A lot can be accomplished in 50 years. When Title IX became the law of the land 50 years ago today in 1972, there were no cell phones, no streaming audio, no commercial internet access, and gas was an average of 36 cents per gallon in today’s dollars. There were virtually no women’s college athletics either.
An anniversary like that of the Title IX legislation allows us to both reflect and look forward. The limits and lack of equity between genders in sports was obvious when the law was enacted; although change was slow at first, it has consistently grown since the beginning, and thankfully is picking up speed.
Yet, female athletes and fans are still an untapped area for brand advertisers and their agencies, and the data is there to prove it. Women represent 42% of the college sports audience and 48% of social followers of college teams – and those percentages can be even higher for women’s sports teams. Research has shown that women influence 85% of all consumer spending and female college sports fans are one of the most educated, highest-income demographics of consumers. In fact, female college sports fans account for $530 billion in household spending power – with 31% earning incomes of more than $150,000. No surprise that this is an incredibly attractive audience for brand marketers.
For many years prior to Title IX – and even many years after its implementation into law – women’s sports had a marketing problem, as familiar phrases such as “women’s sports don’t make any money, so we can’t spend money;” and “no one cares about women’s sports, so why should we invest in it?” dominated some conversations.
Fast forward to today and nothing could be further from the truth. The recently completed Women’s College World Series had an average of one million viewers per game for the third consecutive WCWS and brought record visitors to official athletic websites. Universities are investing in new facilities. Fans are selling out events like women’s gymnastics meets and basketball games across the country. Women’s athletics are showing record higher engagement rates and a higher percentage of female followers. Finally, brand marketers are starting to take notice and growing their investments in these teams.
Even though we are nearing day 18,262 of Title IX, when you think of the opportunities ahead, it feels like day one. Leveraging both digital and social media opportunities to reach female fans where they’re already consuming content is a necessary part of campaign strategies. In 2021, the NCAA granted student-athletes the ability to profit off their name, image, and likeness. Not surprisingly, athletes are taking advantage of the opportunity, particularly those with large social followings. Both University of Connecticut women’s basketball star Paige Bueckers, who has one million followers on Instagram, and Louisville women’s basketball standout Hailey Van Lith, who boasts 718,000 on the platform, signed with Octagon Sports & Entertainment Agency last summer.
After winning the individual and team titles at the NCAA Division I women’s golf championship, Stanford freshman Rose Zhang inked an NIL deal with Adidas, becoming the first student-athlete to sign with the brand. Brands who are invested in college are expanding their campaigns to include student-athletes with use of school marks and IP for even greater return on their investments.
Brands and sports organizations can no longer ignore women’s sports and their growing fan base if they want to be successful. They must create targeted and engaging content based on the demographics and DMAs they wish to reach, and college sports marketing is a tool they can leverage. Thinking beyond traditional college investments in football and men’s basketball to include women’s teams and sports such as women’s basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and volleyball to reach more household decision makers is truly a smart business decision.
The growth for women’s sports sponsorship was a full 7% higher in the 2021-22 season than the baseline growth for college sports sponsorships in general, making it one of the fastest growing categories. Softball was a standout with over 36% growth over pre-COVID investments. It is important to note that these numbers also don’t include every sport, as some – such as swimming & diving, track & field, and tennis – are not broken out by gender. The challenge in estimating those not broken down means women’s sports numbers should be even higher.
And then there are the fans. Female college sports fans represent a significant and growing population within college athletics. This group is particularly important for brand marketers and schools given the tremendous influence that women have over consumer spending. Schools and brand marketers should focus their efforts online to reach female fans, as their behavior demonstrates a preference for social media, shopping online, buying and wearing school-licensed apparel, using streaming platforms, and attending live events to engage with sports that are less likely to be broadcast on television.
Nearly all top brands are making investments in women’s sports and must continue to do so. Well-known names such as Coca-Cola, State Farm and others can be seen adapting, but brands, both larger and smaller, need to keep going.
The sports world is a priority for brands due to the engagement, attachment and passion of fans. This is true for both men’s and women’s sports. The growth will continue, and the brands that take advantage will be judged as not only thought leaders but will reach their audiences and their business goals more successfully. Women’s sports must and will be a priority in 2022 and well beyond.