Why brands should target women’s sports leagues

Thought Leadership
In this post, GlobalWebIndex‘s Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine examines how women’s sports fans compare to mainstream sport lovers in terms of online behaviour and content consumption, and what opportunities this offers for brands to get involved.

Interest in women’s sports leagues is stepping up. As big names like Visa lead the way for major sponsorship deals – becoming the first ever UEFA sponsor dedicated to women’s football – broadcasters and viewers are becoming increasingly invested in the games and players.

Currently, 12% of the global internet population follow women’s sports leagues* by watching on TV or online. But as growing media attention raises the profile of women’s sports even further, can the existing audience show us the biggest opportunities to engage?

Followers are likely watching for the sport, rather than the community
Alongside this audience being more affluent than average, a stand-out characteristic is that they’re sports fanatics. Compared to those who follow men’s leagues across the world, those watching women’s leagues express a much stronger interest in both playing and watching sports more generally. This shows they’re likely to be consistent watchers of competitions and there for the sport itself, rather than the community and social aspect that comes with most men’s sports competitions like the FA Cup or Six Nations Championship.

However, the community element is still important and could be a leverage point for leagues to bolster interest. Just as men are more likely to be following sports in general, they also make up a majority of the audience watching women’s sports leagues, but only just (at 57% men vs. 43% women). The importance of cross-gender marketing campaigns shouldn’t be underestimated, and neither should their ability to drive viewing numbers, awareness and participation.

The Women’s Sport Trust and Sky Sports did this brilliantly with their #ShowUp campaign, asking people to pledge across social media to support and dedicate time to following women’s sports competitions. The hashtag generated 92 million impressions across social media in the first week alone. This proves that the appetite for women’s sports is there – building a bigger audience of consistent viewers is the challenge.

Alternative online viewing channels could easily stretch reach of leagues
Live sport is one of the only types of content which viewers will set aside time to view in real-time – but men’s sports tend to dominate the prime broadcast exposure slots. Despite this, women’s sports are still predominantly watched via a TV (80%). Almost 50% of these fans who are watching on TV are choosing to watch the games online too.

Globally accessible channels like social media could bolster viewership, especially in markets where women’s sports aren’t broadcast. And there’s certainly an appetite for it: almost 4 in 10 watchers say they mainly use social media to watch/follow sports events. Social media also gives marketers and rights holders alike the opportunity to engage a younger, more diverse and truly global audience of consumers.

Followers are brand-engaged on social media, making the second screen more powerful
Women’s league watchers are happy to actively engage with brands on social media, whether by sharing posts or clicking through links, and are more likely to do so than those watching men’s sports. This love of social and willingness to meet brands there makes the second screen a vital touchpoint.

The vast majority of women’s sports league watchers are likely to be reaching for another device when they tune in to watch. 93% say they regularly do so as they watch TV, with mobile the firm device of choice (81%).

At least 1 in 2 say they head to social media or chat to friends on dark social platforms when second-screening – perhaps to see friends’ reactions and commentary in real time when watching sports. These consumers could be at the centre of raising awareness of women’s leagues, by sharing and commenting on social media.

Although this online community will be small, it’s likely to be a highly passionate one. And it’s promising for marketers and sponsors that a third say they search for information related to what they’re watching, whether that’s to read up about the people or search for products that are advertised.

For brands wanting the attention of these viewers, maximizing the digital footprint of a campaign will be key. There’s no denying the reach and cost-effective opportunity social media offers – especially during global league games where feeds will be getting more attention than normal. But to reach these viewers, simply pushing promotional content or ads all over social feeds isn’t enough. Instead, brands must make themselves part of the conversation.

Women’s professional sports leagues have historically trailed behind men’s in terms of popularity, but they shouldn’t be pushed aside. There’s an ongoing challenge to raise the profile of women’s sports, and to get more people watching consistently. Growing media attention will help here, as will getting the games broadcast during the prime viewing slots.

For brands, women’s sports offer access to an affluent and passionate audience, who are real sports fanatics. And unlike men’s leagues, there will be more opportunities for smaller and emerging brands to sponsor women’s sports without being overshadowed, allowing them to make more meaningful connections with viewers.

View from We Are Social Sport
Commenting on the findings, Andrew Boyers, Senior Account Director at We Are Social Sport, said “Women’s sport is clearly on a positive curve in terms of growth and viewership. And the Visa UEFA sponsorship is hopefully a step closer to the tipping point of heavy media/brand investment and mass viewership being reached.”

“It needs to be said, however, that there are still challenges. Stories of Wilfried Zaha having to personally finance the Crystal Palace Ladies’ team due to a lack of investment is a testament to that. Women’s sport has some of the most marketable athletes in the world, and social can be the platform that instils that and bridges the connection between women’s sport and fans worldwide.”

“The achievements of global athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, or Laura Kenny and Dina Asher-Smith in the UK, have helped to create a strong emotional connection with their fan base. It’s these sorts of athlete stories that are brands should be looking to tap into in what is set to be a massive year for women’s sport with the Women’s World Cup on the horizon.”

*Women’s Leagues include: FIFA Women’s World Cup, ICC Women’s World Cup (Cricket, Select Markets), ICC Women’s World Twenty20 (Cricket, Select Markets), LPGA/Ladies Professional Golf Association, UEFA Women’s Championships League and Women’s World Cup (Rugby, Select Markets).