Sports marketing

Rethinking women’s sports marketing with The Collective’s Thayer Lavielle

If the narrative surrounding women’s sport today is one of mounting commercial momentum, then much of the discourse is being increasingly fuelled by cold hard evidence.

Across the industry, a clear and concerted effort is being made to highlight the marketing value of women’s sport and female athletes through new insights and tangible data. Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – a crisis which was understood to have had disproportionate impact on women’s sport – studies outlining the opportunities inherent in the space were being published seemingly by the week, contributing to the growing wealth of research that reveals untapped commercial potential and rising consumer interest.

With the shockwaves of the pandemic finally subsiding, those studies have come thick and fast, fuelling the belief that women’s sport will emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.

The Women’s Sport Trust (WST) recently published research which estimated that 2021 is on track to set a new high-water mark for broadcast audience in the UK, growing from 46.8 million in 2019 to an estimated 51.1 million by the end of this year thanks to new competitions like The Hundred and a landmark domestic broadcast deal for the FA Women’s Super League (WSL). That study followed a prior report that projected women’s sport revenues will grow to UK£1 billion (US$1.4 billion) by 2030, up from UK£350 million (US$483 million) currently. Meanwhile recent Nielsen research has found that 66 per cent of people are interested in at least one women’s sport, and among sports fans – of whom 49 per cent are female – that figure rises to 84 per cent.

This push to better understand and contextualise women’s sport on a deeper level is both a product of and testament to its continued commercialisation. Indeed, it is also one of the founding objectives of organisations like The Collective Think Tank, which was formed in September 2020 specifically to conduct research and share insights into issues surrounding women’s sport, such as gender parity and systemic inequality.

Spawned from The Collective, which itself launched in 2019 as the women’s sport-focused division of international marketing agency Wasserman, the think tank brings together academic institutions, sports organisations, brands and media companies to gather and disseminate insights to promote opportunities for women in sport. Today, its partners include top universities across North America and Europe, as well as corporations and governing bodies like AT&T, Nationwide, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), espnW and Concacaf.

“The reason we launched the think tank was we immediately knew we needed more insights,” explains Thayer Lavielle, The Collective’s executive vice president who heads up the initiative. “When we look at women, women in sports, we look at them first and foremost as a consumer and a fan, and then we get into them as athletes, pro athletes, participants, consumers, etc. When we were looking at this, there’s no real place to go for this information, so we started to capture tons and tons of data.

“We started with ten schools, we now have 21. We have real experts from across the industry who are focused on everything from women and their social media, to HR, to leadership, to economic impact, to the intersection of race and gender and sexuality and all that. It’s a fascinating group.”

We’re fixing millennia of sexism. It’s not like, ‘oh, well, that was just in the 1970s and we’ll get past it’. No, this is generational.

According to Lavielle, a seasoned marketing strategist whose career spans brand development and communications roles at Nike, Lancôme and JR Motorsports, the think tank’s ultimate goal is to uncover the underlying basis for the inequities that exist in sport, from an historic underrepresentation of female athletes in the media to lingering pay disparity, and everything in between. But its research is just one element of a broader effort at Wasserman to further the commercialisation of women’s sport.

Operating out of 32 offices worldwide, the global agency represents more than 180 high-profile female athletes, including numerous members of the US women’s national soccer team (USWNT), a host of Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players, and several Olympians. In August, Lavielle’s division also launched The Collective Marketplace, a world-first online platform that enables female athletes to share in a US$15 billion sports memorabilia and collectibles industry that has historically been dominated by their male counterparts.

“Our goal is to span across the entirety of the business to do everything we can, leveraging the assets we have internally to make a poignant difference for our clients, be they brands, properties, talent, or for the industry,” says Lavielle. “Because there’s just a lot to fix, a lot is broken.”

She adds: “We’re fixing millennia of sexism. It’s not like, ‘oh, well, that was just in the 1970s and we’ll get past it’. No, this is generational.

“Every time that you can see Wembley sold out for a women’s Lioness game, that’s a good thing. Every time the English cricket board pays attention to the women, that’s a great thing. Every time that there are new play-by-play announcers that are women, that’s a great thing. Because to see her you can be her. We just need more men to be able to give women that chance so that little girls coming up, and little boys, can say, ‘of course, that’s normal’. And by the way, Gen Z, they already think it is.”

Since its formation last year, Lavielle says The Collective Think Tank has commissioned several research projects and published thought leadership content spanning various topics, much of which has been bylined by university professors and researchers. Today, all of the data and insights it has gleaned, along with a wealth of research conducted by third parties, is housed within what Lavielle calls a “searchable and taggable repository” so anyone who wishes to share a view on women’s sport or evaluate its potential can draw from an ever-growing pool of real-world, up-to-date evidence.

“Any student or any professor or any Wasserman employee that wants and needs this information can get in there and get to it,” explains Lavielle, who co-leads the think tank alongside Shelley Pisarra, Wasserman’s executive vice president of global insights and strategies. “And in addition to that, we’ve taught a lot of these professors essentially how to write op-eds, because they’re used to writing in 12,000 words, and we’re asking them to write in 900. But their opinions and their viewpoints and their smarts about the space are so important, and it’s so critical to have a consistent voice in the media around women in sports from all angles. So we’ve really tried to inform them as to how to do that effectively.”

