Women’s History Month. The 50th anniversary of the federal Title IX gender equity law. The NCAA Women’s Final Four.
Women's sport is a topic getting more attention recently. But a UNLV sport marketing expert says it’s critical that we focus attention on improving gender equity all the time — and she has a winning formula for turning the tide.
Nancy Lough, a leader of UNLV’s Sports Research and Innovation Initiative, is the co-author of DisruptHERS, a new Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport report that points to how “digital disruption” is changing women’s sport. In short, it’s time to adopt a new model that changes how women’s sport is marketed, sponsored, endorsed, invested in, and broadcast. This model stresses social media and emerging technology as avenues to create new digital spaces where athletes and newer generations of sport fans converge.
Lough says advertisers are already taking notice of the buying power of Gen Z consumers, who are more deeply inclusive and social justice-oriented. Lough and her co-authors note that nearly half of Gen Z adults report using social media as a primary news source, and that they are 10% less likely than older generations to watch traditional media networks, posing a threat to a sports industry that the Baby Boomer generation built upon televised broadcast rights.
“Sport is a microcosm of society — meaning we see attitudes and behaviors signaling how women are valued play out in a visible way when we look at how women are treated in sport. For decades, women have been ignored by mainstream media, with only 4% of media coverage allocated to women’s sport,” Lough said.
“Our report contends that digital disruption is creating unprecedented opportunity for women’s sport properties and women athletes to create a new model because they are largely unburdened by traditional investments and processes,” she said. “To change the culture, we must change the story.”
Here, Lough shares four major takeaways from the report.
“Digital disruption” — using emerging technology to communicate with fans where they are — is key to the changing landscape of women's sport.
The old model that worked for mainstream men's sport — where men from the Baby Boomer generation decide what consumers of all ethnicities, ages, and gender identities find entertaining, and pour media, endorsement, and advertising power into promoting what they believe appeals to most other men — has not worked for women’s sport. Legacy media has failed women’s sport for decades. As a result, fans have had to seek out and become adept at accessing women’s sport content in alternative spaces, leading them away from traditional print and television consumption to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and streaming TV services like Amazon.
The new model that has emerged is centered on digital disruptors — those who are changing the landscape of women’s sport and have the capacity to undermine established industry models of consumption, competition, and resourcing. For women’s sport, bypassing traditional media that has refused to invest in them at a level sufficient to promote growth and opening content creation to athletes and fans created a new system of value.
Through social media and digital communication, creators have broken away from traditional linkages and used new technology to facilitate more direct interactions with fans and more valuable transactions with sponsors. Athletes have taken on the role of content creation leading to increased visibility and consumer engagement. These systemic changes are also leading to increased investment in women’s sport and a new understanding of the unique women’s sport fanbase.
No more lip service: Gen Z consumers are driving change with sport advertisers.
Gen Z as a consumer group is more committed to brands that support their values, and they will actively boycott brands that behave in ways that are disingenuous or exemplify values they don’t support. Gen Zers care about gender equality, are far more accepting of LGBTQ people, and advocate for causes they believe in.
Because of this activist attitude, sponsors are increasingly shifting towards athletes, teams and leagues that exemplify the values that resonate with this young, influential generation. Just this month, Budweiser canceled its sponsorship with the NFL’s Washington Commanders, a team in the media this past year for alleged misogynistic behavior.
Meanwhile, sponsors are actively advocating and educating in pieces like this TV ad from Buick, which juxtaposes excitement at a women’s sporting event with on-screen text showcasing statistics about disparities. Budweiser is investing more in women’s sport and visibly communicating their values through women’s sport. Other major corporate sponsors like Visa and Secret made similar statements in support of the U.S. Women’s National soccer team and their fight for equal pay. In turn, each of these brands saw triple-digit increases in metrics showing that fans of women’s sport translate their fandom through buying behaviors, which is precisely what sponsors seek. A similar recent example is Michelob Ultra pledging $100 million to support women’s sport.
This type of investment signals a significant new model emerging that points directly to the growing value of women’s sport and women athletes.
Social media lets women athletes develop their own unique brands, expand their platforms beyond sports, and more exponentially grow their fanbases.
Simone Biles is well known for her incredible gymnastics career. During the 2021 Olympic Games, she also became a vocal leader on mental health. As an Olympian, Biles built her brand on her athleticism initially but has taken it beyond just sport.
Naomi Osaka is one of the most highly endorsed athletes in the world, having succeeded as a tennis champion at a young age. Her brand has been built through her authenticity on social media where she has openly talked about mental health struggles while also taking a stance as a strong advocate for social justice causes. As part owner of a National Women’s Soccer League team, Osaka is an investor in women’s sport which she demonstrated when she wore the team jersey during one of her recent tennis matches — adding value to the team, sponsors, and her own brand.
Lastly, Megan Rapinoe used the visibility gained through her position with the U.S. Women’s National soccer team and the fight for equal pay to grow her brand while standing up for multiple social justice issues and becoming one of the most visible openly gay athletes in a global sport.
Research has shown that women athletes receive high levels of social media engagement, even higher than what men’s sports typically receive, relative to the follower size.
Fans of women’s sport are not just women. Men are 50% of the women’s sport fanbase and now fans are using their own social media platforms to drive change.
Without question male allyship is helpful. Too often the misconception is that only women are fans of women’s sport. In fact, the more exposure women’s sport receives, the more diverse the fanbase becomes, which also increases value for broadcast rights, advertisers, and sponsors.
To give a real-world example: Sue Bird has played in five Olympic games and won five gold medals. At 40 years of age, she is an icon, both because she is still a top-performing athlete and because she has been visible as a leader in the sport for over 20 years. This is a great example of how it takes twice as long and at least twice as much effort for a woman athlete to get the media attention she deserves.
NBA players attending WNBA games and speaking up on social media to support WNBA players signals to other men the value these women athletes bring to the game. Women still face harsh social media bashing and ongoing misogynistic criticism, often lined with homophobia and, in the case of the WNBA, racist slurs. Male allies can help refute these types of challenges by demonstrating their respect and support for women athletes.
After all, more women than ever have played sport and are leading in sport organizations. This parallels broader society, where we have more women earning degrees in higher education and attaining high-level leadership positions, and support growing among the younger generation for gender equality. Title IX made much of this possible, opening opportunities for all women in every field through education and, in some cases, sport.
Women athletes have grown tired, skeptical, disillusioned, and restless, and it’s high time that it becomes a mainstream idea that women’s history — including women’s sport — has value for more than a designated month.