Author (and U of A alum) note: Big congratulations to Head Coach Adia Barnes and the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team on advancing to their first Final Four in school history!
Women’s professional sports have started to see an influx of sponsorship interest (see: growing list of NWSL sponsors). However, if one were drawing conclusions based solely on the noticeably light swag bags gifted to players participating in the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament, it would be easy to conclude brands have yet to embrace the women’s college game. But Ray Katz (COO, Collegiate Sports Management Group) says that is not the case. “When the NCAA sells rights, they are selling rights to [all 90 NCAA Championships–men’s and women’s],” he said. “The question is which assets and sports are the NCAA’s three corporate champions and 15 corporate partners then spending their money and resources to activate?”
It appears as if many of the NCAA’s corporate champions and partners are choosing to invest the majority of their resources in the activation of the men’s tournament—as opposed to spreading the dollars out equally across championships. “Sometimes I think sports marketing strategy is like a bunch of first-graders playing soccer. Everyone runs to the ball, not realizing that if they go away from where everyone else is, and they get a pass, they will have a better shot to score,” Katz said. “This is true whether discussing the women’s tournament or the great ROI generated by college sports marketing beyond the Power Five conferences.”
Our Take: Historically speaking, “the issue [for women’s sports] has been the size of the audience. Whether it is for in-person or media content, it has always been smaller than the men’s [game],” Adam Grossman (CEO, Block Six Analytics) explained. But that shouldn’t be stopping NCAA champions/partners from activating the women’s basketball tournament. As Katz said, “It’s a real, viable property. They are getting three to four million viewers for the finals. They are getting one-and-a-half to two million viewers for the semis. The reality is the [event’s] television ratings are just as good as NHL playoff games and nearly at the levels of NBA regular season national ratings.” Attendance is comparable to those leagues, too. The 2019 Women’s Final Four drew a pair of sell-out crowds of more than 20,000 people.
Katz sees “marketers and their agencies just wanting to be in the highest-rated [events] as a form of laziness or risk aversion” and suggested all but the leading brand in each category would be better served “owning the women’s basketball championship,” he said. “I would rather own halftime, the player of the game or the starting lineups all the way through the women’s tournament, than have one more commercial unit in every men’s tournament game. It’s going to be more impactful [than trying to stand out among a flood of sponsorship messages].” To be clear, Katz isn’t suggesting brands avoid the men’s tournament. He believes maintaining an adequate presence, for the purpose of reach, is still important (and done well, notably by the three Corporate Champions).
While Katz sees brands’ reluctance to steer funds away from the men’s tournament as lazy, Grossman and Angela Ruggiero (CEO, Sports Innovation Lab) identified several other factors that could be influencing decisions. “Some of the sponsors you see in the women’s [pro] game today are [invested] because it’s the right thing to do [as opposed to being financially driven],” Ruggiero said. If that’s the case, brands intent on using the platform to demonstrate their commitment to gender equality may not find women’s college sports to be the ideal place to activate. For example, “Luna Bar has wanted to help close the gender pay gap between the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Well, the only way to [currently] do that is through professional sports [since collegiate players cannot be paid],” Grossman explained.
Ruggiero did make it a point to say there are brands who invest in women’s sports because “they see great ROI. The Fan Project (www.thefanproject.co) is about showing there is a business case for investment, which many brands already understand and why they invest.”
Another reason brands may be hesitant to move resources to the women’s basketball tournament is the relative lack of household names (when compared to the men). “Stars drive interest, and it’s just harder to create them in college sports generally [because of the high turnover and NIL limitations in place],” Grossman explained. Leagues like the NWSL and WNBA, which have seen increased sponsorship interest, are filled with recognizable faces (think: Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, Sabrina Ionescu). Everyone we spoke to agreed that enabling college athletes to commercialize their name, image and likeness would assist in the creation of star athletes—including women’s basketball players.
The NCAA’s decision not to apply the March Madness moniker to the women’s basketball tournament may also be making it more challenging for brands to justify moving resources from the men’s event. “Companies, fans and media all understand what March Madness is and what it means. One important goal of corporate partnerships is to create positive associations with as little friction as possible. Not being able to use March Madness in campaigns involving women’s sports can make that task more difficult,” Grossman explained.
The NCAA could solve this overnight. Its trademark registrations allow for the use of March Madness on both tournaments. While the organization would not commit to making the change moving forward, it sounds as if it is a possibility. Stacey Osburn (director of communications – external engagement, NCAA) said in an email that “as we further examine how best to promote the sport, we will continue to closely listen to the expectations of our membership, women’s basketball leadership and also consider our relationships with our valued broadcast partners. We are committed to working with all constituents to determine the best way forward for women’s basketball, including the use of March Madness logos if desired.”
But even if the NCAA doesn’t do the right thing, Ruggiero and Grossman both suggested we are likely to see more brands allocating resources to the women’s basketball tournament. Ruggiero said companies are starting to change how they think about partnerships. While they still value audience size, many are focusing more heavily on audience fit and corporate social responsibility. “There are good opportunities to reach a targeted audience that can drive business decisions, in a cost effective way,” Grossman said. “That is all appealing to partners.”