Sports marketing regrets from a former CMO — (and thoughts on effective use of your 2024 sports marketing budget)
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Sports marketing regrets from a former CMO — (and thoughts on effective use of your 2024 sports marketing budget)

I stand before you with serious sports-marketing regrets. I’m a three-time B2B CMO who made marketing investments in basketball, soccer and golf during the last five years of my marketing career and evaluated a slew of others (F1 and NFL among them). I should clarify: I invested in men’s basketball, soccer and golf. Given what I do these days, I’m kicking myself for never taking a serious look at women’s sports back when I had budget authority. Perhaps I was acting with my male CEOs in mind. Maybe the agencies pitching me were focused too narrowly on what sports (read: men’s sports) might be of interest to a CMO with a healthy budget to spend. Either way, I know I’d be doing it differently in 2024 if I had the chance. Especially when the macroeconomy remains dicey, putting marketing leaders on the ropes.

A COMMENTARY by Leela Srinivasan, CEO of Parity, a sponsorship platform dedicated to closing the gender income and opportunity gap in professional sports.

This first appeared in Sports Business Journal.

The Internationalist featured it as part of our Global Marketing at the Crossroads series.

Why bring macroeconomics into the discussion?

Einstein’s definition of insanity, as we all know by now, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But sometimes in marketing you can do the same thing over and over, and the results aren’t the same — they’re markedly worse. Marketers get paid to double down on things that work; in challenging economies, buyer journeys, budgets, timelines and needs can change overnight. Rival marketers pile in and copycat the tactic or approach, making your once-differentiated efforts seem run-of-the-mill. Suddenly the things that used to deliver solid ROI no longer look like great investments — and when marketers can’t find enough things that do work, that’s a fire-able offense.

You know what doesn’t get you fired — and might actually get you promoted? Innovating in ways that don’t break the bank, testing novel ways to play right into the cultural zeitgeist, and winning over new audiences with a fresh approach. In a down market, I would argue that one of the biggest risks you can take as a marketing leader is not taking intelligent risks, and women’s sports is an incredibly intelligent risk to take right now for brands of all sizes. 

I say “brands of all sizes” because women’s sports marketing opportunities are available at almost every price point. Based on my experience, conventional sports marketing in men’s sports (investing in a hospitality suite and other in-person experiences, putting a patch on a jersey or a logo on a car) is often prohibitively expensive. The price tags can be astronomical, a multiyear commitment is frequently required, and even the ideas themselves start to feel undifferentiated when you’re one of so many sponsors. Contrast that with women’s sports, where most athletes, teams, leagues and properties have fewer opportunities coming their way, making them more likely to lean in on creative partnership structures and concepts that help generate bidirectional value.

It’s somewhat stunning to say the following given women constitute 49.7% of the global population and 40% of all athletes, but companies investing in women’s sports today are still relatively early adopters. And that’s especially true as you look across the full landscape of women’s sports. Take a closer look and you’ll see a massive range of opportunities for a wide range of budgets.   

In the last 30 days we’ve presented proposals to clients at four, five, six and seven-figure price points. For those who haven’t incorporated women’s sports marketing into their go-to-market efforts yet, you are missing a big opportunity because the costs don’t need to be out of control, and you’ll stand out positively in the sea of same ol’ tactics your competitors are deploying. Oh, and women’s sports fans made it abundantly clear in our 2023 survey that they’re paying attention to sponsors, with 77% saying they can be positively influenced to make a purchase decision based on products that female athletes promote, and 85% agreeing that a brand’s support and involvement in women’s sports positively influences their purchase decision. 

Here are sample ideas from proposals that we’ve shared with clients this fall: 

For an investment starting at four figures: Bring a super-compelling keynote speaker into your upcoming customer conference or employee resource group (ERG) meeting.

With a budget starting at five figures: Hire an Olympic or Paralympic athlete to be your year-round ambassador generating social posts, content, and participating in a photo shoot with your brand. This could not be more timely; with the Paris Summer Games less than 9 months away, now’s the time to get smart about your 2024 Olympic and Paralympic options.

Alternatively, run a big social awareness campaign involving a dozen or more athletes sharing one-off partnership posts on the topic/ issue of your desire, exposing your brand and its products, values or ideas to their legions of loyal followers.

With a budget starting at six figures: Amplify a significant product launch or theme on the time frame of your choice. Perhaps it’s a yearlong campaign, or maybe it’s a concerted weeklong push. Combine in-person appearances with a hefty social media strategy amplifying your brand, content, and message. It’s a bold way to get the world talking about equity in sports and your role in bringing it.

Got seven figures to spend on women’s sports marketing? At this level, the sky’s the limit. The classic branding play might be to put your logo on the shirts of a top-flight European soccer team for an entire season. Beyond that, you’re limited only by your imagination when you have willing athlete partners. You could engage an entire squad of elite athletes in a formal R&D partnership with your apparel brand … or create a short-form docuseries around inspiring athletes triumphing against the odds and support its distribution with a robust media plan. 

These are just a handful of ideas, of course. The reality is that the talent is there, the athlete appetite is there, and finally in 2023, the world’s attention is very much there. Make sure you don’t get left watching from the sidelines as your competitors race to invest in women’s sports.

Leela Srinivasan is CEO of Parity, a sponsorship platform dedicated to closing the gender income and opportunity gap in professional sports. This Commentary first appeared in Sports Business Journal.