By Kirsty Birkett-Stubbs

SPORTS: Having historically trailed behind championed men’s sports in terms of revenue internationally, women’s sports have reached a tipping point. Prize money is increasingly becoming on par. Media coverage is growing. Is sponsorship next?

If women’s sports have previously been underestimated and undervalued, this is no longer the case (see 10 Top Women’s Sports Sponsorship Deals in 2021 below).

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Women’s games have drawn in millions of fans through high-end competitions. A record audience of 1.12 billion watched the most recent FIFA Women’s World Cup in pre-Covid 2019.

Meanwhile, attention-grabbing individual performances such as Rachael Blackmore’s historic first-ever win for a female jockey at the UK’s legendary Grand National horserace this year have spurred greater media coverage.

Tammy Parlour (pictured, below), co-founder/CEO at London-based Women’s Sport Trust, says: “We know that interest in women’s sport is strong; two-thirds of UK sports fans follow some form of women’s sport.”

Women’s Sport Trust’s Tammy Parlour

Where there are fans, there are brands. An increase in women’s sport sponsorship, both the number of deals and their value, is directly linked to this growing audience interest in women’s events.

Back in 2005, Sony Ericsson signed a landmark six-year sponsorship pact for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour at a value of US$88m.

multiple brand owners have inked major sponsorship deals for women’s soccer, basketball, netball, golf, tennis, rugby, road cycling, hockey and more

Since then, multiple brand owners have inked major sponsorship deals for women’s soccer, basketball, netball, golf, tennis, rugby, road cycling, hockey and more.

Confirming this trend, Andy Westlake (pictured, left), Chairman of the European Sponsorship Association (ESA), states: “The last 24 months have definitely seen a change in momentum with a number of major national and international brands seeing real value in women’s sport. Take football (soccer) as a good example, brands like Visa, Barclays, Weetabix and (insurance group) Vitality have all seen power in the women’s game and that is set to continue as women’s sports take hold.”

Women standing independently
In the world of soccer, the past few years have seen financial-services giant Visa become the first standalone sponsor dedicated to women’s football in a breakthrough seven-year deal with UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, starting 2018. Last year, beverages giant PepsiCo agreed a five-year sponsorship deal with UEFA for its top women’s competitions: the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the UEFA Women’s EURO.

In 2019, French chemicals conglomerate Arkema signed up to be the first-ever naming-rights partner of Division 1 Féminine, the top tier of France’s women’s soccer league.

That same year, international bank Barclays became the title sponsor of England’s FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in a deal understood to be worth UK£10m (US$13.8m), reportedly “the biggest ever investment in UK women’s sport by a brand”.

Parlour also notes: “The Women’s Sport Trust recently carried out research which showed women’s sport in the UK will be worth UK£1bn (US$1.38bn) by 2030. This growth is expected to come from higher-value broadcast and sponsorship rights as well as increased attendances. Sponsorship can play its part by investing in the sport, increasing visibility of female athletes and driving ticket sales.”

In some cases, sponsors of men’s tournaments are also choosing to invest in the equivalent women’s events as demonstrated by brewery group Budweiser and its sponsorship of the England Women’s and Men’s national football teams.

Yet, many others are signing deals solely for women’s competitions. This is in part due to the uncoupling of women’s sport sponsorship rights from men’s, emphasising the value of the women’s competitions in their own right, as opposed to just being a bolt-on to the men’s.

This is being mirrored in media-rights buying with the UK’s WSL domestic TV rights being sold separately for the first time this year at a value of UK£45m (US$62m) in a three-season deal.

Women in Sport (Jeffrey F Lin for Unsplash)

Untapped strengths
Notably, would-be sponsors could find that women’s sports offer opportunities that the more established – and therefore costly – men’s sports cannot.

Westlake observes: “Women’s sport still presents a relatively uncluttered commercial environment with some early movers, like (energy corporation) SSE and Vitality, seeing some real benefit.”

Likewise, women’s sports may be better positioned in the new fragmented attention economy of the digital age. New findings from Sports Innovation Lab, a US research firm, state that women’s sport fans are, typically, what it calls “fluid fans”, using digital and tech primarily to view and engage with sport.

This is demonstrated by the fact that 43% of viewers watched the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup through digital channels, compared to just 8.9% for the 2018 Men’s World Cup.

In fact, international live-streaming sports platform DAZN and YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing service, have joined forces to bring the UEFA Women’s Champions League soccer tournament to billions of viewers globally for the first time during the four seasons ending 2025.

Such digital moves may be born out of the fact that, traditionally, women’s games have not been catered for by the mainstream sports media channels. However, it may also prove to make women’s sports the stronger choice for sponsors looking to reach digital-native sports fans in the future.

Future prospects
Ultimately, women’s sports have reached a milestone to be entitled to major sponsorships, with fans and audiences leading the way. This represents a real opportunity for investors.

In a four-year agreement starting this year, US-headquartered online fitness platform Zwift has signed up to be the official partner of the inaugural female edition of the Tour de France, the world’s biggest cycling competition.

There are no illusions. It could take time before “women’s sports” will be labelled just “sports” that sponsors will devote billions to.

