Tokyo Olympics: The tipping point for brand investment in female athletes

The Tokyo Games will highlight the unmistakable opportunity that now exists with women’s sports.
22 July 2021
Female athletes in the Olympic Games
Ross Tucker

Executive Editor, New York, US

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The business rationale for brands investing exclusively in men’s sports and male athletes has, for decades, been reduced to a simple argument - the audience for women's sports was too small to justify the expense. But TV ratings for women’s sports have steadily been on the rise and athletes such as Simone Biles, Alex Morgan and Katie Ledecky have earned international acclaim and appeal. This movement is proceeding in lockstep with larger trends around the push for equal pay, rights, and opportunities in the culture at large.

The Tokyo Olympic Games should drive home the point that there’s an unmistakable opportunity that now exists with women’s sports. Brands with enough foresight will recognize these Games as the catalyst for future brand investment in female athletes and sports.

Putting the audience argument to bed

The success of the WNBA and the US Women’s Soccer Team have established that a considerable audience for women's sports already exists. Our own research shows that there’s no gender gap when considering the entertainment value of women's sports. According to the Kantar Sports MONITOR's 2021 Fan Engagement study, a majority of men and women sports fans find women’s sports to be "as entertaining or more entertaining than men’s sports." Nearly 60% of male respondents said they agreed with that statement.

Not only are men and women finding the same entertainment value in women’s sports, they're looking for more of it. 61% of those we surveyed, and nearly 60% of men, said they would watch more women’s sports on TV or online if more options were available.

The power of the games remains

Few run-ups to the Olympic Games have been as fraught and tentative as the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Postponed for a year due to the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Games will be held without the usual throng of fans cheering for their home country athletes. It’s no exaggeration to state that the atmosphere surrounding the Tokyo Games will be unlike any in Olympic history.

However, the Summer Olympics in particular have been a cornerstone event, with its larger range of country participants and more popular games increasing viewership. This dynamic has been reflected in each of the last two summer events, with each achieving new highs in revenue. Kantar estimates a total advertising revenue from the Tokyo Olympics to reach an all-time high of $2.25 billion, up 20% over the 2016 Games in Rio. (Digital and streaming viewing as well as ad spend are also growing, but broadcast television continues to make up the majority of spend.) 

Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of U.S. sports fans enjoy the Summer Olympics, making it the second-most popular sporting event behind the Super Bowl according to Kantar Sports MONITOR's 2021 Fan Engagement study.

While brands are expected to cautiously navigate the concerns surrounding COVID-19 and the Olympics, the games remain an enormous tent pole event that can significantly stimulate a brand’s rebound in second half. Sponsors should be prepared to explain how their involvement in the Games was done in a manner that put the health and wellbeing of people over the desire for profits. Placing a further bet on the female athletes of the Games, and on female sports going forward, could pay even bigger dividends. 

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