Brand Strategy

From athlete to advocate: How Kate Johnson drives brand investments in women’s sports

Google’s director of sports marketing has been instrumental in several major sponsorships.
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· 6 min read

This story is the third in a series on women leaders in sports and sports marketing. Read the rest of the profiles here and keep reading Marketing Brew for more profiles to come.

In 1995, Nike released an ad called “If You Let Me Play,” which emphasized the benefits of sports for girls and women at a time when fewer of them were encouraged to be athletes.

Kate Johnson remembers it well. At the time, she was a teenager in Oregon (Nike’s home state), and she had recently taken up rowing. The ad had a big impact.

“It was the first time a brand made me feel seen as a young teenage girl,” Johnson told Marketing Brew.

It was around the same time that Johnson wrote in her journal that she wanted to go to the Olympics, and she did, in more ways than one. In 2004, she won a silver medal in rowing at the summer games in Athens, and a couple years later, she went on to work for IMG Consulting, where she eventually led an international team responsible for executing Olympic sponsorships for brand clients.

Now, she’s a member of the IOC's brand and digital marketing committee, as well as the director of global sports, media, and entertainment marketing at Google—perhaps no surprise considering the impact the Nike campaign had on her at such an early age.

Becoming a brand marketing exec wasn’t always an easy path, Johnson said, but eventually, she worked her way into leadership positions that allowed her to make change not only at the companies she worked for, but in the world of women’s sports more broadly.

Network connectivity issues

While Johnson studied political science at the University of Michigan, she was also training with the school’s rowing team and Team USA, which didn’t leave much time for “traditional internships,” she said. Being an Olympic medalist could help “open the door” to job interviews, Johnson said, but the transition into a different career was still difficult.

Even when her network was small, though, Johnson said she was able to rely on the power of relationships, something that has helped her land every job she’s had. After the Olympics, she worked for an athletic clothing company called Title Nine taking sports-bra orders out of a call center in California. Then, she worked for IMG for more than seven years before Visa called her up. It was there that Johnson really started thinking about “female executive advocacy,” she said.

Seat at the table

Johnson started off running the Olympics marketing vertical at Visa, which at that point had sponsored the games for more than 30 years. A couple of years later, the company began a search for a VP to oversee all of its sports marketing.

“I saw all these men that I came up with career-wise interviewing for this job, and yet no one at Visa tapped me to say ‘Hey, Kate, I think you should interview for that,’” she recalled. She reached out to her boss to ask about the job, and though he initially said they were looking for an external candidate, he soon reconsidered and encouraged her to apply.

“I was going to do it anyway, no matter what he said,” Johnson told us.

She got the job, and ended up spending more than six years at Visa. One of the last things she did as head of sports marketing was to negotiate Visa’s deal with USA Soccer ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

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At the time, she said, the federation wasn’t selling men’s and women’s sponsorships separately, which she found to be frustrating since Visa was only interested in the women’s team. As a compromise, Visa got a contract clause that said no less than half its spend would go to the women’s team, Johnson said. (Today, the sponsorship still stipulates that at least half of Visa’s spend goes toward women’s soccer.)

When Johnson joined Google in 2020 to lead a team known internally as the Sports Lab, she took on the WNBA as its first long-term partnership specifically because it was able to transact with that league separately from the NBA.

“The NBA was in the back of our minds for some day, one day, but it just didn’t feel to me that Google was quite ready for that,” Johnson said. “That’s a really big commitment, to go all in on the NBA, so we started with the WNBA because that we could do, and that we could elevate.”

Google’s investments in women’s sports only accelerated after her arrival at the company. In 2021, Google joined the WNBA’s Changemakers platform, which is made up of major partners that are “deeply invested in driving positive change for the WNBA, women’s sports, and women in society,” per the league. Google also worked with ESPN that year to increase the number of WNBA games broadcast on the network in honor of the league’s 25th anniversary, according to Sara Gotfredson, who at the time was VP of global client sales and market partnerships at ESPN parent company Disney.

“That sort of thinking would not have happened without Kate driving that,” Gotfredson told us. “She was all about…what can we actually do to create inventory, to create more exposure?”

How far we’ve come

It’s common for marketers looking to invest in women’s sports to take note of a relative lack of inventory to sponsor. That issue has been somewhat alleviated in recent years as media coverage of women’s sports has increased, a move Google has also been involved in: Last year, the brand supported The Athletic’s push to cover more women’s sports stories by backing a series about the WNBA and international women’s soccer.

But there’s still a long way to go, Johnson said. It can be hard to convince C-suite executives to invest in women’s sports, considering that there’s relatively smaller reach than in men’s athletics, she said. Part of that has to do with what she calls the “opt-in culture” surrounding women’s sports, meaning that fans have to put in work to find that content.

“When you’re born, you are opted in to men’s sports,” Johnson said. “It is fed to you by a feeding tube. It’s on the front page of the papers. It’s in the background of every hospital waiting room. From the moment you come into this world, men’s sports are spoon-fed to you. It is 100% the opposite with women’s.”

When it comes to brand loyalty conversations, though, Johnson said it can be easier to prove the value of women’s sports.

“I would argue that brands don’t have to work as hard to get there to convey their message to a female sports fan as they do for men’s, because the women’s sports fan is so willing to reward them for being there,” she said. “Now, they also expect a lot of them. Like, ‘Come on, lean in. What else are you doing? Don’t use this as a vehicle and then disappear.’”

Update 12/11/2023: This piece has been updated to clarify Johnson's involvement with the IOC.

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