Sports investments specialist Deloitte states in one report: “In 2021, we predict women’s sports revenues will be well under a billion dollars—a fraction of the global value of all sports (men’s, women’s, and mixed), which in 2018 reached US$481bn, an increase of 45% over 2011.”

Deloitte is also optimistic. “Indeed, by the time of the next FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, we expect all women’s teams to have at least one sponsorship agreement distinct from the men’s teams.

As the ESA’s Westlake says: “The governing bodies are seeing the women’s game as a strategic priority to continue to grow and cater for as diverse an audience as possible, the media are supporting women’s sport in a more significant way than they ever have and, as a result, sponsors have more confidence that their message will be heard.”

10 Top Women’s Sports Sponsorship Deals in 2021

1. Sport: Women’s hockey

Sponsor: Vitality (health insurance)
Sponsored partner: England Hockey, national governing body, including the English Women’s Hockey League; England Hockey’s grassroots activities; FIH (International Hockey Federation) Pro League matches in Great Britain

Announced in: January 2021
Sum: Undisclosed but “Significant”

2. Sport: Women’s professional golf

Sponsor: Cognizant (US multinational tech company)
Sponsored partner: The US-based Founders Cup tournament organised by the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) in a multi-year deal.

Announced in: February 2021
Sum: US$3m (the biggest cash prize for an LPGA event, apart from the majors and the CME Group Tour Championship, the LPGA Tour’s season-ending competition). Said to be double the previous years’ prize purse of US$1.5m.

3. SportWomen’s professional basketball

Sponsor: Molson Coors (beverage company)
Sponsored partner: The Los Angeles Sparks, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team, has clinched what has been described as the first “all-encompassing beverage deal of its kind” in the WNBA’s history with new sponsor, the beer brand owner Molson Coors. The agreement, which is reportedly the first of its kind with a US women’s professional sports team (as opposed to a league), includes Molson Coors’s non-alcohol drinks too.

Announced in: March 2021
Sum: Undisclosed

4. Sport: Women’s professional soccer

Sponsor: Nationwide (US insurance and financial-services conglomerate)
Sponsored partner: The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the top-tier women’s soccer league in the US, is to be supported by Nationwide as the first exclusive insurance partner, in a multi-year deal.

Announced in: March 2021
Sum: Undisclosed

5. Sport: Women’s rugby

Sponsor: World Rugby (rugby union’s global government body)
Sponsored partner: WXV (new global women’s tournament) scheduled to start in 2023 with 16 teams in a new competition calendar that does not clash with the Rugby World Cup, the men’s 20-teams version that started in 1987. World Rugby is in talks with investment banks to seek other financial backers for WXV.

Announced in: March 2021
Sum: UK£6.4m

Women in Sport (Nicolas Hoizey for Unsplash)

6. Sport: Women’s soccer

Sponsor: Just Eat (international online food delivery service)
Sponsored partner: UEFA (soccer’s European governing organisation) has agreed for Just Eat to be the “UEFA Women’s Football Partner” in a four-year deal that includes the UEFA Women’s Champions League events and the UEFA Women’s Euro competitions.

Announced in: March 2021
Sum: Undisclosed

7. Sport: Women’s soccer

Sponsor: Sky Sports; BBC (TV broadcast companies)
Sponsored partner: The UK’s top-tier Women’s Super League (WSL) is being backed in what is believed to be the biggest domestic-TV deal in the history of the country’s professional women’s football. Media reports indicate the agreement, covering the next three seasons, is also the first time the media rights to the WSL have been sold separately from the men’s equivalent.

Announced in: March 2021
Sum: UK£45m

8. Sport: Women’s professional netball

Sponsor: McDonald’s McCafé (coffee brand)
Sponsored partner: Netball Victoria, the governing body for the Australian state, and the Melbourne Vixens, which competes in the nation’s top-tier Super Netball league (currently sponsored by Australian banking group Suncorp) are to be backed by McCafé, the fast-food giant’s coffee brand. This appears to be McDonald’s first professional women’s sport partnership in Australia.

Announced in: April 2021
Sum: Undisclosed

9. Sport: Women’s soccer

Sponsor: The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA)
Sponsored partner: The Westfield Matildas (the national soccer team) is to receive “millions of Australian dollars” from the CBA, which is now the team’s official naming-rights partner and bank. In a four-year agreement that begins in the 2021-2022 season, Australia’s female grassroots activities and academies will also benefit from a deal that makes the CBA the “largest supporter of women’s sports” in Australia.

Announced in: April 2021
Sum: “Millions of Australian dollars”

10. Sport: Women’s road cycling

Sponsor: Cofidis (French financial-services group)
Sponsored partner: A new (and still unnamed) women’s professional cycling team scheduled to launch in January 2022. It will be the affiliate female squad of Cofidis’s existing men’s team and paracycling team. While the men’s team currently participates in the UCI WorldTour premier international men’s competition, the women’s team will start in the second-tier UCI Continental Circuits tournament.

Announced in: January 2021
Sum: €1m a year

UK-based Kirsty Birkett-Stubbs is an international copywriter and communications officer. She is also Research Manager at MediaTainment Finance and TechMutiny.
Main image: John Torcasio for Unsplash