Investment in women’s sport is growing, but has it reached the point of financial independence?

Helen Housby, who scored in the final second and her England teammates celebrate at full time and winning the Netball Gold Medal Match between England and Australia on day 11 of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Coomera Indoor Sports Centre on April 15, 2018 on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

  • Women’s sports are attracting more brands and greater commercial value through sponsorship deals
  • Some mainstream brands remain reluctant to invest in women’s sports, citing a lack of data as the reason
  • Sports rights-holders are becoming increasingly creative in packaging women’s sports properties as standalone entities

If insurance company Vitality’s record-breaking sponsorship renewal with England Netball is a guide, the halo effect is happening in women’s sport.

The high-profile commercial deals sealed by the likes of Fifa and Uefa in women’s football ahead of major tournaments such as this summer’s Fifa Women’s World Cup have been well documented, while tennis has produced commercially attractive female superstars for decades.

However, it was in netball where “probably the largest female team sport sponsorship in the UK” was struck last year, according to England Netball chief executive Joanna Adams, with the undisclosed value of the partnership having doubled.

The deal reflected a wider trend within women’s sports.

According to data provider Nielsen, the number of women’s sports sponsorship deals rocketed by 47 per cent between 2013 and 2017, while the average value of the partnerships rose 38 per cent.

Emma Kimilainen of Finland prepares for a training session prior to the first race of the W Series at Hockenheimring on May 03, 2019 in Hockenheim, Germany. W Series aims to give female drivers an opportunity in motorsport that hasn’t been available to them before. The first race of the series, which encompasses six rounds on the DTM support program, is at the Hockenheimring on May 3rd and 4th. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)


Whether the properties themselves are commercially self-sustainable yet is another matter. As Adams outlined following the Vitality extension, England Netball is still 64-per-cent funded by government-backed Sport England, with the goal being to swap the ratio – to 64-per-cent self-funded – in the next two or three years.

“I’m feeling pretty positive about the increasing commercial value of women’s sports properties, but I think we’re a long way off financial sustainability,” says Sally Horrox, managing partner of the women’s sport-focused Y Sport agency.

“Professional sport is expensive and multi-million-pound investment is needed over several years if commercial partners are to help edge a sport, competition or event towards sustainability.

“We are only just seeing deals of that sort of value and duration being done in Europe, and still predominantly in women’s football, prompted by the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup. Tennis and football occupy such a dominant position in terms of global appeal, infrastructure and fanbase, it’s difficult for others to compete.”


Despite the challenge, international federations are investing more time and resources into developing female-facing initiatives, from tailored marketing campaigns to new competition formats, often on the back of expanding corporate social responsibility strategies.

The International Cycling Union (UCI), for example, is introducing a new Junior Women category in cyclo-cross for 17- to 18-year-olds, while equal prize money is being implemented across various disciplines and minimum salaries will be in place for riders in UCI Women’s WorldTour teams from 2020.

Similarly, World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper recently spoke of new underage tournaments as part of the governing body’s launch of the ‘Women in Rugby’ brand identity, which will spearhead its long-term strategy to engage more women and girls in the sport.

“The development of women in rugby is the single biggest opportunity for our sport to grow over the next decade,” said Gosper, before adding that, from a commercial perspective, the goal is to “grow the commercial value of the women’s game as fast as we can”.

This, he suggested, will require a new commercial approach.

“Historically they [women’s rugby assets] have been bundled with the men’s game, but as we see the commercial possibility of these assets standing on their own two feet and earning greater value, separation is a natural phenomenon,” he said. “The tendency from now will be for the women’s game to be marketed far more on its own merit rather than bundled with the men’s game.”

Tyla Nathan-Wong of New Zealand competes for the ball during the fifth place play-off between New Zealand and Australia on day two of the HSBC Women’s Rugby Sevens Kitakyushu at Mikuni World Stadium on April 21, 2019 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)


Long-term vision and patience are needed, says Horrox.

“My educated guess is that new women’s properties will still need to be underwritten with core investment for at least a four-year and perhaps an eight-year commercial cycle to break even or turn a profit,” she says.

Catherine Bond Muir, chief executive of the W Series women’s motorsport competition, acknowledges that commercial viability remains “inexorably linked with broadcast coverage, even in today’s mobile digital world”.

Speaking broadly about women’s sports, she adds: “I believe the key opportunities you are likely to see probably lie with brands that cannot reach the financial threshold of the leading male sports, and specifically want nuanced alignment with women’s athletes, and, of course, access to broadcast coverage.

“In 10 years’ time, if not before, you are likely to see greater recognition of women’s sport in the media which will pull some of the more established mega-brands across into this space. Sadly, it may mean the smaller brands are priced out and go looking for other, more affordable platforms.”

According to Nielsen, of people in the UK who are interested in at least one women’s sport, 51 per cent are female and 49 per cent are male. Across all sports fans in the country, 65 per cent are male versus 35 per cent female.

Clark adds: “With women influencing 80 per cent of consumer purchasing decisions, I foresee more brands identifying this opportunity [in women’s sport]. The onus is on sports to understand and connect brands with this dynamic.”


There are still lingering frustrations with brands that are reluctant to take the leap.