Besides helping to place that content in mainstream and trade outlets, the think tank has produced branded white papers that aim to drive the conversation around women’s sport forward. One late 2020 report on the purchasing power of female consumers, for instance, highlighted the need for sports organisations and brands to engage what is fast becoming an increasingly powerful target market, with women set to account for over 85 per cent of all household purchases and own two-thirds of the wealth in the US within the next decade.

Titled ‘The New Power Players: How Gen Z and Millennial Women are Poised for Dominance’, the report notes that women are ten per cent more likely than men to want brands to offer customised or personalised products. It also points to research that suggests women are 25 per cent more likely than males to want brands to be socially responsible, that 58 per cent of Gen Z select brands based on their purpose, values and mission, and nearly 40 per cent of Gen Z purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by social media.

Those findings align with those of a growing tranche of studies into women’s sports fandom conducted by other organisations. Last month, for example, UK-based sports marketing agency The Space Between found that brand recall and purchase consideration for sponsor products is far greater among women’s sports fans than followers of men’s sport, while women’s sports fans are ‘significantly’ more tech savvy. It also found that purpose plays a key role; according to the report, half of women’s sports fans ‘strongly agree’ that sponsors should look ‘to make the world a better place’, while just 20 per cent of men’s sport fans feel the same way.

“When we launched The Collective, the first thing we thought about was, who is she?” Lavielle recalls. “Who is this fan and how is she different as a Gen X and a Gen Z who is my daughter? What’s different about us as consumers and what does the sports world need to learn?

“What we’ve figured out is that Gen Z is very different than Gen X in how they consume and how they see the world and what they expect from the world, what they expect from brands, just generally born out of more inclusion, but yet very capitalistic. They’re a really interesting group to watch. They already make up something like 40 per cent of the economy here in the US, so pay attention.

“If they’re going to inherit the wealth in this country, with two-thirds of the wealth belonging to women – and there was a Morning Consult poll that came out that said Gen Z is essentially shrugging their shoulders at sport – we better start to pay attention to how to engage these young women as fans very quickly.

“It’s not that they’re not necessarily wanting to watch women’s sports, it’s that they also have a lot of other things to watch. So I think properties and brands and media companies need to really focus in on how to reach them, where to reach them, and when to reach them.”

When we launched The Collective, the first thing we thought about was, who is she? Who is this fan and how is she different as a Gen X and a Gen Z who is my daughter?

Lavielle accepts that the challenge of marketing to female consumers has only grown more complex in an increasingly fragmented digital world where communities of likeminded people live on multiple different platforms. But that challenge only underlines the importance of deeper research, she says.

“What we found was that this group is the most complex that we’ve seen in a while,” she continues. ”Back in the old days when I was growing up, you would drive down the highway, and there would be a big billboard that would say, ‘come eat here’ or ‘buy this thing’. Because of social media, I can belong to many different groups, depending on the different personality traits or interests that I have. And I want you to serve me there. And I want you to know that this is customised to me and my friends. And that is super tricky for a marketer, it’s very complex.

“There’s some work to do, I think, to uncover how we really reach out to them, but there’s no doubt [about] the importance of them.”

With young female consumers becoming an increasingly important demographic, Lavielle believes the onus is on brands and sports properties to build a clearer picture of their attitudes and behaviours. Only then can marketers use that understanding to develop dedicated products, tailored experiences and more nuanced marketing campaigns that view women both as multi-dimensional individuals and true sports fans.

“Ultimately, there’s money to be made for women around sports and in sports,” she says. “If you’re a brand marketer, that’s the potential to see: you have so many products you can sell to these women, and to these fans of women’s sports – men and women.

“So what if they have a smaller footprint today in media? Make it bigger. Demand more out of your media partners, demand that they show them at the right times, demand that they get equal treatment. They’re not going to listen to Thayer Lavielle of The Collective every day, but they will listen to you if you’re a huge advertiser. Be courageous, make a stand.”

On that note, Lavielle points to a number of brands who are making strides in that regard, specifically referencing Michelob Ultra, which in August committed to spending some US$100 million on improving gender equality in sport over the next five years, and Luna Bar, which has put its weight behind the USWNT’s much-publicised fight for equal pay. She also notes how The Collective Think Tank has worked closely with AT&T and Gatorade, two “big brands that are very invested in staking a claim around pushing for gender equity”.

Michelob Ultra’s ‘Save it, See it’ campaign is intended to boost the visibility of women’s sports content on social media

For Lavielle, the impact those companies have already had demonstrates the business case for investing in women’s sport, as well as confirming the widely held belief that any brand which continues to put forth tired marketing tropes and outdated messaging is doomed to fail. Consumers are more discerning than ever, she says, and marketers can no longer continue to disregard the evidence put before them, be it research-based or anecdotal.

“I do think brands and properties need to pay attention to women as fans,” she says. “We just had a professor out of Indianapolis University write an op-ed and she basically said I was going into labour and I had them put on SportsCenter. And this doctor came in and started talking to my husband about sports, assuming that he was the sports fan, even though I work in sports. And you know, it was this [feeling of] ‘I’m not just a plus one, I’m an actual sports fan’.

“I think there is some shifting to do, but that’s also where I think brands can play the biggest role to portray it accurately. Are women not just passing the nachos on Super Bowl, but are they actually the ones cheering for the game?

“It’s about those small images and making it acceptable and celebrated to be a sports fan.”


This feature series was originally published as part of ‘W is for progress’, a special report on women’s sport in Issue 115 of SportsPro magazine. Access a digital version of the edition here.