“Count it”.

2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the WNBA and is a celebration of its players for shattering expectations and for standing at the forefront of inclusion and social change for the past 25 years. This celebration of impact, on sports, society and future generations of young and diverse athletes couldn’t come at a better time.

At the start of the pandemic, when venues shuttered and seasons were disrupted, there was cause for concern across numerous sports leagues and teams; from considerations around ticketing revenue and partnerships to sustained viewership in general. Women’s sports in particular were hit with the familiar phrase of, “will you remain viable?”

During a period where the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB all saw drops in viewerships, this is how women's sports fared:

  • The NWSL year-over-year viewership growing by 493%
  • WNBA viewership growing by 68%
  • 35% increase in TV audience for the AFLW & a record high in memberships
  • Increased Sponsorship and Investment Deals
    • AT&T, Deloitte, Nike and Google marquee partners of WNBA
    • Priceline Pharmacy, Cadbury Pantene, Commonwealth Bank and more partner with the W-League and the Matildas
    • New NWSL team ‘Angle City FC’ launched with backers including Natalie Portman, and Silicon Valley venture capital funds.

Investors, partnerships and fans are increasingly leaning into women’s leagues, and the perspective is changing from “how do I minimize their cost” to “how do I leverage this opportunity for growth”. To answer that question, we’re digging into the factors that have contributed to this booming interest, and the aspects that set women's sports apart.

IDENTITY AND THE POWER OF PURPOSE

The value of a sport and a team is shaped by social consensus - it’s an aspect that drives the investments and partnerships necessary to sustain a league, and it’s also one that can be influenced.

Women’s sports have long been forced to ask themselves “who are we”, “what do we stand for” and “what do we want to be?”. With little patience afforded to them when it comes to growth, there have been relatively few investment opportunities in this space in the past and more importantly, a failure to build a “belief in the value of women’s sports”. As a result, players were forced to dig deep and build strength from the ground up. For most of these leagues, their current success stems from the rock-solid foundation created by generations of female athletes that refused to stop playing. From their grassroots movements to their moments of stardom today, they’ve leaned into that identity. When you ask “what does the WNBA stand for,” fans know exactly what to say, and this clearly defined identity gives women’s leagues an edge in today’s purpose-driven environment.

The Power of Purpose

We’re in the golden era of social purpose, especially when it comes to brands interacting with fans through social media. Social media analytics company Zoomph has uncovered that across the sports industry, teams and leagues that post with a purpose (i.e. posts that tie back to their community and/or social initiatives) receive greater engagement from fans.


Source: Zoomph

And, as said above, women’s leagues tend to have a sense of purpose entrenched in their identities, with social initiatives around inclusivity and equity being at the forefront of their initiatives each year. This makes them well primed to draw in the increasingly valuable Gen Z and Millennial fanbases, and importantly, they don’t overlook the female fan. You can read more about the value of marketing sports to female fans here.

ALIGNMENT & LOYALTY: Where Money Follows

Stakeholders on the commercial side of sports are constantly searching for the next growth play and women’s leagues should be top of the list. What could be more valuable than creating lifetime customers with a single partnership? Or expanding your fanbase to include purpose-driven and loyal fans? Fans today care enough (and have enough tools) to peel back the layers on brands to see if they put their money where their mouth is. As a brand, you can get ahead of this by entering into a long-term relationship with a women’s league, where the focus is on creating sustained growth for the league and its empowerment initiatives. Not only will your focus on growing the league come back to you in the form of high returns on your investments, but you’ll be able to capture the next generation of fans driving sport.

For the big leagues today, we’re seeing large sponsors take the leap and reap tremendous benefits (Nike and their WNBA hoodie and special edition jerseys), but even for the smaller women’s leagues, there’s an incredible opportunity for sustainable partnerships. Persistent doubts about the commercial viability of women’s sports can be put to rest if brands start to recognize the amount of untapped potential that exists here. Brands can cater to an extremely passionate fanbase and enhance their brand equity by entering this space. Alignment matters and loyalty breeds immense revenue expansion opportunities. Money will follow.

Personal Branding: The Influencer

In addition to this trend of brands entering the space, women’s leagues have become powerhouses in “influencer marketing” - that is, using the voices of their athletes to create calls to action, and broadcast directly to fans. From Naomi Osaka to Alex Morgan, brands stand to gain a lot by getting in with these athletes’ personal brands and their huge social followings.

PROPELLING FANS TO CREATE SUSTAINED MONETIZATION

So far we’ve been addressing the successes and history of the big women’s leagues here in North America, which doesn’t capture the full picture. This isn't a North American movement, but a global one.

The successes we’ve seen in women’s leagues across the world prove that if you gain positive attention from a fanbase at large and imbue them with a sense of identity and purpose for your team, partners and brands take notice. Fan engagement builds the momentum and eyes to drive revenue forward. This is where the power of the league in storytelling and support comes in. We’ll look at two examples.

1) The AFLW:
Formed in 2016, the AFLW is a fairly new league - but their commitment to promoting inclusion and participation in the sport is clear. In 2021, the league featured many new initiatives, including the first dedicated Pride Round, the inaugural Indigenous Round, and the Toyota Good for Footy Round (which was a joint themed round for both men and women’s competitions).

As of 2021, over 80% of AFL partners also invested in AFLW, up from 10% in 2017. This points to the power of alignment for partners to promote Australian Football, while also celebrating women in football. The increase in investment and growth is due in large part to a support system drawn together by the story of empowering female footy across the nation. There is a competitive advantage offered by women’s football, not only in their quality of commitment but in their drive to be accessible and engaging to a broader fanbase.

2) Columbian Women’s Football League:
In 2019, the league was on its way to being cancelled. Poor attendance and apparent lack of interest were mounting on the women’s teams, even when their male counterparts were seeing success. In this instance, the Columbian beer brand, Aguila saw an opportunity and decided to step in with an activation called “half fans”. They took the badge of the current league champions and split it in two. The men’s team played with one half of the badge, and the women’s team played with the other half, sending a clear message to fans, “half love is not really love”. The movement took Columbian football by storm and placed fans in the hot seat and forced them to say, “if I’m a real football fan, I’ll support both of my teams”. This activation led to real impact, with a 633% increase in attendance for the women’s league, and incredible love for Aguila as a brand. Authentic fan engagement drives results, for both the league and partners.


Women’s Sports are ripe with opportunities for partnerships. Not only do the players offer an incredibly high level of commitment and passion, but their purpose-driven nature draws in a loyal fanbase that includes untapped individuals and a large group of female fans. Building a sustained relationship, with deep roots in a women’s league is a fantastic way to engage with fans, build brand image and drive new revenue opportunities.

If you’re interested in finding your place in this ecosystem - and how you can tap into an authentic partner relationship - we’re happy to have a conversation. Contact our team today for an ideation session.

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