Groundbreaking Report Unveils Untapped Potential of Women’s Sports


Fans of women’s sports have long felt that there is enormous potential for women’s sports to blossom. Now, more than ever before, there is ample data to back that claim. The following is a press release from Sports Innovation Lab in collaboration with The Lead’s WNBA branch:

Presented as a ‘multi-billion dollar opportunity,’ the study is in partnership with 27 leagues, brands and media entities including the WNBA, WWE and the NWSL — All with a project vision to increase investment into Women’s sports.

BOSTON (June 21, 2021) — Revolutionary market research and fan intelligence company Sports Innovation Lab today unveiled the much-anticipated findings of its groundbreaking data initiative, “The Fan Project.” which used more than 10 million data points from anonymously submitted social media files — enriched with 10 billion TV viewership data points, partner data, and market research — to illustrate the real numbers and behaviors behind the untapped business potential of women’s sports — and how leading sports brands can invest differently to create breakthrough fan experiences using technology. The two biggest findings:

  • The digitally-native Fluid Fan(™) is the path to growth for the entire sports industry, with Fans of Women’s Sports (FoWS) being the most fluid fans of all. FoWS exhibit technology-driven behaviors earlier and more frequently than any other sports fan, making them a high-value untapped market opportunity for brands. (According to The Fan Project, early adopters typically make up 10 percent of the total fanbase but are responsible for more than 50 percent of the total revenue.)
  • A new community-based monetization model will capitalize on the behaviors of FoWS to unlock massive revenue opportunities. According to Sports Innovation Lab co-founder and CEO Angela Rugiero, “storytelling is queen” in this model, where the highest fan engagement comes on non-linear athlete-focused media extending well before, in-between, and beyond gametime, supplanting a linear approach of stats, scores, and schedules.

The Fan Project report is available for download at www.thefanproject.co. Twenty-seven leagues, brands, and media entities contriubted to The Fan Project, including the WNBA, WWE, NWSL, LPGA, NEhl, WTA and UFC, among others. The consent-based data initiative looked at when fans bet, bought, created streamed content, and performed other behaviors that directly drive revenue to sports organizations, uniquely studying an unparalleled longitudinal view of sports fan behavior (as opposed to the traditional demographic understanding the industry has relied on for decades). Data points were taken from North American fans only (althought can be extrapolated to a global audience), and included a roughly 50-50 mix between men and women. Sports Innovation Lab’s clients include the NFL. NHL, FIFA, Draftkings and Coca-Cola.

“At its core, The Fan Project reveals a new Community-Based Monetization Model that has the potential to unlock billions in revenue for women’s sports and all those who invest,” said Ruggiero, who’s also a four-time Olympic medalist, has held several leadership positions at the highest levels of sport, including the executive board of the International Olympic Committee, and holds both a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard University. “Building on the past five years of Sports Innovation Lab’s industry-leading research in defining and understanding the Fluid Fan, we’ve gone beyond the anecdotal in this new initiative, giving real observational data — what actions fans are actually taking — to present a new model that doesn’t just drive more equity in sport, but guides the industry how to drive more business.”

“Female empowerment and storytelling are in the DNA of the WWE,” said WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon. “With the results of The Fan Project, we now have valuable hard data that proves our commitment to women in sports isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s an undeniably savvy business decision. We look forward to adopting strategies from The Fan Project’s new model to strengthen the emotional connection between our fans and wrestlers.”

The three other key findings in The Fan Project report include:

  • FoWS exhibit behaviors that provide new revenue stream opportunities, including: directly accessing athletes, learning about players, leagues and teams (there has been a 12X growth of FoWS engaging with athlete-driven media around global events in the last five years), and digitally co-watching games (more than 50 percent of women’s sports fans analyzed engaged in some form of co-watching behavior). This data supports the theory that because FoWS were required to become digital natives before the general sports fan in order to access the bulk of relevant content, they have exemplified tech and societal-influenced behaviors (fluid fandom) for longer, and have subsequently become the top respondents to digital campaigns.
  • FoWS watch, converse and buy merchandise in and out of season, and action is driven by more than just the games. There was a 185 percent year-over-year increase in shopping behavior around WNBA merchandise in-season between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and in 2020 shopping behavior remained high after the season ended, at about twice what it was before the season began. And: Purpose-led conversations around Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter drove nearly double (+92 percent) the number of fan conversations during the 2020 WNBA Playoffs and Finals versus the previous year.
  • FoWS reward brands who sponsor women’s sports with an immediate increase in brand engagement and higher levels of brand affinity versus general sports fans. The year-over-year increases: 2700 percent for VISA (following their announcement of equal sponsorship for the USWNT in 2019) and 1075 percent for Budweiser (following their announcement of their NWSL sponsorship in July 2019). NWSL fans were 2.5 times more loyal to Nike following their sponsorship, and Nike saw that fans were 3.4 times more loyal after their WNBA deal.

The Fan Project goes deeper than Sports Innovation Lab’s previous Fluid Fan research. According to the data initiative, the sports world is currently in the “Age of the Fluid Fan,” where digital and tech are the primary ways fans are consuming sports, through streaming or social — and on a device (mobile phone, laptop or tablet) and hyperspecificity is possible. But they’re not just consumers, they’re creatives, developing their own content. (Past eras were first the “Age of the Local Fan,” where fandom was mostly limited to one team and consumed via radio, newspaper and eventually television, or as a spectator — and then the “Age of the Global Fan,” where television came to prominence, then satellite and cable, then OTT and streaming, seeing fandom expand to entire sports, broadly.)

To champion this growing evolution of fans into creatives and in celebration of the report, Sports Innovation Lab has announced two programs to directly support and inspire investment in women’s sports:

  • A grant program awarding up-and-coming women’s sports content creators $1,972 each and company resources to help them further their production and distribution efforts. The amount represents the year Title IX was enacted (1972), with next year representing the 50th anniversary of the passing of the legislation. More information on the grant recipients will be announced at The Fan Project Summit, an event being held in late July to bring together industry leaders around the findings of the report. Register for more information at: thefanproject.co.
  • A partnership with Drake Cereal (@drakecereal on Instagram), a grassroots illustrator known for her pop-art style designs that portray powerful images of women in sport, to create a limited line of merchandise for sale at: shop.thefanproject.co.

About Sports Innovation Lab

Sports business decisions require understanding an ever-changing fan: The Fluid Fan™. Sports Innovation Lab exists to educate clients on who their Fluid Fans are and how technology is changing their behavior. Through our industry-leading fan data and research we inspire brands to create breakthrough fan experiences, and work with the world’s leading sports organizations including the NFL, NHL, NASCAR, FIFA, Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola, Visa, and more.

Our Thoughts

This report will alter the sports landscape as we know it. It is another in a string of recent reports and studies that show the profitability, interest levels, and fan engagement in women’s sports. Our group of analysts will provide their expanded thoughts and insights on this week’s episode of the Leading With the W podcast, which will be recorded live on Spotify Greenroom on Wednesday at 1 pm EST, then will be available for later listening in The Lead’s Podcast tab this Friday.

About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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