Today’s guest columnist is Cameron Wagner, Elevate Sports Ventures chief client officer, Brand Representation.
When the South Carolina Gamecocks won the championship of the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, I cheered with such intensity you would never believe my loyalties lay with the other Carolina. Angel City FC’s first game against San Diego Wave FC was on my calendar months in advance, with all plans pushed aside for the must-see event. Women’s sports fuels me, inspires me and brings purpose to my work.
Professionally, I am far more guarded about my celebrations, acknowledging that despite how far we’ve come, we have much further to go. When I found out that this year’s NCAA women’s tournament final drew more viewers than any other college basketball game on ESPN (men or women) since 2008 and that the Angel City FC vs. San Diego Wave FC NWSL game garnered an audience comparable to that of an MLS game on ESPN, I checked and rechecked the stats, because I knew cynics would question them. Women’s sports are still vulnerable to the doubters, and when such moments occur they are seen as anomalies.
How can we overcome this? In my opinion, there are two issues most detrimental to the growth of women’s sports that we, as an industry, must address.
One Crisis Away
One of the most concerning realities in women’s sports is that a crisis can swiftly destroy years of progress. While the men’s leagues weather storms with little impact on viewership, broadcast deals, sponsorship and player compensation, women’s organizations don’t have that luxury, especially not when confronting deeper systemic problems, which can put the league, team or governing body at risk of extinction. We saw this with USA Gymnastics, the NWSL and the NCAA, where the “go public and go loud” approach was deployed by athletes because there seemed to be no other option. The reverberations from this approach can damage delicate partner and broadcast relationships, and have potential generational impacts in the youth system.
The answer is clear: transparent communication processes, durable commitments from partners, ubiquitous operational strategy and thoughtful choreography between players, teams, leagues, broadcast partners and more. Major strides made by U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone and her focus on athlete institutional stability through transparency cannot be too soon forgotten or hailed as a merely positive moment—it is the bedrock of all future success. This foundation must and can be strong in the future to manage through difficult periods.
Everyone invested in this ecosystem is charged with driving the long-term viability for women’s sports in this new model. While the athletes themselves are extremely resilient, we must create an equally resilient infrastructure to surround them that continuously evolves to withstand crises. This not only takes great leadership, but it also takes financial viability and stability, which leads to the second issue.
I have often thought that being a women’s sports fan should come with an instruction manual. It is not easy. Every engagement point, from viewing a game to buying merchandise to reading about the athletes to attending a live event, requires tenacious, detective-like work. This may require purchasing additional streaming services, or fighting through click-bait to read about your favorite player. The barriers for a fan to consume and engage in most women’s sporting events ensures that growth will be marginal. In the few examples where the barriers have been removed, the data indicates high interest, viewership, engagement rates, and an eagerness for more, but many channels of distribution simply don’t allow that—yet.
How do we achieve more consistent, equitable access? I believe the fastest path is for the key stakeholders in women’s sports to stop moving sequentially and start moving simultaneously.
The critical stakeholders are the leagues, teams, media rights holders, editorial media and sponsors. Notice that I did not say fans, because this is not their problem to solve. The challenge is that those six stakeholders rarely, if ever, have the opportunity come to the table at the same time with the specific purpose of building an actionable plan. In fact, many times those entities are in continuous negotiation or waiting on the other to take the first step to pave a smooth road before they head out on the journey.
So let’s blow up the old model of sponsor summits and instead bring the stakeholders together for commitment summits where we walk out the door with a plan that can dramatically take a women’s sports league to the next level, as well as commercial summits where all parties convene to identify opportunities, efficiencies and solutions to give audiences access to the best athletes in the world. This begins with the broadcast partners’ willingness to give women’s sports the time and coverage that the data has proven it deserves. In the U.S., girls make up 43% of high school athletes, yet according to HIVE AI data, there was 3.5x more men’s sports programming than women’s in 2021.
Once we have committed to making women’s sports widely accessible on a high-reach network, at consistent times, with significant cross-promotion, we have the catalyst for the other stakeholders to move together. This would include:
- Empowering leagues with the ability to pursue larger and more integrated partnerships that put additional support and funding where it is needed most: player safety, event operations, equitable compensation models, league staffing and elevated marketing efforts for further growth.
- Teams prioritizing partnerships and sponsorships that drive investments in facilities, compensation for players and team personnel, critical player services, state-of-the-art equipment, marketing support and community integration.
- Longer-term, more integrated commitments from sponsors, including support of on-air broadcasts with branded features, fully integrated marketing support, and dedicated brand media featuring the sport and players.
- Editorial sports media coverage of women’s sports on a daily basis, including highlights, rivalry-building storylines and feature pieces on players that build emotional connections to fans.
- Instilling player confidence that the leagues, teams, media and sponsors are making a long-term commitment to them and the sport, leading to a renewed willingness to partner with the leagues and teams around initiatives to build the sport.
While in principle some stakeholders have already made this commitment, the key to expediting the growth of women’s sports is for all stakeholders to take calculated, interdependent action simultaneously and on a larger scale, thus reducing the risk or doubt that any one stakeholder may have.
If we come together as an industry to do this, we remove the fragility that has held back women’s sports, empowering us to shift the focus to the most important stakeholder of all—the fan.
Wagner is responsible for developing and leading Elevate Sports Venture’s global brand consulting vertical, bringing 25 years of experience in marketing, sponsorship consultation and partnership management on behalf of Fortune 500 companies such as Procter & Gamble, Google and Visa.