Upfront Slam Dunk: Why Women’s Sport Will Lead the Way in 2023’s Hottest TV Deals

By Jay Prasad, CEO at Relo Metrics

If you weren’t there to witness the Tigers’ electrifying victory in the March Madness women’s finale, you missed out on a party attended by a record-breaking 9.9 million viewers. The most-watched women’s college basketball game to date was a sharpshooter all of its own; a nail-biting showdown that drew a 103% YoY spike in viewership, capping an extraordinary season.

With upsets, drama and passion throughout, ESPN swept the board on NCAA women’s tournament ratings, with the two Final Four contests averaging 4.5 million viewers – a 65% increase from last year – even as the men’s title game on CBS averaged a record low.

A watershed moment

For brands counting ad dollars ahead of this spring’s TV upfronts, these figures tell a wider story. In a challenging market, the sports sector continues to look robust; a new report from Fitch Ratings sees continued strong sponsorship revenue growth for sports teams and leagues.

However, CMOs are inevitably becoming more selective about who they work with and are scrutinizing the growth impact of their partnerships more than ever before. The unstoppable momentum of women’s sport means it is uniquely placed to deliver on these demands.

This is a sector that is still woefully underserved by sponsors, even as it continues to punch above its weight in terms of viewership and fandom endorsement. The must-watch factor we saw in the women’s March Madness series is being echoed by compelling narratives everywhere right now, from LPGA golf to the 2022 Women’s Euros final (the most-watched women’s soccer game in UK TV history).

In a noisy, saturated market, women’s sports offers an agile option for advertisers looking to press reset with a diversified portfolio. As WPP reports, there’s still scope for incredible return on investment this year; but with interest growing alongside each new headline, there’s no time to waste.

Social media value

If we’re at a tipping point with the sponsorship value of women’s sport, the impact of social media is ramping up the odds. Research from Relo Metrics shows that women’s games accounted for a third of the $174m sponsor media value generated by the March Madness Final Four – and on social media alone, the Women’s Final Four drove a massive 75% of total sponsor media value.

Few marketing verticals can leverage the kind of instant reach and storytelling impact provided by sports on social media; especially given the fan-powered clout of star players such as Iowa shooter Caitlin Clark, or Louisiana State champion Angel Reese.

Add to this the powerhouse of online communities that surround many women’s teams, and you have a formula for optimization – particularly, if, as an advertiser, you are able to capitalize on all elements of digital inventory in a given deal.

Running hand-in-hand with broadcast or streaming exposure, the lucrative appeal of social media is especially strong within women’s sport at the moment because of its up-and-coming freshness and buzz. The kind of stories we’re seeing emerge in women’s sport – the triumph of the underdog, the ability to inspire a new generation of girls, the knife-edge wins worthy of any Netflix thriller – are made for viral reach.

Champions of change

Today’s sports TV industry is in a state of major flux, as teams and rights-holders alike experiment with radical new formats / live streaming experiences. The question is, why can’t brands join the club? There’s a chance here to change how we do sports advertising – trading the inertia of long-held, unwieldy and costly sponsorship deals with a more holistic approach.

Women’s sport stands centerstage in this opportunity to shake things up, with the TV upfronts providing an ideal springboard in. The upcoming WNBAs and NWSL season are two prizes dealmakers should have firmly in their sights this year; but global brands could also look further afield to international women’s events such as the 2023 Tour de France Femmes.

Whatever deals are struck, the sheer energy of women’s sports coverage – its stories, its players, its rock-star allure – means brands will be racing to land endorsements. As the cornerstone of a diversified ad strategy, there’s no smarter move to make.

To download Relo Metrics’ full report on the media value of March Madness 2023, follow this link.