Adams told SportBusiness in March that “a lot of brand managers and sponsorship managers don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by doing something they might not get an immediate return from”.

She added: “We’ve sat in front of a lot of female brands for whom you’d think it’s a complete no-brainer to be involved in women’s sport.”

Adams namechecked Gillette, Dove and L’Oréal as brands that have a significant presence in men’s sports but are “missing open goals” in women’s sports.

England Hockey commercial director Jonathan Cockcroft told Marketing Week last year that there are not enough marketing directors and CMOs who “have the imagination, the bravery and the gut instincts to go for something that’s slightly less mainstream”. He also said that an insufficient number of agencies put non-mainstream properties in front of big brands.

The nails of Gosia Rdest of Poland seen during a training session prior to the first race of the W Series at Hockenheimring on May 03, 2019 in Hockenheim, Germany. W Series aims to give female drivers an opportunity in motorsport that hasn’t been available to them before. The first race of the series, which encompasses six rounds on the DTM support program, is at the Hockenheimring on May 3rd and 4th. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)


According to Jo Bostock, co-founder and joint chief executive of the Women’s Sport Trust, a lack of data is often cited by CMOs as a reason for not taking the risk of investing in what they perceive to be an immature market.

Although it does not fully justify their stance, it could be argued that these CMOs have a point when it comes to long-term data.

Several sports have experienced a surge in female participation in a relatively short period of time. World Rugby has reported a 28-per-cent increase in registered female players since 2017, while according to England Netball, since England won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, more than 130,000 women have taken up the sport or started to play more often.

There is also a long-term issue surrounding the talent production line for girls versus boys in sport, with female participation falling off a cliff in the teenage years.

In a study of 2,000 youngsters aged between eight and 18 last year, data measurement company One Poll found that just 57 per cent of girls play some kind of sport outside school or college, compared to 79 per cent of boys.

This drop-off in female sports participation is a headache the world over, even though, according to Nielsen data, people between the ages of 16 and 24 are most likely to be interested in women’s sports.

In New Zealand, the government last year released a new ‘Strategy on Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation’, highlighting the need for “collective action”, according to Jennah Wootten, general manager of partnerships and communications at Sport New Zealand.

“Without a doubt the biggest challenge is addressing the rapid decline in participation that occurs during teenage years, and from which at present there is no recovery during adult years,” Wootten says.


One poll found that more than a third of girls blame their lack of sports participation on feeling like they are not good enough to take part, while 18 per cent said they were too shy.

The Women in Sport organisation’s ‘Reframing Sport for Teenage Girls’ study, released in April, outlines how sport can be adapted to be more relevant to girls’ lives.

“There are so many pressures on girls today that even the most active are at risk of stopping playing sport as they hit the teenage years,” Women in Sport chief executive Ruth Holdaway says. “Sports organisations need to get to grips with the way teenage girls live their lives; their hopes, fears and aspirations. Sport must be relevant to the complex and busy lives these girls lead.”

England Netball chairman Colin Povey adds that the progress of women’s sports will be measured in the future by “capturing youngsters at an early age, finding ways to keep them engaged in the sport, and providing them with content that remains relevant to their lives”.

He says: “We need to continue to build ‘independent identities’ for the women’s games and capture the spirit of independence that underpins so many of the modern social trends amongst girls, young females and the more mature.”


In the immediate term, though, Horrox believes women’s sports properties and rights-holders should leverage the “power of the personality” to become more commercially attractive and “focus on the professional presentation of the sport and its development as an entertainment product”.

She adds: “The deals that have been done [in women’s sport] this year are higher in cash value, longer term, and with much greater activation spend. In women’s sports the brands currently investing see the value of increasing visibility with great content, powerful personalities and accessible role models.

“From a reputational point of view, women’s sport gives a brand the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equality and to make a social impact – beyond simply increasing market share. This is incredibly relevant socially and commercially right now as consumers seek out greater corporate and social responsibility and social purpose from the companies with whom they spend their money.”

More brands than ever before are recognising the potential of an association with women’s sports. However, despite some notable exceptions, financial self-sustainability for women’s sports properties remains an aspiration rather than an achievement for the majority.

Most recent

The Drone Racing League has experienced a run of new business activity and audience development by leaning squarely into emerging trends such as legal sports wagering, 5G and blockchain technology, cryptocurrency, the metaverse, and STEM education. US Editor Eric Fisher reports.

The European Tour group examined a range of private equity proposals before opting to enter into a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, according to deputy CEO Guy Kinnings. SportBusiness speaks to him about the organisation's latest set of accounts which show the financial impact of the deal.

In this week’s episode, podcast co-hosts Eric Fisher and Chris Russo interview Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel president. Fisher and Russo also discuss The New York Times Company’s $550m (€486.9m) deal to acquire sports media outlet of The Athletic, Fanatics’ market-shifting, $500m purchase of the sports and entertainment assets of The Topps Co., and the National Football League’s deliberations around the forthcoming Super Bowl LVI in California amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

From our partner Getty Images, we present a selection of the best sporting photography of the past year, with commentary from Getty's Global Senior Director of Sports Photography Paul Gilham.