Brands need to wake up to the true value of women’s sport

Despite all the noise brands are making around women’s sport, too few are putting their money where their mouth is and really backing female athletes and teams.

LinkedIn sports UEFA Women's EURO 2022
Source: LinkedIn/Christopher Lee/UEFA

This week I feel like I’m walking through a sporting hall of fame. The man, the legend, Eric Cantona. “Queen of Stops”, Mary Earps. Climber, Alex Honnold. Megan Rapinoe, US football’s iconic striker and activist. WNBA’s Sue Bird, one of the most successful athletes of all time.

It’s as if I’m at some kind of glitzy Sports Personality of the Decade awards shindig, but no – I’m writing this from Stagwell’s Sport Beach here at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in the south of France.

A sprawling temporary construction, Sport Beach houses its own pickleball court as well as breakout areas for five programming tracks covering a vast array of sport-themed topics, from culture to business to entertainment to technology – all viewed through a creative lens. With sponsors including Meta, Gatorade, Boss and Snap, and now in its second year and twice the size it was in 2023, Stagwell’s build isn’t the only sports-themed gig on the strip.

Up the road, you have Front Office Sports, a multi-platform media and news organisation covering the business of sports, hosting an event in partnership with Publicis Sports and NBC Sports, and in the hills above Cannes is ‘The Women’s Sports House’ brought to us by Axios and Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment: another three-day event packed wall to wall with sporting and sports brand movers and shakers.

‘Commercially sustainable’: Why it’s time for brands to start backing women’s sport beyond big tournaments

Why such a heavy sports focus at an officially vertical-neutral event initially conceived of to celebrate creativity in advertising? I guess it’s not hard to answer that when you think just how quickly investments in sports media companies are growing and how deals for advertising rights are skyrocketing – sports is simply becoming more and more important in the marketing mix.

But for all the focus on the business side of things, truth be told, I’m really here to find out more about the opportunity women’s sport and its sporting heroes present brands interested in inspiring positive social change. Whether it’s the Russo, Ennis-Hill or Radacanu effect, women’s sport is carving out a unique market position, proudly refusing to conform to traditional marketing norms, celebrating its distinctiveness as a result of promoting values such as inclusivity, empowerment, and equality – values which resonate with today’s audiences and which brands are positively falling over themselves to be associated with.

Or are they?

Yes, Mary Earps recently signed a reportedly “high-value” multi-year deal with Puma, with the brand luring her away from Adidas. But I think we all know that the definition of “high value” is different compared to similar-level male sports stars. The fact is that women’s sports still attract less than 15% of sponsorship deals. (We also know that there are precisely zero women in Forbes’ 2024 listing of the world’s top 50 highest-earning athletes, based on income from on-field earnings, sponsorship, appearances, licensing and other business endeavours).

Think of this: in the same month Earps signed her Puma deal, US women’s basketball phenomenon Caitlin Clark secured a $28m (£22.1m) endorsement package with Nike, having batted away Puma – who reportedly left the discussions when the company learned that the bidding would start at $3m (£2.4m) annually – as well as Adidas and their paltry four-year, $6m (£4.7m) bid. I know sponsorship offers can vary wildly, but you have to wonder if Puma and Adidas went into those negotiations with any genuine appreciation of what their ROI could ultimately look like?

The fact of the matter is that, according to a report from Deloitte, for every dollar spent by a corporate sponsor in women’s sports, more than seven dollars is generated in customer value for that organisation.

That chimes with a study last year by the UK’s Women’s Sport Trust, which found that a third of consumers think more favourably of companies or brands that support women’s sport through their sponsorship, 12% higher than for campaigns supporting men’s sport. These statistics make for a very solid case for why brands should sponsor female athletes and activate around women’s sports.

Record-breaking views for women’s sport in 2023, data shows

As Sue Bird said when I interviewed her and Megan Rapinoe yesterday: “Sponsorships are so important to the ecosystem – brands are the ones that are changing culture and helping others form their opinions. Look, the trajectory is good – we just need to ensure no lulls. Brands need to think of sponsoring female athletes as a business investment – the data is all there to make the case.”

Rapinoe unsurprisingly agrees but reminds us that it’s not all about the financials, of course.

“Women’s sports is an incredible lever for social change, for driving equality,” she said. “For me, I think of it as an amazing gift that we have to be able to do something that we love but also try to make the world a better place while we’re doing it.”

Her comment reminded me of a survey by The Athletic last December that revealed that nine out of 10 British men who watch women’s sports say that women’s rights, equality and feminism are important to them. For any brand with a stated commitment to female empowerment, that’s valuable proof that investing in a meaningful way in women’s sport does, I think undeniably, impact positive social change.

So, how do we speed progress up? For now, one of the critical challenges is the “chicken and egg” situation I’ve previously talked about, which can hold brands back from activating around major women’s sporting tournaments. The defence from brands is that a comparative lack of confirmed media coverage makes justifying ad spend difficult, but in return, broadcasters will say rights are too expensive without confirmed money from advertisers.

The reality is that in men’s sports, the revenue is mainly in the broadcast rights part of the equation, while in women’s sports, it’s still primarily in the commercial part. Brands therefore have a real opportunity to lead the charge, to have a disproportionate influence on increasing the visibility of women’s sports and, by default, on driving female empowerment and positive social change.

As Rapinoe put it: “Through sport, brands can really tell a rich story that will keep people coming back. Female athletes are so dynamic, partly because we’ve had to be, so let’s see more brands use that to their advantage via great campaigns and sponsorships of female athletes.”