By Jenny Penich, SVP, North America Commercial at Influencer
I realize some may doubt that the U.S. will ever become a true “soccer nation,” but I’ve got news for you: It will come, and it’s already underway. Soccer’s popularity is growing fast—and while it hasn’t yet matched that of football and baseball, excitement is palpable, specifically around women’s soccer. What does this mean for brands? That the environment is ripe for engaging with an evolving audience. Because as soccer’s viewership, fandom, and cultural impact increase stateside, brands have the opportunity to offer a fresh perspective—but they’ll need a strategy to make the most of it.
Truth be told, 2022 was a remarkable one for women’s soccer, with groundbreaking player transfers, record attendance at games, and record-breaking global TV viewership, helped massively by Team USA’s decision to put their top players in the public eye. This year’s 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup presented an exceptional chance for brands to connect with emerging audiences of millions—and build genuine, impactful partnerships at the same time.
Even though the U.S. has been knocked out—after a hard-fought game, I might add—we can’t ignore milestone moments, such as the US national women’s team’s 3-0 opening game win over Vietnam back in July averaging 5.26M viewers, up 99% from the team’s opening match in 2019.
Dare I say it, but the stats speak for themselves. Women’s sports have steadily gained popularity with a significant increase in viewership across a variety of leagues and tournaments on a global scale. In 2021 alone, nearly 33m people tuned in to watch women’s sports, illustrating the growing enthusiasm for these events. The Women’s Super League (WSL) and The Hundred Cricket Competition contributed significantly to this surge, collectively attracting 11m viewers. The WSL’s independent draw of over 6m viewers, separate from the Premier League, showcases the strong appeal of women’s sports in the UK.
Moreover, the showdown between England and Germany in the Women’s Euros 2022 captivated the attention of more than 17m viewers, highlighting the compelling narratives and high-caliber performances that women’s sports bring to the table. The overall tournament, with its global viewership reaching an astounding 365 million, effectively more than doubled the figures from the previous Euros.
With the U.S. Open slated to begin in a few weeks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to the raw fandom around women’s tennis as well. Thanks in part to Serena Williams supposedly playing her “final” U.S. Open last year, 2022 U.S. Women’s Open viewership spiked such that her match—averaging 4.8M viewers—was the “most-watched tennis telecast window ever on ESPN and her three total singles matches were among the five most-watched of the tournament,” according to Sports Media Watch. In fact, 2022 tournament viewership was 50% greater than it was the previous year when Serena didn’t appear on court. So to say women athletes draw a crowd, would be an understatement.
So with that in mind, here are some best practices to help stateside brands navigate the growing popularity of women’s sports in an impactful, authentic way.
Concentrate on enhancing fan interactions while nurturing a D&I-forward atmosphere. The women’s game offers a wonderfully diverse representation of women with fantastic stories. Furthermore, there is an opportunity for brands to evaluate these stories and find those that authentically reflect their own brand values, while driving popularity for the sport and promoting an inclusive sports culture. But this must move beyond mere marketing tactics; it’s about intentionally making a meaningful impact and driving positive change, and must be rooted in your brand’s purpose.
To that end, brands should think longer-term and look at the value of collaborating with a roster of female athlete influencers over a longer period of time, each distinct in their own way in terms of background, ethnicity, body type, and even age. For instance, brands can put further efforts behind athlete influencers like Abby Wambach, who, after 255 games and 164 goals for the U.S. women’s national soccer team, hung up her boots in 2015 but is now an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization dealing with tackling homophobia and transphobia in sports. Brands can then proactively highlight each individual’s story and achievements, emphasizing positive messaging.
You are a catalyst–act like it. Whatever you do, see it as an opportunity to dispel myths, dismantle barriers, and ultimately change the way people think about women’s athleticism—including their dedication to gender equality and empowering female athletes on a global scale.
When those barriers shatter, a world of social opportunity opens up for brands to champion women in diverse arenas. Even influencer Liza Koshy rocked New York’s New Year’s Eve bash with Ryan Seacrest as a co-host.
Now it’s worth noting that female, female-identifying and non-binary soccer fans are not the only ones who watch these games—as there’s a sizable male audience also, further opening up fresh opportunities for brands that have traditionally targeted a predominantly male demographic to break away from gender-based stereotypes and embrace the evolving landscape of sports fandom.
Think long-term. Remember that your collaboration with creators can reach its full potential when you think beyond fleeting partnerships. As the sport’s popularity continues to grow and brands broaden their strategies, establishing long-term partnerships with creators allows brands to leverage their influence and expertise not only for social media campaigns, but also for other channels such as out-of-home advertising and television, significantly increasing the brand’s visibility. Long-term partnerships with creators can also demonstrate a commitment to the sport and its growth, which further fosters a sense of continuity and trust among fans.
This is rooted in the fact that audiences are more receptive to advertising messages during these events and are more likely to engage in cross-screen and multi-channel experiences. Audiences, particularly Gen Z, perceive creators as authentic and influential compared to other forms of media. Brands should leverage this by collaborating with these creators during peak times, such as major sporting events when people are actively present on social channels.
Working with creators has the advantage of not necessitating large budgets or elaborate advertising campaigns. In fact, there are specific niche audiences within the world of women’s soccer that brands can specifically target, allowing for more focused and tailored campaigns. You can find creators who not only enjoy soccer but also have knowledge or interests in other things, such as cooking or traveling, enabling cross-vertical campaigns. This adaptability makes it possible to establish partnerships on a range of budgets, enabling companies of various sizes to take part in and profit from these collaborations. This versatility also provides further room for experimentation and testing to find what resonates most with the target audience!