Is equal marketing, not pay, the biggest challenge facing female sport?

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On 7th May in Seville, Spain, tennis player Naomi Osaka took one of the top individual prizes at the Laureus World Sports Awards.

It confirmed a rise to global pre-eminence for the 23-year-old, the world number one who is the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion. Her success on the court has been matched by a growing commercial profile – one underlined by the launch of a new swimwear line with Frankies Bikinis in the same week as her Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Award. In 2021 alone, Osaka has signed with watchmaker Tag Heuer, luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton and software company Workday.

Those were added to an endorsement portfolio of blue-chip brands including Nike, Nissin, Beats By Dre, Mastercard and Japan Airlines, while Osaka has invested in companies like BodyArmor and Hyperice. In April she became CEO of Kinló, a sunscreen and skincare brand for people of colour. The name draws on her parental heritage: ‘kin’, meaning ‘skin’ in Japanese, for her mother; ‘ló’, meaning ‘gold’ in Haitian-Creole, for her father.

The vanguard of a new generation of female athletes

In the past year, Osaka has also grown bold enough to use that profile, express her identity, and speak out on social issues. She has been a prominent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting at tournaments and on the streets of Minnesota against police brutality in the US. Within her sport, she has discussed her concerns about the safety of staging the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games during a pandemic, in spite of her eagerness to compete in the country of her birth.

Osaka is at the vanguard of a new generation of female athletes, skilfully combining professional success with commercial and personal appeal to bring women’s sport to a higher level. Still, it is likely no accident that the fastest-rising and biggest-earning female star in sport is another tennis player.

On the same night Osaka was honoured in Seville, Laureus also gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Billie Jean King. The 77-year-old American is one of the most successful female athletes of all time, winning 39 Grand Slam titles, but she was just as influential as a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the breakaway tour of the 1970s which remains the most commercially mature organisation in women’s sport.

Fairness in opportunity

The WTA was established on the principles of the fair treatment of athletes, and fair pay. Almost as important, however, was the insight that marketing and promotion that put those athletes at its centre would help to drive awareness, secure the financial futures of those players, and encourage further participation over time.

In Virginia Slims, the organisers had an enthusiastic partner which could provide the monetary backing to justify the players’ trust in signing initial $1 breakaway contracts, and the promotional muscle and expertise to make an impact. Tobacco sponsorship may not have aged too well but there are many other lessons that still hold today.

The gap between men’s and women’s sport elsewhere has closed, in some places, in terms of equivalent prize money, even if there is often a chasm in terms of overall earning potential in sports like soccer, basketball and cricket. The US women’s national soccer team, Fifa Women’s World Cup winners in 2019, are continuing their pursuit of equal pay to their male counterparts through the legal system.

The sustained growth of women’s sport, however, will be dependent on bespoke, constructive marketing support. This summer, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has guaranteed equal prize money – albeit not equal salaries – for teams in the men’s and women’s edition of its new short-form franchise tournament, the Hundred. That is an important statement of values, but it is as significant to the development of the women’s tournament that it will be the first to start on 21st July. Meanwhile, lead broadcaster Sky Sports has committed to making every women’s game available live for free on its YouTube channel.

Media vs. Money: "Chicken and Egg"

Building the audience will be one element of incentivising more robust marketing activity. Another part, in which brands have their own role to play, is stimulating media coverage. A survey by the USC and Purdue found that 95 per cent of TV coverage in the US focused on men’s sport in 2019, reflecting similar results in other developed sports media markets.

As Digiday noted in April, this gives rise to a ‘chicken-and-egg’ scenario: ‘Publishers blame advertisers for not putting more money into women’s sports content, while advertisers say publishers aren’t producing enough content to advertise against.’

Interest in women’s sport, nonetheless, has been accelerating for several years, and the relatively lower cost of entry for sponsors still leaves an opportunity for them to capitalise on that. Those companies then have a stake in continued progress. Publishers like Bleacher Report have developed platforms that give advertisers a better understanding of the benefits in women’s sport, showing brands where that content is overperforming other output.

Driving women's sport

Increasingly, this is a space that specialist media companies and brands are investigating as well. Gap-owned women’s performance sportswear manufacturer Athleta is a compelling recent example, using its differentiated positioning to sign leading female talent. The latest to join its roster is Olympic gymnastics icon Simone Biles, who signed a multi-year deal in April that will lead to the creation of signature lines, a personal activism platform and collaboration with the Power of She Fund.

That agreement also makes Biles the latest female athlete to leave Nike, which is nonetheless seeing enormous value in marketing to and for women. According to the Guardian, the growth in sales of Nike’s womenswear has exceeded that of its other brands for eight quarters in a row.

Maximising that potential, and delivering future returns on investment, will mean celebrating excellence in and out of competition.