Fast Studios’ Women’s Sports Network has its first sponsor in Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra.
The light beer brand is partnering with the fledgling network in a year-long deal that aims to increase representation and visibility for women in sports. Despite pushes for more airtime—and bigtime broadcasters such as ESPN and CBS starting to step up—women’s sports still receive just 5% of all media coverage, according to studies published as recently as 2021.
The Women’s Sports Network, which went live in November, wants to solve that problem, as does Michelob Ultra. The 24/7 streaming network is currently available on platforms including Amazon Freevee, Roku, Fubo and Fox-owned Tubi and can also be accessed on many smart televisions.
Financial details of the sponsorship deal were not disclosed. While the initial agreement is for one year, Michelob Ultra says it is committed to a long-term relationship.
“The ability to raise awareness around women’s sports is the reason the Women’s Sports Network exists,” said Stuart McLean, CEO of Women’s Sports Network and Fast Studios. “Our ability to aggregate all of women’s sports in a free-to-view television network, we [thought] would be valuable to women’s sports overall and also valuable to great partners like Ultra who want to support these athletes.”
The network’s launch comes in the middle of Michelob Ultra’s five-year, $100 million commitment to increase visibility for women’s sports. The mission started in 2021 when the brand signed athletes including WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike, the USWNT’s Alex Morgan and tennis legend Serena Williams to balance its roster of endorsers. Now, it’s venturing into a heightened focus on media coverage.
“One of the challenges-slash-opportunities that we have across the industry is the inventory that is available for us to invest in,” Ricardo Marques, VP of marketing at Michelob Ultra, said in an interview. “The willingness is here, the dollars are here, but the inventory sometimes doesn’t always follow. … The Women’s Sports Network [is] 100% dedicated to what we’re talking about here. It has the potential to tap into the audience that is already out there and provide a solution to an under-served need from the advertisers’ point of view.”
The Women’s Sports Network fit that bill because it plans to fill the inventory voids with live and original programming, as well as rights and content aggregated from its partners. In addition to serving as the network’s official beer, Michelob Ultra will feature on the Women’s Sports Network’s flagship Sports Center-style daily studio show, Game On, whose recent guests include Ogwumike, four-time Olympic hockey medalist Hilary Knight and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
The Women’s Sports Network’s target audience—18-to-44-year-old fans of women’s sports—is an attractive demographic for advertisers. Women control the majority of global consumer spending, and studies have shown that fans of women’s sports reward partners who support the leagues, teams and athletes they follow at higher rates than fans of more established or accessible sports. They’re also comfortable with new and emerging tech and consumption methods, including many of the platforms where the Women’s Sports Network can be found. McLean said the network is “not trying to change anyone’s habits—we know this is a tech-savvy audience. They’ve already cut the cord, they’re very comfortable in this space.”
The network counts several women’s sports leagues and properties as programming partners, including the WNBA, Athletes Unlimited (a network of women’s sports leagues that includes softball, volleyball, lacrosse and basketball), the LPGA, USGA, Premier Hockey Federation and World Surf League (WSL). Many of these partners have limited rights to offer the Women’s Sports Network as they work within the bounds of existing broadcast deals.
Absent from that lineup are the NWSL, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and U.S. Soccer as well as any NCAA sports programming.
Sports and entertainment agency Octagon is also a partner, as is adventure and action sports company Quattro Media.
The Women’s Sports Network began broadcasting games earlier this year with Athletes Unlimited basketball and says live broadcasts now comprise about 15% of its programming schedule. The network is planning for 1,500 total hours of live and original programming in 2023, including live coverage of the NCAA Women of the Year Awards, all of which requires substantial sponsor support under the free, ad-supported model.
“Starting with Michelob Ultra, for a new network brand, is incredibly important to us,” McLean said. “Our goal here at Fast Studios is to go deeper with fewer partners. We think it’s really important, as you’re building any brand, to take your time. We’re not necessarily going to be all things to all people out of the gate, but there’s certainly a handful of terrific brands like Ultra who have raised their hands.”
The Women’s Sports Network’s board of advisors includes USTA chief executive Stacey Allaster, 11-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix, U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO Sophie Goldschmidt, Sports Innovation Lab CEO and co-founder Angela Ruggiero and founder and president of the NWSL’s Angel City FC Julie Uhrman. Former ESPN executive Carol Stiff serves as the board’s chair.