There’s no substitute for authentic representation. When companies hire marketers, writers, web developers and leadership candidates living with disabilities, new perspectives and lived experiences are brought to the table.
Women’s sports coverage is more or less a numbers game with revenue projected at less than $1 billion — a fraction of the global value of all sports combined (men, women and mixed-gender), which in 2018 reached $481 billion. For brands to put the big bucks behind women in sports, they need to believe that women are profitable.
With the evolution of global media, so came the evolution of revenue generating branded content and ad campaigns featuring high-profile athletes. The first Major League Baseball game was broadcast nationwide in 1939 on TVs across America and its popularity helped Babe Ruth become the world’s first six figure professional athlete.
It may come as a surprise to learn that just a few years prior, another Babe became the apple of the nation’s eye thanks to her impressive athletic career. As an All-American basketball player, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and co-founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association where she won 14 consecutive tournaments, Babe Didrikson was considered one of the most famous people in America.
Considered by many to be the first female athlete of the 20th century to leverage her sports prowess with business acumen, it was that very business savvy that landed her in hot water with the Amateur Athletic Union who disallowed endorsement deals. Didrikson’s meteoric rise to fame fell just as quickly when critics eagerly denounced her athletic records and remarked negatively on her physical appearance.
“If the best woman athlete in the country is not as good as some gawky kid in high school, why waste the effort, why invite the embarrassment of mediocrity,” New York World-Telegram sports columnist Joe Williams wrote in 1935. “Why not get a seat in the stands and make the big male blokes out there on the cinder track believe you are nuts about them?”
Williams’ 86-year-old comments may seem tragically outdated, but women’s sports remain severely underrepresented in both television news and online media production. With 95% of all coverage focusing on the “big three” of men’s sports – basketball, football and baseball – coverage devoted to women’s sports continues to hover below 10%.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Budweiser, the official beer sponsor of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), used their 2019 Future Official advertising campaign as a rallying cry for other brands to sponsor the NWSL. Leveraging the hype of Team USA and beloved star Megan Rapinoe during the most recent Women’s World Cup, Budweiser handed the mic to the people, encouraging fans to tag brands they believed should get behind available sponsorship categories such as “Official Restaurant” and “Official Deodorant.”
No stranger to the double-standards imposed against women in sports, Serena Williams has been both celebrated as a role model to all athletes and penalized for behavior frequently exhibited by men during professional gameplay with lesser consequences. Williams leveraged her involvement in Nike’s Dream Crazier campaign to address gender bias and promote messages of empowerment.
The campaign highlights the evolution of women in sports, reminding audiences that not so long ago it seemed crazy to see a woman boxing, competing in a hijab, or winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Not so long ago, it would have been crazy to see Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Add to the mix Sarah Thomas, the first woman to officiate a Superbowl game. The 2021 football season boasts eight female coaches including Jennifer King, the first Black woman to coach full time in the league.
Deeds, Not Words
It’s worth noting that the numbers are climbing. SportsPro Media reports that of the 185 million NFL fans worldwide, 44% are women and 84% of fans are interested in women’s sports. Miscalculating the return on investment when it comes to marketing spend and creative strategy is a big mistake for any brand that decides to bypass women’s sports down the line.
Addressing gender bias, diversity and inclusion is a team effort, and it requires brands, ad agencies, film production companies, media moguls, sponsors, investors, athletes, and the public to band together and push for cultural change from within. Iliana Romero, deputy sports editor at the Los Angeles Times, is the highest-ranking female sports editor in the publication’s history. Romero’s focus on resource allocation for women’s sports reporting is just one more ingredient in the push for equal coverage.
“It’s not that people are not wanting to do it, but the system is not built to always make this possible… Ignoring this is such a huge risk for any entity,” Romero told LA Times executive sports editor Chris Stone. “Spot coverage of women’s sports isn’t enough to draw a dedicated audience or advertiser investment, and a real effort needs to be made by publishers to put more resources into this topic.”
Equal coverage focusing on gender, diversity and inclusion also means the representation of transgender athletes in sports, a hot topic that has sparked debate among advocates, athletes, and parents. While President Joe Biden’s executive order on federal support for trans athletes signified a win, as of April 2021, at least 28 states have proposed or passed bills excluding trans athletes from participating in school sports.
Unity in Diversity
Critics of transgender women in sports suggest that as athletes, trans women have an unfair physical advantage over cisgender women. Leading researcher on transitioning athletes and a trans athlete herself, Joanna Harper said that the science behind physical advantages in sports is nuanced and that a person’s ability varies regardless of gender.
According to Scientific American, the notion that trans women athletes have a physical advantage comes from the idea that testosterone causes physical changes like increased muscle mass, but high testosterone levels aren’t only present in trans athletes.
“Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance,” explained Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow and expert on testosterone and bioethics at Yale University. “Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.”
Between legislation like the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, projects like the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, and countless arguments presented by groups who suggest separate leagues for trans athletes, the fight for the representation and inclusion of the trans community in sports may seem endless. Major brands like Adidas are working to change that.
The latest iteration of Adidas’ long running Impossible is Nothing campaign stars Brazilian Volleyball Super League player Tiffany Abreu — the third professional transgender athlete to come out and the first trans women to be the face of a major brand.
“My greatest legacy is not to reach an Olympics, but to open paths for new trans athletes in the near future. My wish is that, more and more, confederations start to see us not as trans people, but as athletes,” Abreu said in an interview with Universa. “I am sure that, in the future, these athletes will represent our country and I dream of the day when we will be seen as just any athlete, without controversy and hatred.”
The stage has been set, the seats are filled, and women’s sports might just be ahead of the game in terms of changing the climate with emotion and authenticity. If brands want to benefit from these stars on the rise, they’ll need to invest in partnerships that show a genuine effort to engage audiences, embrace diversity, and influence the culture of sports for future generations.