“Shrink it and pink it” is how Sports Innovation Lab founder and CEO Angela Ruggiero describes the old, unofficial motto of brands and marketers trying to reach fans of women’s sports. Since then, options have exploded for fans and consumers, and a new study of their habits has found the industry may be leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by not adapting alongside fans and growing women’s sports leagues.
When market intelligence firm Sports Innovation Lab launched its women’s sports-centric research endeavor, The Fan Project, in February, the goal was to get a better understanding of the female sports fan base. While not all fans of women’s sports are female, women control the majority of global consumer spending. Sports Innovation Lab suspected a lack of sufficient audience data to sell potential partners might be limiting the reach of women’s sports overall. Plus, fans are more elusive than ever.
“The data hopefully gets rid of the subjectivity of investing in women’s sports and really proves [the] business opportunity,” Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic hockey medalist, said in an interview. “Fans of women’s sports are these digitally savvy, digitally native demographic, they’re exhibiting this passionate behavior that we believe is the future for fans.” That future includes all fans, not just fans of women’s sports.
Fans have shifted from viewers to consumers to creators and active participants in their fandom. The Sports Innovation Lab analyzed billions of social media and TV data points from more than three million households to track what fans bought, bet, created and streamed during the study. It found the men’s model doesn’t work or attempt to understand the modern fan, Ruggiero said.
Women’s sports fans are the pinnacle of what the Sports Innovation Lab calls the digitally native “Fluid Fan”—one who doesn’t only consume sports on television, but also interacts with them digitally and socially with an emphasis on storytelling, community, access and direct-to-consumer commerce.
Fans of women’s sports in particular are the most extreme fluid fans of all—exhibiting the characteristic modern fan behaviors most often—and were the earliest adopters of this type of fandom not by choice, but “out of necessity,” the report said. They exhibit more tech-driven behaviors than any other sports fan and are a primary consumer group because of the deep connection they feel to the leagues, teams and athletes they follow. According to The Fan Project’s findings, these “Fluid Fans” make up just 10% of the total sports fan base but are responsible for more than 50% of the total revenue.
This is largely because fans of women’s sports have not historically had consistent access to their favorite leagues or teams via traditional channels. They’ve long had to stream or consume women’s sports content online, utilize ecommerce channels to buy merchandise and connect with athletes through social media and other digital communities. And the Fan Project finds these original fluid fans are potentially valuable.
The study emphasized that brands, partners and sponsors need to shift how they measure and value women’s sports properties. The behavior of women’s sports fans show that a quality-over-quantity approach and alignment with fan values “nets real profits and brand affinity,” according to the study.
“We’ve really embraced this community-based approach for quite a long time, so it’s so helpful for us to then have The Fan Project’s data to really demonstrate to future partners, current partners, to reinforce the thinking, and to demonstrate the success models,” Stephanie McMahon WWE chief brand officer, said in an interview. The WWE was one of 27 sports entities involved, among them the WNBA, NWSL, LPGA, NWHL, WTA, UFC and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The report found several specific selling points for potential partners or investors: Fans of women’s sports desire to own part of the sports experience, and they show fandom through content creation, buying merchandise or collecting memorabilia. They are more interested in representing their communities than fans of more established leagues, which means an increased demand for licensed products and merchandise. They also lean toward tech and direct-to-consumer channels as their buying mechanism. (McMahon said the WWE’s own experiences support that conclusion: The organization has seen 20% increase in sales in women’s merchandise on ecommerce after new partners feature the organization’s female athletes.) Purpose-driven content and brand activations, which more often come from women’s leagues than men’s, generate higher engagement rates. It turns out active engagement benefits all involved. When sponsors of men’s sports took the same approach, they saw a similar increase in engagement.
The study also found that the highest fan engagement comes with non-linear, athlete-focused media spanning before, in-between and beyond game time (supplanting a linear approach of stats, scores and schedules). Storytelling sells, Ruggiero said.
Finally, the study found that brands who invest in women’s sports early benefit the most. The data, supported by insights gathered by social media and sponsorship measurement company Zoomph, show that fans of women’s sports are loyal to brands who invest in this space at much higher rates than general sports fans. This particular group of fans reward sponsors of women’s sports with immediate engagement and spending. Sponsors like Budweiser (NWSL), Visa (USWNT) and Nike (WNBA, NWSL, USWNT) have all seen returns on their investments in the form of massive spikes in direct fan engagement with their brands.
McMahon said The Fan Project data confirms that “we are leaving money on the table collectively,” because female athletes and women’s sports are able to drive revenue. Ruggiero seconded the notion, saying the study supports her personal belief that there is tremendous business opportunity for brands and sponsors with tech-driven fan experiences and activations in women’s sports.
The project’s supporters hope brands will use the new behavioral data and the proposed community-focused monetization and investment model to veer away from the linear-TV-heavy approach that traditionally drives investment in sports.
“The industry can now move from ‘why should we invest in women’s sports?’ to ‘how should we best invest in women’s sports?’” the report concluded.