Brand Strategy

For this Ally exec, sponsorship marketing is about head and heart

Ally’s investments in women’s sports grew from sponsorships to all-encompassing “brand acts” thanks to Bridget Sponsky.
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Bridget Sponsky

· 5 min read

This story is the fifth 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.

Bridget Sponsky, Ally Financial’s executive director of brand and sponsorship marketing, is a big cheerleader for brands investing in women’s sports. Luckily, she had experience from before she joined the financial services firm: She was a competitive cheerleader in high school.

“We battled a lot of those arguments: ‘Is cheerleading really a sport?’” Sponsky told Marketing Brew. “Always having to make the case for women’s sports was just part of how I grew up.”

Since joining Ally in 2008, Sponsky has further honed her skills making that case, elevating the company’s sports marketing from simple sponsorships to larger “brand acts” that aim to generate affinity for Ally and, more recently, encourage other major brands to sponsor women’s sports.

Starting off small

About 15 years ago, Ally CMO Andrea Brimmer was looking for a team to help with the rebranding of GMAC into Ally Financial, and gave Sponsky a call. Sponsky, who graduated with an advertising degree from Michigan State University in 2002, was at the time working on sports and entertainment marketing at IPG agency Campbell Ewald, with a focus on its Chevy account.

There were signs that Sponksy could be a good fit at Ally, including their shared auto roots: Ally was originally a division of General Motors, and Sponsky was born and raised in Detroit and started her advertising career working on the Lincoln and Mercury accounts at Young & Rubicam (now VLM).

In Sponsky’s early years at Ally, sports sponsorships weren’t part of its marketing mix, and her sports marketing budget was small—“probably a quarter of a million dollars,” for a sponsorship, she said, which she allocated to the 2016 International Champions Cup. But it seemed to work: Ally started to see sports fans engage with its brand, Sponsky said, so she and Brimmer continued to build out their sports strategy.

Given Ally’s automotive roots, motorsports were a logical next step, Sponsky said, and in 2020, the brand sponsored Nascar champion Jimmie Johnson, who drove the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet. That sponsorship “took off,” Sponsky said, and Ally went on to sponsor the car’s current driver, Alex Bowman.

Some of Ally’s other earliest sponsorships included MLS and NBA teams, Sponsky said, but its partnership with the NWSL, which kicked off in 2021, was something of a turning point.

“What we’ve done in women’s sports, with NWSL by our side, is bigger than a league sponsorship, or a team sponsorship, or an athlete sponsorship,” she said. “It is truly meant to change the way that fans view sports, particularly women’s sports.”

Look in the mirror

Sponsky said she often leverages data to determine where to spend Ally’s sponsorship dollars. Other times, though, it’s about trusting her gut.

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“If we truly feel at the end of the day that it’s the right thing to do, we will do it, even if sometimes the metrics don’t prove out,” she said.

In the case of the NWSL, the data came after the decision to go all in. Ally signed on as the league’s first official banking partner in 2021—and, then, its partner in negotiating a prime-time spot for its championship for the first time in 2022, which helped lead to a 71% increase in viewership.

That year, Ally publicly pledged to achieve equal media spending on men’s and women’s sports by 2027. Since then, the brand’s “awareness, likeability, and consideration are at all-time highs for the company,” especially among women, according to Sponsky.

“It’s telling us that the pledge is working,” she said.

All in

To make that 50/50 pledge a reality, Sponsky and her team, which now includes five people dedicated specifically to women’s sports, needed Ally’s CEO and other C-suite leaders on board. It was a “no-brainer” for them, she said, while adding that “if it wasn’t for women executives sitting at the table, the 50/50 pledge might not have been born.”

Stephanie Marciano, Ally’s head of sports and entertainment marketing, praised working alongside Sponsky through moments like this.

“You can feel her passion for the work and belief that it can have a profound impact on the world,” Marciano said in an email. “It’s rewarding to work with someone who shares your respect for the women’s sports space and empowers our team to be bold and disruptive.”

Since making the 50/50 pledge, Ally has upped its spending on women’s sports media by 300%, according to Sponsky. As of the start of 2024, the company is at about a 60/40 split between men’s and women’s sports media, she said, which puts it ahead of schedule to reach parity by 2027.

Last year, the Women’s World Cup presented a significant opportunity for Ally to boost its women’s sports media spend. Without that event this year, Sponsky said Ally is planning on keeping up its work with its legacy media partners like Disney and ESPN, continuing to spend with emerging media companies like Re—Inc and Just Women’s Sports, and sponsoring more athletes directly.

Sponsky knows personally how important direct sponsorship dollars can be for women athletes in particular—she remembers using her teammates as resistance partners for strength exercises when she was a high school athlete because the girls didn’t have access to weight equipment. Women athletes are still “making pennies on the dollar to the men,” she said, but there are signs of change.

“Revenue for women’s sports is projected to surpass a billion dollars in 2024,” Sponsky said. “That just solidifies that investing here is the right thing to do.”

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