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This marketing exec built her career around proving the value of women’s sports

“The scale in women’s sports is not at the level of men’s sports—yet,” Sara Gotfredson, founder of women’s sports media advisory group Trailblazing Sports Group, said.
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Sara Gotfredson

· 6 min read

This story is the first in a series on women leaders working to increase brand investment in women’s sports. Keep reading Marketing Brew for more profiles to come.

When Sara Gotfredson first started selling sports ad inventory in 2001, brands hardly had any opportunity to run ads during women’s games, and that content wasn’t a priority at media companies that were airing sports, she said.

“Very rarely did we talk about women’s sports in the early 2000s,” Gotfredson told Marketing Brew. “It just didn’t seem like a lot of the legacy sports media companies cared.”

At that time, the landscape for women’s sports looked very different: The WNBA, now the most popular women’s league in the US, was just five years old, and women’s soccer, a current favorite among brands, was hardly established in the country, with the Women’s United Soccer Association just getting off the ground and its successor, the National Women’s Soccer League, more than a decade away from forming.

But women like Gotfredson, who grew up playing sports, were starting to make their mark on corporate America, specifically at legacy sports media companies. After a few years as a digital media sales account executive at CBS Sportsline.com (that later became CBSSports.com), Gotfredson went on to work in ad sales for Disney and ESPN before starting her own sports media agency, Trailblazing Sports Group, about a year ago. Its mission? To grow brand investment in women’s sports.

More than 20 years from her start in the business, that still isn’t easy, Gotfredson said, but with growing audiences and attention, the space has approached a “tipping point” that has her optimistic about the future.

Retro

Gotfredson grew up in a sports-loving household, and while she doesn’t remember there being many women’s sporting events to watch, there were some to play, including softball, soccer, and golf. Gotfredson is particularly grateful for her experience golfing, which has proven helpful in her career.

“Golf is so great to learn as a kid, and especially as a young girl, because it’s allowed me to hang with the guys in my professional life,” she said. “I remember going up to Bandon Dunes when I was at ESPN, and I took my Nike client. We were the only two women out of like 24 guys.”

She went to college for marketing at the University of San Francisco and, during her senior year, took a sports media and business class that led her to pursue a master of arts in sports and fitness management.

Gotfredson got her digital media sales job at CBS Sportsline while she was still getting her master’s, and then landed the ESPN gig through the “power of networking, which I always encourage young women and women in general to lean into more,” she said.

In her early days at the Disney-owned sports network, Gotfredson remembers selling ad units to brands like Cisco, Nike, and Visa for Mobile ESPN, an ESPN-branded mobile phone and cellular service with exclusive sports content that went belly-up in 2006. Vice later called it the company’s potential “biggest failure,” but said it “set the foundation” for ESPN’s future dominance in the world of mobile apps.

Take the W

Gotfredson’s first major foray into women’s sports came when she began working with a small team within ESPN to sell the first sponsorships for espnW, the channel founded in 2010 that’s dedicated exclusively to women’s sports. At espnW, Gotfredson said she locked in commitments from partners including Nike, Adidas, Toyota, and Wells Fargo—some of which are still big sponsors today.

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“EspnW was a big turning point,” she said, but even with that platform, “women’s sports was always really in the background of ESPN. We had the women’s tournament, and brands bought into it, but there wasn’t a clamoring for it.”

Some ubiquitous sports brands like Nike and Adidas were eager to invest, but it was (and still is) harder work selling women’s sports to brands outside of the sports world, she said. Earlier this year, Gotfredson told us her peers could land football deals three times larger than her WNBA ones with a fraction of the work that she was doing.

When she was first selling espnW, Gotfredson recalled going through 40-page research decks in meetings to “prove to brands that we had done our homework,” she said. But it was fun work, she stressed, and it paved the way for the annual espnW Summit, which now draws sponsors from sports brands like New Balance and Gatorade to tech giants like Meta and Google.

Come together

Gotfredson later became VP of global client sales and market partnerships at Disney, where she worked with tech and telco brands across all media brands and platforms, but said she left in 2022 to start her firm Trailblazing Sports Group because she saw a chance to help brands do more with women’s sports. She wanted to be a part of that shift, but didn’t want to do it at another major media company.

“With every big company…[men’s sports] is the moneymaker,” she said. “These sports pay for everybody’s salaries, so it’s easy to just focus your time there.”

Men’s sports has another advantage: proven scale and reach. Women’s sports can move the needle for brands, too, she said, but there still needs to be more stats, research, and case studies to prove that to marketers who might not be convinced.

To that end, Gotfredson has become a “behind-the-scenes” force in the Women’s Sports Club, an invite-only group of executives at brands, media companies, and creators dedicated to boosting women’s sports, said Angela Ruggiero, the club’s executive director and the co-founder of market research company Sports Innovation Lab.

Ruggiero, who also happens to be a four-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey, said she originally hoped Gotfredson might help set up an upfront just for women’s sports content, but that research showed that it might be premature. For now, Gotfredson is helping the club’s members buy women’s sports inventory amongst themselves, Ruggiero said.

Gotfredson told us she’s also working on building a programmatic marketplace that will allow brands to buy women’s sports media in one place, across platforms, leagues, teams, and individual athletes. She said she hopes to debut it next year.

“The reality is, the scale in women’s sports is not at the level of men’s sports yet,” Gotfredson said. “‘Yet’ is the big thing.”

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