Marketing Briefing: Marketers eye women’s sports as a growth area amid WNBA draft, record March Madness

This Marketing Briefing covers the latest in marketing for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Tickets to the WNBA’s draft, which was held last night in Brooklyn, New York and aired on ESPN, reportedly sold out within 15 minutes in what may be yet another signal of the growing power and audience for women’s sports. Marketers are continuing to take notice as the space is seen as a burgeoning growth area for brands, that are predicted to invest more this year.

As marketers look for growth areas amid an increasingly fractured media landscape with few water cooler moments, live sports has only gotten more important for marketers. The audience growth has been notable. Last fall the University of Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team set a world record with its attendance as 92,003 attended; this year marked a first as March Madness title game for the women’s teams scored 18.7 million eyeballs. The network attention shifts — for example, National Women’s Soccer League (NSLW) inked a deal with CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video and Scripps Sports for game coverage this year — is another factor that has agency executives continuing to see women’s sports as an opportunity.

Marketers are considering the space more this year, six agency execs said anecdotally, with some predicting that the women’s athletes may get more attention from brands ahead of the Summer Olympics this July in Paris.

“It feels like we’ve finally hit a turning point where marketers and the general public are talking about women athletes in everyday conversation — and not just to answer the need for a special gender equity program — but as a major business growth area for brands,” said Julie Batliner, president and chief growth officer at Carmichael Lynch, noting that the shop nabbed NCAA star Caitlin Clark in 2022 for client H&R Block.

Batliner said that Clark had two sponsorship deals at the time (grocery chain Hy-Vee was the first to work with Clark in 2021; H&R Block tapped Clark in the early spring of 2022), but she has gone on to sign multiple brand deals, including those with Nike, Gatorade and State Farm.

The recent attention to women’s NCAA basketball has put a spotlight on the power of women’s sports, but the audience for the category has been growing for years.

“This didn’t happen overnight; women’s sports began to get true traction over the last four to five years and has continued to grow year-over-year,” said Amy Bigelow vp of Publicis Sports, noting that companies like State Farm (WNBA), Ally (NSLW) and Molson (Professional Women’s Hockey League) have been early movers in the space in recent years. “We expect continued interest from marketers this year and years to come. Having brands/advertisers interested and invested long-term will only continue to grow women’s sports.”

Changes to the college athlete name, image and likeness (NIL) policy have certainly helped marketers get in early with potential athlete partners and may have helped get some brands to invest in women’s sports more too. “Some of the most successful NIL athletes are women, and their increased visibility on social and in sponsorships helps to raise the profile of women’s sports as a whole,” said Paul Furia, head of content and creative packaging, Media by Mother, who noted that “everyone is asking more questions about women’s sports” now ahead of the Olympics. “Women’s sports is absolutely a growth area to bank on.”

With women’s sports starting to get “the media coverage and the television rights that it deserves” now that “broadcasters [are] onboard to provide the necessary visibility — you can’t get visibility without the broadcast rights — we’ve seen significant changes this year,” said Jean Freeman, principal and CEO, Zambezi, adding that the agency has been pushing for greater visibility in women’s sports. The NSWL’s broadcast deal, which was reportedly worth $240 million for four years, is one example of how women’s sports are getting more lucrative contracts which in turn make the sport more visible.

“People want to see women as brand ambassadors,” said Freeman. “We are currently working on a number of upcoming brand campaigns with top women athletes, and brands should continue to find ways to incorporate women’s sports in their marketing mix, whether it’s league sponsorship or NIL sponsorship, marketing investment in women’s sports is a smart growth strategy.”

3 Questions with Joe Cano, CMO, chief merchandising officer and head of business development for Zappos

Last year, your team was experimenting with print marketing. How did those efforts pan out? 

I think it did really well. What we’re actually looking at doing is saying, “OK, is this solving a customer problem?” While it was beautiful and it was fun and nostalgic to bring it back, is it something that really customers gravitated towards? The biggest thing for that catalog was that it actually had a shoe size guide actually in the catalog … Things like that, we’re going to continuously do.

We’ve been talking a lot about how to get those customers to continue shopping with us, whether that is print, whether that is digital, whether that’s through a partnership. One thing that our custom customers actually told us was they love the partnership, they love seeing the breadth of brands. So we’re doing a little more innovative things this year, which is our 25th year anniversary, which is amazing. We’re going to be doing more in-real-life events — we call them sit-and-fit events — and more marketing campaigns that are more in-real-life events to showcase the might of Zappos. We are only an online retailer, so we don’t have those storefronts.

Being an online-only retailer, how are you navigating Google’s crumbling cookie?

It is making sure that you’re evolving as the landscape evolves, as new technology comes about. We have actually created a really great partnership with our Google team… What we’ve done is we craft our story in a little bit of a different way. I can’t give you all the secret sauce, but we’re actually still doing really well with Google. I’m in the process of even trying to get some more money because we are hitting all of our targets.

As of right now, it has not affected us too much. But obviously, we are diversifying how we’re speaking to our consumers and what platforms we’re actually looking on. Whether that’s advertising on Amazon or on TikTok, or on any of the Meta [shops] that we actually have as well as Instagram. There’s a lot of different ways for us to get our consumers and find them where they’re at.

What are the biggest challenges facing CMOs right now?

There are a plethora of companies out there that have great, innovative ideas — things that can scale, things that can’t, things that are personal, things that are video. There’s almost an information overload. Again, it’s how to talk to your consumers where they are and give them the right message. You only have a finite amount of time. As you’ve seen a lot of consumers, their time on site or time looking at something has decreased dramatically. Before, people would watch a 20-second video. Now, it’s like [four-seconds]. 

So for us, we’re going in and saying instead of saying, “Hey, you need to go to Zappos” and we’re driving to Zappos, we’re taking a step back and saying, “Where are customers going and are they already going?” We can just actually ingest our own footprint into it. A lot of that obviously is social. — Kimeko McCoy

By the numbers

The end of the generative artificial intelligence hype cycle may not be over yet. For the advertising and marketing industry, much of the talk seems to be around future promises as opposed to current use cases. Still, most agencies say AI is already in use, according to a recent report from AgencyAnalytics, which makes reporting software for agencies. More findings from the report below:

  • The survey revealed that a whopping 78% of agencies are already using AI.
  • Another 13% of survey respondents said they plan to use it by next year.
  • Only 9% of agencies reported that they had no plans to use AI — Kimeko McCoy

Quote of the week

“It was shocking. It was a bar I didn’t think a place like Forbes would sink to.”

— An anonymous agency exec when asked about how they’re managing Forbes’ domain spoofing issue and why some marketers are pressing pause when it comes to spending with the publication.

What we’ve covered

More in Marketing

In the marketing world, anime is following in the footsteps of gaming

As marketers look to take advantage of anime’s entry into the zeitgeist, they might be wise to observe the parallels between the evolution of anime as a marketing channel and the ways brands have learned to better leverage gaming in recent years. 

With the introduction of video ads and e-commerce, Roblox looks to attain platform status

Roblox is expanding into more areas than just ads in 2024. Much like platforms such as Amazon and Facebook have transcended their origins to evolve from their origins as online marketplaces and social media channels, Roblox is in the midst of a transformation into a platform for all elements of users’ virtual lives.