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The rise of sponsorships in women’s sports

While many of us remain locked up at home, we turn to our TVs. In a society that craves live entertainment (even prior to our pandemic-mandated hiatus from attending events in-person) and validation from high-profile personalities, women’s sports leagues, teams and athletes are stepping up to the plate and delivering, and brands are all for it. 

Over recent years, women’s sport properties (leagues, teams and athletes) have demonstrated an exceptional ability to attract high-profile brand partnerships. This comes largely thanks to the impressive quality of the sporting event being delivered, and the values women’s sport properties are able to connect with on a progressive social level and bring to brands. 

In January 2021, UK-based market research firm Global Data published its report Commercial Development of Women’s Sport, highlighting the impressive growth of numerous professional women’s sports leagues around the world, including the NWSL, NWBA, WSL, LPGA and WTA. The findings of this report summarized the exciting position of women’s sport properties as we emerge from the pandemic and consumers will soon be able to attend sports events in-person once again.

Broadcast Deals and the NWSL

Soccer is undeniably the most popular sport globally with an estimated 3.5 billion followers worldwide, sitting ahead of cricket (2.5 billion) and basketball (2.2 billion). While international stars Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar dominate as high-profile social media brands of their own, the success of the U.S. women’s national team has made women’s soccer a major player in the North American market. 

The NWSL is one of the biggest women’s soccer leagues in the world, boasting a wider number of unique sponsors than the WSL in England. Even during the abridged 2020 season, the seven unique sponsors of the NWSL reached an estimated value of $4.55 million annually. 

A key draw for brands when sponsoring a sport property is the reach of the property, or how many potential consumers and fans will tune in for or attend the event. The more fans watching the game, the more potential shoppers for the brand. 

Prior to 2020, the NWSL would make game-by-game deals with broadcast networks such as FOX or ESPN. This led to uncertainty for fans trying to follow their favourite team with regularity, and subsequently, a less appealing potential partner for brands.

However, in October 2020, partnering with major American broadcast network CBS for a three-year deal provided the platform needed to achieve new levels of fan engagement. This deal will allow CBS to broadcast 87 matches each season across its main CBS network, cable CBS Sports Network, and subscription platform CBS All Access. As America’s leading ad supported broadcast and cable network, CBS drew on average more than seven million viewers in 2019, compared to NBC (6.33 million), FOX (4.62 million) and ESPN (1.75 million). 

The NWSL also signed a deal with Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch for its international rights. With an average 1.44 million viewers on Twitch at any given moment, the online streaming service certainly provides the NWSL, and its partners, a prime doorway into the global consumer market. 

The value of these broadcast deals has already begun to pay off for the NWSL. In 2020, the NWSL Challenge Cup final broke its previous domestic television viewership record, with an average audience of 653,000. 

While the value of some key NWSL sponsorship deals may have been negatively affected by the pandemic and the inability to have fans in the stands, the league is poised to see growth in the near future. With a combined value of $3.05 million in sponsorships from four continuing partners heading into 2021, the NWSL is expecting to surpass its 2020 sponsorship revenues, assuming the league’s popularity can bounce back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 and beyond and draw even more interest from brand partners.

Progressive Social Values and the WNBA

If you checked out Top 10 milestones women in sport reached in 2020, you would already be familiar with the progress being spearheaded by the WNBA and their most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Not only did the new CBA provide players with increased player salary of approximately 50 per cent (bringing player salaries into the six-figure range), but also guaranteed paid maternity leave and $5,000 annual childcare stipend per player. 

These increases in player compensation are indicative of the league’s success and revenue generation, but this also contributes to a positive feedback loop of attracting potential sponsors. 

Recent discussions around equality have prompted high-profile brands to emphasize their commitment to topics such as progressive equality and equal pay. Brands such as Nike, AT&T, and Deloitte have teamed up with the WNBA as part of the league’s Changemakers program, working together for the advancement of women in sport. AT&T and Deloitte combine for $2.5 million of the WNBA’s estimated $9.3 million from unique sponsors, and Nike has an eight-year deal with the NBA, WNBA and NBA Development League.

There has also been an increase in the number of large, individual player endorsement deals signed with high-profile brands, one notable example being Under Armour’s endorsement with rookie stars Bella Alarie, Tyasha Harris and Kaila Charles.

These deals highlight brands’ excitement around engaging with a league and its players, which will only grow in viewership and influence in the near future. Also, given the historic lack of corporate sponsorship in the professional women’s sport market, brands have an opportunity to capitalize on the clean image of women’s sport and communicate to fans of their organization’s commitment to positive social change. 

For an example of the excitement brands have about partnering with the WNBA, one needs look no further than the official partner, AT&T. In 2016 the American brand replaced its telecommunications competitor Verizon as the leagues’ official partner and secured front-of-shirt sponsorship for all 12 franchises. This level of competition between rival brands for the WNBA demonstrates the ability of the league to attract partners from sectors without a distinct sporting connection, as compared to apparel or nutritional performance products.

Onwards and Upwards

There is no denying that women’s sport has made immense strides since the 1978 tipoff of the Women’s Pro Basketball League, the first professional women’s sports league. 

While the size and term of many women’s professional leagues’ sponsorship deals are much smaller than their male equivalents, the increasing number of brands partnering with leagues, teams and athletes is an indicator of the growing room for brands to see return on their investments in women’s sport. 

The work being put in by women’s sport properties on promoting their sport through socially progressive pushes, such as the Changemakers initiative, present an opportunity for brands to take a stance for progress and communicate their values to consumers striving for social change. 

As brands continue to invest in women’s professional sport, the games, events and products will only continue to grow, and subsequently lead to bigger and broader investments.

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