Is Sports Advertising Poised to Be a Woman’s Game?

Women Celebrating the victory after soccer match!

By Lisa Buckler, SVP of Growth and Partnerships, System1 

Gender bias impacts many aspects of our lives, but perhaps one of the most clichéd arenas for male dominance is in the world of sports. The perception of women’s sports as secondary to the “main event” of men’s sports has perpetuated a cycle of underinvestment, lower wages and fewer opportunities for female athletes. In fact, a 2021 USC/Purdue study found that 95% of TV coverage focused on men’s sports in 2019.

However, women’s sports appear ripe for future monetization both on the field and off, given that women’s sporting events have demonstrated time and time again their ability to generate substantial TV audiences, sell out stadiums and deliver value to sponsors. The UEFA Euro 2022 final between England and Germany, for example, set a new attendance record for a final tournament match—men’s or women’s—with over 87,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. It also drew record TV viewership as the UK’s most watched women’s soccer match ever with 17.4 million viewers and another 1 million viewers watching via ESPN in the United States. And of course, when we think of superstar athletes, it’s hard to think of someone who has had more of an impact than Serena Williams, whose dominance in tennis and current farewell tour at the US Open has captured the world’s attention.

All to say that we know that women athletes can dominate on the field. Can the same be said for their ability to support brand building off the field?

The athletic apparel category, which is led by a few major players, is well known for its big budget ad campaigns. Four in 10 ads in the category (40%) predominantly feature males, compared to 31% being predominately female and 29% being more or less balanced in gender casting. System1’s Test Your Ad platform assigns a 1-5 Star Rating to ads based on the emotional response viewers have to the creative, predicting long-term brand growth. In recent years, the average score for ads in the category is 2.3-Stars, slightly above the 2.1-Stars seen across categories in the United States. And plenty of ads in the category even break the 3- and 4-Star barriers, giving them stronger long-term brand-building potential.

Yet when measuring for quality, or the ability of an ad to drive positive long-term business effects like profit and market share growth, the numbers swing in favor of women, as we’ve found that athletic apparel ads that feature a female athlete average 2.53-Stars compared to only 2.19-Stars for male-dominated ads.

Nike’s ad featuring Serena and Venus is a great example of what can happen when you leverage accomplished, high-profile female athletes, scoring 5.9-Stars, the highest possible rating available. And while Gatorade plays in a different category entirely, the brand’s new ad—a tribute to Serena’s career and legacy—scored 3.2-Stars among the general population and 5.9-Stars among Black women. This uplift in score is what we define as a “diversity dividend” in our Feeling Seen research, through which ads that perform well with the general market do even better with respect to target audiences within under-represented groups.

Moving from the court to the pitch, the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) doesn’t just dominate the sport on the world stage, they also drive incredibly inspiring ads. This 3.8-Star gem for Nike, narrated by award-winning actress Viola Davis, celebrates the team and their ability to break down gender barriers and shape the future of women’s sports.

Each of these ads tells a motivational story that appeals to everyone—not just women—proving that creative that’s built around strong storytelling and personal experience is more likely to pack a punch and get viewers engaged in both the material and the brand. This recent Nike ad proves that you don’t need to rely on star power to see strong results, showcasing one young woman’s passion for football, generating increasing happiness levels as it progresses. And we know that ads that make people feel happy are more effective at generating brand-building business effects.

All to say that now’s the time for more advertisers to step up to the plate and bring female-focused stories forward. Amazon Prime’s latest ad, “A Girl’s Letter to the Future,” scored 3.8-Stars and directly addresses the issue of baseball traditionally being a boys’ sport. With the right storytelling elements, ads like these are well positioned to score with audiences and also have the added benefit of inspiring the next generation of female athletes to make their own mark in the sports world.