Women’s sports have been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. for years. Between the powerhouse success of tennis legend Serena Williams to the newly created NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the world of women’s sports has had a lot to celebrate in the years since Title IX was passed in 1972.
Even with steady growth over the last decade, this past season experienced an explosion in viewership, fan engagement, and sponsor involvement for women’s sports leagues.
We tapped the MarketCast annual sponsor breakthrough study* to take a deep dive into the top women’s sports league viewership, sponsor awareness & affinity in North America.
Viewership of women’s sports is up this season across the board
According to MarketCast’s 2022 Sponsor Breakthrough study, women’s sports (such as the WNBA and NWSL) registered the biggest uptick in viewership trends last season. In fact, 42% of fans say they are watching more of these two leagues than previously (compared to 36% for MLS and 26% for the NBA.) Specifically, the WNBA is experiencing the fastest growth in league viewership, up 13 points from last season.
This increase in viewership is also partly due to the rise in women’s sporting events being aired, which have seen a 29% increase in 2022 compared to 2018, according to Nielsen. TV viewership for women’s sports signature events is also exploding; according to a 2023 VAB report, the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Championship saw 453% growth YOY, the 2022 WNBA finals 171% growth, while the Women’s NCAA March Madness saw 81% growth compared to 2021.
When taking a step back and looking at the expression of sports fandom in general, soccer (NWSL, MLS), NASCAR, and the PGA ignite the most passionate fans. This might come as a surprise, given the NFL, NBA, and MLB have dominated professional sports in the U.S. for decades.
Focusing in on soccer, 20% of NWSL fans rank their fandom for the league above all else when describing their personal identity, just one point shy of MLS fans at 21% and surpassing NASCAR and the PGA (19% and 18%, respectively). This demonstrates the rise of not only soccer fandom in the U.S. but women’s soccer.
Fans are keeping an eye on their favorite leagues’ sponsors
Along with newer leagues growing in popularity, so is their respective sponsor awareness. According to MarketCast’s Sponsor Breakthrough Study, soccer fans, in general, care most about knowing who the league sponsors are. The NWSL leads the pack, with 77% of fans indicating brand sponsorship awareness as being important to them. This is followed closely by MLS at 75%, NASCAR at 73%, and WNBA at 72%.
With two women’s sports leagues in the top four for sponsor awareness, potential brand sponsors have a unique opportunity to capture a highly engaged audience and build a connection with them as the sport’s popularity continues to surge.
Likewise, women’s sports elicit the greatest sponsorship affinity compared to other, more established leagues in the U.S. According to MarketCast, the NWSL leads the way for all three sponsor affinity metrics, including:
- likelihood to try products of an official league sponsor,
- likelihood to consciously support, and
- likelihood to recommend
The WNBA follows as a close second for likelihood to try and consciously support and ties with MLS for likelihood to recommend.
With the conclusion of the 2023 NWSL and WNBA seasons, we continue to keep a close eye on awareness and fan engagement and their relationship with league sponsors. And, thanks to the recent revamp of the Leagues Cup by MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, as well as the addition of Lionel Messi to the MLS, fans of the men’s leagues have more passion for soccer in this country than ever before.
Stay tuned as we uncover more sponsor awareness insights for women’s sports leagues and how brands can best engage and capture viewers in their fandom. Interested in igniting your own brand’s sports sponsorship performance? Contact us to get started!
*In conjunction with Sports Business Journal