Brand Strategy

The year in women’s sports—and women’s sports marketing

A dramatic March Madness. A shocking Women’s World Cup. The return of the GOAT of gymnastics. It was quite a year.
article cover

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

· 6 min read

Sports were most definitely for the girls in 2023.

Even though the US Women’s National Team didn’t bring home the World Cup trophy this year, women’s soccer still scored some notable wins. Women’s basketball caught fire thanks to the March Madness drama between Louisiana State University and the University of Iowa, and it spread from the NCAA to the WNBA later in the year.

“Women in sports was one of, if not the most, dominant story this year around sports marketing,” Joe Caporoso, president of sports and entertainment media company Team Whistle, told Marketing Brew. “It was really driven a lot by the Women’s World Cup over the summer, but it was bigger than that.”

It can be hard to keep up with all the developments in the space, so we asked 10 sports media and marketing execs which moments stood out to them most.

World Cup watch party: This summer’s Women’s World Cup had some high highs and low lows. Viewership and attendance records were “smashed across the world,” including in China and host countries Australia and New Zealand, Jacie deHoop, co-founder of sports media brand The Gist, said. And some brands—like Ally and Visa—activated around the competition in major ways.

“Seeing [Australia’s national team] the Matildas live in Sydney to a sold-out stadium…just blew my mind about how much on-the-ground energy you can have, and how, in some cases, little media attention you can have at the same time, which signals such a big opportunity going forward,” The Athletic’s CCO Seb Tomich said.

While Nike had the most WWC player endorsements, it faced backlash after English goalkeeper Mary Earps called out the brand for selling replicas of the English men’s goalkeeper’s jersey, but not hers. Nike eventually released the Earps jersey in October, after more than 170,000 people signed a petition.

NWSL growth: In the states, the NWSL Championship in the fall swiftly followed the World Cup, but despite the hype around the final matchup between now-retired national team stars Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, viewership was down 11% from last year’s record. Still, it was the second-most-watched NWSL match ever.

Days before that game, the NWSL signed a four-year media rights deal with CBS, ESPN, Amazon Prime Video, and Scripps Sports reportedly worth $240 million. The deal, which the league described as the biggest broadcast deal in women’s sports history, is “setting the stage for the Women’s March Madness and WNBA rights negotiations in 2024 [and] 2025,” Sara Gotfredson, founder of sports media agency Trailblazing Sports Group, said.

WNBA’s lay-up: The WNBA set viewership and attendance records in its regular season. More than 17,000 people attended Game 3 of the Finals between the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces, setting a new gate attendance record for the league.

The Aces ultimately brought home the trophy for the second year in a row, and their current and former players are increasingly finding the spotlight off the court as well. Sydney Colson and Theresa Plaisance started an unscripted comedy show on Fubo in September, and Fubo Studios Head Pamela Duckworth said she’s already starting to hear inbound interest from a couple of major holding companies about sponsorship opportunities.

March Madness madness: Women’s college basketball scored record-breaking viewership throughout the tournament, culminating in the championship game between LSU and Iowa averaging 9.9 million viewers.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.

“It changed the way we think of the women’s tournament, and the stardom and storylines from Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark raised the profile of the tournament and women’s college hoops overall,” deHoop said.

Though LSU took the trophy, Iowa went on to set the attendance record for a women’s college basketball game in October, nearly filling a football stadium with more than 55,000 fans during an exhibition game. Both Reese and Clark attracted brand interest, with State Farm signing Clark to its first NIL deal and Reese signing NIL deals with brands including Reebok and Starry.

College sports surge: Trish Tulloch, a VP at global creative agency 160over90 who’s worked on sports deals for clients including Allstate, said women’s college sports stood out this year so much that her team recently presented some of those stats to a CMO client. Outside of basketball, the University of Nebraska’s volleyball team set the world record for largest attendance at a women’s game.

Overall, though, soccer and basketball may seem more predominant in the US than other sports because they’re accessible for young girls to play, thus “building their fandom early,” Laura Andriani, SVP of consulting at sports marketing agency Two Circles, said.

All eyes on tennis: Despite the fact that some sports have a “head start,” Caporoso said, there were a handful of memorable moments in individual sports this year, including in tennis. Coco Gauff won her first Grand Slam at the US Open in September, and 3.4 million viewers watched on ESPN, per the network, up 92% from last year’s US Open women’s final. It was the most-watched women’s major tennis final in ESPN’s history, drawing more than a million more viewers than this year’s US Open men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.

Perfect landing: Simone Biles staged a comeback this year, winning two more gold medals at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in October. Biles has been partnered with Athleta since she left Nike in 2021, which has been a fairly unique deal in women’s sports, according to Jeff Ehrenkranz, COO of sports marketing agency Allied Sports.

“They’ve given her a platform to build her own voice,” he said. “They’ve taken her voice and integrated it into their brand…[The partnership] ties together brand and athlete in a way that we have not seen on the women’s sports side as much.”

Jas Dhami, VP of sports and streaming at creative agency We Are Social, said brands these days are embracing younger athletes like Gauff and Biles who not only perform athletically, but also “show their personality both on and off the field,” something she noted women athletes tend to excel at.

Jump-start: Some marketers, though, are still missing out on opportunities for women’s sports sponsorships, said Lou DePaoli, president of executive search and team consulting at sports marketing and management firm General Sports Worldwide.

“There are great stories in tennis, soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, football, gymnastics, etc. that need to be shared, and we are just starting to scratch the surface on broader engagement,” he said.

Update 12/19/2023: This piece has been updated with Pamela Duckworth's current title at Fubo.

Get marketing news you'll actually want to read

Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.