There’s a new crop of agencies dedicated to pairing brands with women athletes

Growth has picked up: “It’s been night and day from December 2019 to June 2023,” one exec told us.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

It’s been a big year for women’s sports. At the college level, the major women’s basketball and softball tournaments broke viewership records. Meanwhile, the NWSL has been expanding, with more teams to come, and the US Women’s National Team is gearing up for a World Cup that’s expected to be the most-attended women’s sporting event ever.

Over the past few years, sports marketing execs have taken note of the increased interest, and several have started companies aimed at helping brands capitalize. But it isn’t always easy.

“My peers were like, ‘Sara, I could do a Monday Night Football deal for three times the amount of your WNBA deal, and it takes 5% of the work that you’re doing,’” Sara Gotfredson, who last year founded women’s sports media advisory group Trailblazing Sports Group after 18 years at ESPN and Disney, told Marketing Brew. That’s when she thought to herself, “I think there’s a big need for more folks with advertising and sponsorship backgrounds to be out there talking to brands about investing in women’s sports.”

For some early entrants, business wasn’t always exactly booming. But in the past year or two, they’ve started to experience growth and notice a shift in the types of conversations brands are having about opportunities with women athletes.

The underdog

Right before starting his own agency, Matt Hochberg was on a call between an NBA player and a brand when he realized that it seemed like the player, “who was already making tens of millions of dollars from his NBA contract, was just not really excited or didn’t really care much about that deal that he was about to sign to make all that money.”

With women athletes, it was often a different story. “I was at the same time working on deals with NWSL players, beach volleyball players, and softball players,” he said. “While those deals are smaller in size and scope, I saw firsthand how excited those athletes were about those deals, and how those deals were truly impacting their livelihoods.”

Hochberg realized there was an opportunity, and in December 2019, he started Hochberg Sports Marketing, an agency that now represents NWSL stars like Ali Riley as well as a roster of other women athletes and athletes in emerging sports. Parity, a company that facilitates partnerships between brands and more than 800 pro women athletes, got its start the following month. Two months later, Covid hit the US, bringing sports to a grinding halt.

“I literally, for the first seven months of HSM, made zero dollars,” Hochberg told us. “There was not a penny of revenue that we generated.”

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Then, slowly but surely, the agency started gaining traction with brands. The NWSL became the first professional contact sports league to resume play in the US in June 2020, and Hochberg said HSM started to see revenue come in that same month. Gross revenue increased 50% from that year to 2021, then by 200% from 2021 to 2022, he told us. The agency is on track to see another 100% increase by the end of this year, though he did not share more specific revenue numbers.

“Virtually on a daily basis, we are chatting with brands about investing in female athletes,” Hochberg said. “Not all of those conversations turn into deals, of course, but there’s clear interest on a daily, weekly basis from brands in investing in women athletes. It’s been night and day from December 2019 to June 2023.”

Alana Casner, VP of content and strategy at Parity, said that after some momentum in 2018 and 2019, women’s sports took off considerably in 2020. The pandemic, she said, was “one of the best things to happen to women’s sports, because for periods of time, it was the only thing on—and instead of not showing it, the streaming services and the channels were like, ‘Oh wait, let’s do this.’”

The surge in interest has some in the industry eager to see even more growth. “Over the last year, the momentum and the movement has grown stronger, but we still have a long way to go,” Gotfredson said.

More than a dealing

There’s also progress to be made in the way brands work with women athletes. Casner said some don’t yet “really understand” the space. As an example, some brands see “women athletes as ‘influencers’” to do one-post deals with, as opposed to larger partnerships, Hochberg said. And the number of brands “that are really, truly investing” isn’t as large as some might like, Gotfredson said.

But there have been changes for the better. HSM is in talks with one brand about investing in multiple women’s soccer players as opposed to just one, Hochberg said. More brands are also interested in longer-term deals with women athletes now than they were before, according to Hochberg; in the past month, HSM has had two conversations with brands focusing on equity deals in addition to cash.

Equity-focused deals can mean a higher level of risk, Hochberg said, but “if it’s a brand you believe in and you’re passionate about and interested in, that’s really a way to build long-term wealth, especially in a society that doesn’t pay women in the sports industry as much as they should be paid.”

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