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Volume 20 No. 42
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Can women’s sports get media/sponsor support?

O ur recent Game Changers Conference looked at the opportunities and challenges facing women’s sports, women as sports fans and women in the executive ranks. Overall, optimism was pervasive throughout the day, as one speaker after another talked growth and hope. But, privately, there were small pockets of pessimism due to frustration with corporate America and mainstream media coverage. As I reviewed my notes from the event, here’s what stood out:

First, this event just felt different from all the other industry events we put on at SportsBusiness Journal/Daily. It may have been because it was the inaugural event, one geared specifically toward women and tackling a subject in need of discussion and analysis. Besides the roughly 80 percent female makeup of the audience, there was more energy, networking and audience participation — even in the form of audible agreement or disagreement at some of the questions or comments. That is far different from our other events. Passion was palpable, and indicated the support throughout the business for women’s sports. But that support came with measured realism that underscored the complexities of the topic. The issues facing women’s sports are daunting. How to fulfill its mission and potential aren’t easy, and that was evident by the careful and deliberate nature of the comments.

> KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: One area of complete agreement was how powerful a platform sports can be in reaching women. There were consistent themes on how to reach them: be authentic and know your audience. PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi stressed not to look at women as one “monolithic bloc, but as fans, coaches, athletes,” and design programs for those specific needs. Many speakers, including Nooyi, stressed customization and segmentation in marketing to women. “There has been a tendency to define women in sports in the context of their relationships,” Nooyi said. “They watch games because their husbands watch. They’re interested because their kids play a sport. They buy tickets to a sporting event because it’s a way to spend time with family. Those relationships may be real, but they are not all-encompassing.” She said sports hasn’t done enough to give women “an authentic experience,” and too often “we have been ‘pinking and shrinking’ the man’s experience to fit a woman.” But women fans can be casual, die-hard or participatory, and “all of these groups require a different product, and different messaging.” She praised ads from Bud Light depicting women as hard-core fans who “can be just like men” in their behavior. And she stressed women are knowledgeable when it comes to sports. “When I talk football with my friends, I don’t talk about Tom Brady’s hair,” she said. “I talk about how he handles the blitz, or how he runs his offense.” She concluded, “I don’t want dumbed-down content. I want to be treated as a real fan. … Speak to women. Do it authentically. Give them the real sports experience they want. They will respond.”

> ‘HUMAN ELEMENT’: Anne Finucane, global strategy and marketing officer at Bank of America, agreed with Nooyi, but went on to say that the human element and storytelling around personalities should not be overlooked. “Women want to be treated as true fans and not sidekicks,” she said. “But there is the human element behind the player, the story behind the player, behind the team, behind the city that they are also interested in.” But alluding to the personality side of sports, she added with a laugh, “Tom Brady’s hair, it’s not bad.” She said one of the reasons BofA’s sponsorship of Major League Baseball is valuable is “the length of the season” and the fact “they play every day,” but she also likes that you can see the player’s faces, which goes back to the “human element” she believes in. “Being able to see players’ faces is important for the customer base, because you have 50 percent of the customer base [who] are women. It’s not imperative, but it helps,” she added.

> WHERE ARE SPONSORS? Clearly the more difficult part of the conversation around women’s sports came when discussing corporate support and media coverage. Sometimes, the conversation was frank. In private, more than one leader implored corporate America to walk the walk in supporting women’s sports. Few said so on stage. When I asked Finucane whether today’s top corporate sponsors should further support women’s sports, she was blunt: “What is the responsibility of corporate America to sponsor women’s sports? Corporate America sponsors sports because we’re looking for branding, revenue, customer engagement, employee engagement, community engagement. We’re not doing it because we’re trying to advance the sport itself, honestly. So I don’t think we see it as a moral imperative.” Women’s sports should not be positioned as a philanthropic commitment, and I don’t believe it is. Today’s CMOs don’t have an obligation to support women’s sports. They are representing businesses, and businesses fail across the United States on a daily basis. They will succeed or fail based on the quality of the product and the customer experience. Properties need to work harder to deliver on brand and business objectives for their sponsors and elevate themselves by delivering better ratings and promotional value.

> MEDIA COVERAGE: The drive for more corporate support led many to criticize mainstream media’s coverage of women’s sports. WTA Chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster, who travels all over the world seeking financial support and media coverage for a global property, called out the media. “Mainstream content is not there for us,” she stressed. “We have to take our destiny in our own hands.” She said that less than 10 percent of coverage on ESPN is dedicated to women’s sports, and an even slimmer portion of its flagship program, “SportsCenter.” Others noted a challenging media environment with fewer beat reporters and a male-dominated newsroom affecting coverage decisions. “We’re going to have to cover our sport ourselves,” said LPGA Chief Financial Officer Kathy Milthorpe. From my own observation, ESPN2 is offering extensive coverage of the WNBA playoffs, but nary a mention of the games has been evident on “SportsCenter.” The inability to crack through a popular highlights show is part of the current frustration. But it’s the tail wagging the dog. Media coverage and sponsorship spending are connected. Audiences aren’t going to grow unless there is media coverage, and consciousness won’t be raised unless sponsors are at the table doing themed advertising and activating at retail. The problem is that sponsors won’t bite unless coverage and audiences are robust and healthy. One issue brought up more than once is that women’s sports don’t deliver women, not compared with men’s sports. Data supports this. If I were suggesting a program for a sponsor that really wanted to reach women, I’d strongly consider a female-based program targeted around pro or college football. That would reach women.

> GOING FORWARD: I don’t have solutions to these challenges. I wonder if there is a role for sports properties like the WTA, LPGA or WNBA to take a more consultative approach to their existing and potential sponsors and position themselves as experts on women’s marketing. Talk to these companies and walk them through how activating at retail to women will help them sell more product. Position these properties as women’s marketing experts. The other area could be in women’s sports properties getting female fans more involved on a grassroots level and get them to take a personal interest in the sports and playing them. That would tie into a number of emotions — health and wellness, self-esteem, work/life balance, to name a few. These also become great marketing vehicles for the properties, opportunities to further involve the athletes and that are sellable to sponsors.
Let’s face it — men’s sports have had quite the head start over women’s sports. Discussions like the one at the Game Changers Conference will help identify some solutions to the challenges facing growth. The good news is women’s sports are consistently in the consideration set, and that couldn’t always be said.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at