field. These names matter, because famous athletes drive interest in women’s sports exactly the same way male stars spark devoted fan followings. Sponsors can benefit by appointing pro-athlete ambassadors who appeal to various demographics. In fact, 36 percent of women look favorably on brands that sponsor professional women’s sports, as opposed to only 26 percent of women who feel the same way about men’s-sport sponsors.

Television Coverage
It’s no surprise that television coverage is a major driving force when it comes to awareness and engagement. Globally, 41 percent of people surveyed by YouGov Sport said they’d watch more women’s events if more of them were available on TV. That deficit may soon disappear, as 60 percent of respondents also believe there’s been a marked advancement in the quality of live women’s games broadcast in the past few years. Accessibility of coverage is on the upswing—57 percent find it easier to watch or follow women’s games. Sponsorships and pre-Covid game attendance were likewise reported as getting better. Differences still exist in the way consumers perceive women’s versus men’s sports, but considering the massive rewards potential for brands, this is a field with a great deal of marketing potential.