Brands Should Double Down On The Growing Presence Of Women in Sports

Jenna Mielnicki, Senior Vice President & Head of Marketing Solutions, LEARFIELD

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX. It’s a celebratory time for women’s athletics, but also a broader celebration of women in sports: not just as athletes but as passionate fans, loyal supporters, successful leaders and more.

That celebration shines a spotlight on the tremendous opportunities for brands to connect with passionate women audiences across the country in every demographic – opportunities which remain largely untapped.

At LEARFIELD, we’re also celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. We’ve spent that entire 50 years connecting brands to sports fans – and we’ve watched the growth of women’s athletics parallels the growing presence and influence of women in the sports world. Today, women fans represent a highly valuable and influential audience for brands.

Female fans of college sports now account for 42% of the 150 million fans in the LEARFIELD Known Fans database, and they also make up 48% of social media followers for college sports, according to LEARFIELD’s 2022 Intercollegiate Fan Pulse Report.

The report – based on data on more than 33 million individual, deduplicated fan records and over 3 billion data points on ticketing, apparel purchases and donations  – revealed a number of important characteristics and insights on female fans of college sports. Notably, women are not only passionate supporters of women’s athletics. Female fans also make up more than one-third of college football and men’s basketball tickets, viewership and social media followers.

The characteristics of female fan audiences are favorable for brands, as well. They’re younger on average than male fans, more likely to have a college education, and nearly a third have incomes over $150K. Those characteristics present solid opportunities to build long-term relationships with high-value audiences. Female fans also tend to be more digitally active, making it easier for brands to effectively target these audiences.

College athletics present ideal opportunities for brands to engage their target customers

Few things engender passion and loyalty more than sports at all levels – from Little League to the Super Bowl. College sports, in particular, are woven into the fabric of our country in a way that gives them uniquely broad reach.

There are more than 180 million college sports fans in the US – half of them women – and they’re everywhere: multigenerational audiences in every state, from big cities to small towns, cutting across every demographic divide. This diverse appeal means that brands can find female sports audiences that fit with their own characteristics and values, and to align with schools’ traditions that fit their own brand story.

How do brands effectively align with female fan audiences?

Over the last 50 years, LEARFIELD has partnered with brands in all segments to connect with fan audiences – including women fans. Here’s what we know works:

1) Start with your goals: There is no one-size-fits-all for sports sponsorship and marketing opportunity. Brands need to start with their business goals: What are you trying to accomplish through college sports? The answer needs to go beyond, “We want to establish longer-term relationships with household decision-makers.”

For example, look at your customer base: Where are you strongest? Where do you have gaps? Where is your market growing fastest? These questions can help you define your goals as the starting point for everything else.

2) Use first-party data to guide decision-making: Once you’ve established your goals, how do you find the right fan audiences among the 180 million across the country?

We analyze our Fanbase first-party data to point the brands we work with in the right direction. First-party data sources let the fans show you the way: They tell you exactly who they are, what they care about and what they want.

Then, you look for ownable opportunities: those natural intersection points between your brand values, brand story and a school’s or team’s values and traditions.

3) Tell authentic stories to make genuine connections: Nine in 10 women report feeling that advertisers and marketers do not seem to understand or cater to them, according to research by the Yankelovich Monitor and Greenfield Online. Part of the challenge is that brands often overlook the opportunity to adjust or craft creative messaging to women audiences. Or they opt to cast a wider net that is less targeted at women audiences.

Brands need to speak directly to the values and passions that these audiences share – and meaningful storytelling is key to delivering this authenticity.

For example, a brand might focus its storytelling on women athletes in the business world. Characteristics and values instilled through athletics often lend themselves to success in the business world. Many brands have their own stories of former collegiate athletes who now lead their businesses in top, C-suite roles. Many companies now sponsor internship and mentorship programs for women in college athletics. These stories are engaging and authentic connection points to women fan audiences.

4) Sustain the conversation: Brand involvement in women’s athletics is surging around the Title IX 50th anniversary. But brands won’t make meaningful connections with one-and-done campaigns. They need to commit to an ongoing conversation.

Our advice: Do your research to understand what women fan audiences could mean for your brand and your business. Use this anniversary celebration as the catalyst to get buy-in, budget and start launching initiatives to connect with women audiences in sports. Then, build a long-term plan to sustain that investment and continue meaningful, authentic conversations.

Looking toward the next 50 years

It’s remarkable to look at how far women’s athletics – and women in sports, more broadly – have come in the last 50 years. It’s even more exciting to think of where we’re headed in the next 50. This anniversary should be an inflection point for how brands think about women audiences in sports. Building relationships takes time, but what you put in now is sure to multiply in future value.

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