Earlier this year, I joined more than 850,000 viewers globally to witness Naomi Osaka being crowned women’s champion at the Australian Open. Osaka had joined Monica Seles and Roger Federer in becoming the third player in history to win their first four major finals in the Open Era.
It was a priceless moment for me, seeing the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam. As a fan I had been eagerly waiting another Asian player to take home the trophy after Li Na’s win in the same event in 2014.
The 23-year-old Osaka has not only taken the world by storm with her skills on the court but has also shown her strength as a vocal activist on issues such as gender discrimination and racism. It is not difficult to see why she is admired – she embodies what it means to be an empowered woman, inspiring younger generations to break down boundaries.
These characteristics make Osaka valuable not just to the sport of tennis, but also to brands looking to engage in partnerships with female sports properties. Osaka garners an audience of millions around the globe for her performances on-court, and her off-court activity provides a meaningful platform for brands to align with and help drive societal change. Nielsen research on global sports marketing trends in 2021 found that athlete posts which advocate for social issues generate three per cent more engagement for brands compared to other owned social media content. Rights-holders with a sustainability agenda are likely to drive more than 10-per-cent growth in sponsorship revenue over the next three to five years. Fans are looking to engage with brands that care about the state of the world. Female sport can be a powerful force for companies to consider in this regard. This is despite ongoing discrepancies between male and female athletes in terms of prize money, pay and media attention.
Female sport can present equal, and in some cases greater, value for brands compared to male sport. Having said that, female sport has work to do to establish itself as a better platform, and Covid-19 came at an unfortunate time, just as it was gaining considerable momentum across the globe. The full impact of the pandemic is yet to be seen, but it is already clear that women’s sport has been deprioritised by the entire sporting ecosystem due to slashed revenues, so a strong effort to re-establish growth will be crucial. This is where brands can make a difference.
In Asia-Pacific, as fanbases for female sport increase, and with a number of major female sports events due to take place in the region, there are opportunities for brands. The global sponsorship market is tipped to record strong growth in the next decade, with Asia-Pacific being a particularly fast-growing market. Chinese brands are expected to be responsible for one-third of the growth. Despite the challenge of Covid-19, there are brighter days ahead.
Female sports opportunities in Asia-Pacific
Looking more closely at tennis, the sport is leading the way in closing the gender inequality gap. The WTA Tour is acknowledged as one of the most progressive female sports properties. The tour’s players accounted for nine of the world’s top ten highest paid female athletes in 2020, with a large proportion of pay being attributed to endorsements deals. Among all tennis players, only Roger Federer made more than Naomi Osaka from endorsements in 2020. The WTA presents unique opportunities for brands in Asia-Pacific as it is a global property with a significant presence in the market, including the annual WTA Finals tournament in Shenzhen, China.
The WTA has 19 tournaments in Asia-Pacific, with a broadcast reach of 518.5 million households in the region, a cumulative on-site attendance of three million+ and 200 million+ digital followers. One might expect viewership to be skewed to females, but in fact overall WTA Tour viewership has close to a 50/50 split across both male and female audiences, generating a wide appeal across the sexes. Asia-Pacific talent is also strongly present on the Tour, with the likes of Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka at the top of the rankings.
The WTA is also committed to investing in communities and recently revealed a new campaign, ‘WTA For the Game’, which highlights the driving forces of the sport and their commitment to championing women to drive deeper fan engagement. The campaign aligns with the WTA’s new corporate identity which aims to redefine their strength and purpose as a collective – a group of inspiring athletes and tournaments. The Tour’s Future Stars programme also looks to drive participation in tennis amongst young females. These programmes make the WTA an even more exciting proposition for brands to align with, to grow their footprint and create a wider societal impact.
Women’s cricket continues to grow to new heights in Asia-Pacific. The Women’s T20 World Cup final in Australia last year achieved a record for the highest-ever attendance for a standalone women’s sports event in the country at 86,174 and the highest global attendance for a women’s cricket match. In addition, the tournament saw a global unique audience of 89 million, a 131 per-cent increase compared to the 2018 edition. These figures present exciting opportunities for the upcoming Women’s Cricket World Cup in 2022 in New Zealand.
On International Women’s Day last month, the ICC announced an expansion of women’s cricket events from 2026. More teams will compete in future ICC tournaments as part of a commitment to growing the women’s game globally. With a strong Asia-Pacific presence when it comes to teams and tournaments, women’s sport is an exciting property for brands in the region. The ICC has a long way to go in developing women’s cricket relation to the men’s game, but it is making strides and the participation of Thailand’s women’s team for the very first time in 2020 was a notable milestone. The Thai team’s performance showed they were not just a novelty, but a nation serious about competing on the world stage.
Rugby and football
Women’s rugby and football are set to make waves in Asia-Pacific in the coming years, with both the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2022 and the Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2023 taking place in Oceania for the very first time. The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland broke records in terms of television audiences, attendances and social engagement.
Women’s rugby has seen significant growth in recent years and, prior to the pandemic, participation levels were at an all-time high with 2.7 million players globally – accounting for more than a quarter of the global playing population – and a 28-per-cent increase in registered players since 2017.
The next Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand will be a fantastic opportunity for brands to engage with the sport and earn commercial returns at a time when there will be a big focus on growing female player participation and fan bases.
The 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup delivered a 1.12 billion viewership over 52 games and 106-per-cent increase from 2015. The Asia region delivered the most unique viewers across traditional and digital media platforms, accounting for 37 per cent of the global total, with China alone making up 30.5 per cent.
Football Australia, co-host of the 2023 tournament along with NZ Football, is confident that it will generate strong commercial returns, with a forecast A$460m of social and economic benefits, including ticket sales, tourism revenue, and infrastructure investment. The event unlocks opportunities for the FA and NZF to introduce initiatives to improve pay gaps and female participation in football. The tournament could help brands reach large audiences in Asia-Pacific and to play a prominent role in the development of women’s sport.
Diversity at the forefront
The rise of women’s sport has accelerated shifts in the way brands, rights holders, and media look at sponsorship investments and commercial opportunities. Diversity has been brought to the forefront of sports audiences’ minds.
As consumers become more mindful and conscious of social and environmental issues, brands must consider their marketing activity and partnerships through a fresh lens. They must seek the right assets and platforms to build narratives that communicate their values and show they care for the communities in which they operate. Women’s sport is proving to be a powerful tool for this and brands which capitalise on the opportunities now are sure to reap rewards in the long term.