Nielsen Insights: Breaking the Bias Against Women's Sport

The Impact of Influencers, Gaming and Equal Opportunities
Apr 20, 2022 10:00 AM ET

Originally published on Nielsen Insights

Impact of Influencers

In March, many brands celebrated women, with many embracing the #breakingthebias theme of International Women’s Day. With the ongoing fight for women’s rights globally, brands can amplify the effectiveness of their efforts by working with the top women influencers in the world of sports and gaming, two traditionally male-dominated areas.

In sports, gender equity has some way to go, but fans are helping drive change. According to our 2021 Trust in Advertising study, over half of global audiences trust influencer marketing, but 66% trust brand sponsorships in the sporting events that they watch. In fact, 61% of fans in the U.S. specifically name gender equality as the cause they are most passionate about. For brands that want to show that they are being inclusive, aligning their events and influencer marketing is a great way to engage sports fans.

Last year, female athletes made headlines for championing change during the Olympics when they took a knee in support of racial equity, and again this year when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team successfully won their fight for fair pay. Their performance, fanbase and advocacy make these athletes a great choice for brands that want to show their commitment to being more inclusive. For example, as brands look to connect with youth, it’s important that they understand that mental health is one of the most difficult issues that the youth are facing today. One way to create a more authentic connection is to work with a top athlete influencer like Simone Biles, who has been vocal about her own mental health journey.

In addition, female athletes have global appeal. Naomi Osaka is one of the top 10 female athlete influencers. She was the first Asian athlete to reach the No. 1 ranking in singles for tennis and the highest-earning female athlete in the World. While she plays for Japan, over 40% of Osaka’s fanbase is in the U.S.

Gaming and esports

With the rise in popularity of gaming and esports in recent years, professional players are increasingly building loyal fanbases and have expanded their influence in popular media, business and advocacy. That influence is so great, that the top 10 most influential women gamers have an engagement rate1 of 11.7%, according to Nielsen InfluenceScope, almost three times more than other influencers with similar follower numbers.

That level of engagement is a big accomplishment, in the light of the discrimination women face in the online gaming world. In a recent female gamer survey, both men and women indicated experiencing abuse, but female gamers are more likely to experience sexual harassment and being excluded from the game. Even Pokimane, who is the top most influential2 female gamer, according to Nielsen InfluenceScope, recently chose to end her stream abruptly after another streamer started a hate raid against her.

With a tremendous opportunity to join the fight against the discrimination against women in gaming, brands can look to working with the most influential female gamers who are speaking up against the sexism and holding their own in the gaming community. Valkyrae, who is the second-most influential female gamer, according to Nielsen InfluenceScope, has an even higher engagement rate of 16%. She has been particularly outspoken about encouraging young women to continue to play for the love of the game. As co-owner of esports teams and business 100 Thieves, recently valued at $460 million, she has also led by example and inspired her followers. In 2021, women accounted for nearly 46% of all gamers in the U.S. In Asia, women now make up 40%-45% of the Asian gaming population. Working with female influencers is a winning move for brands looking to create an authentic connection with their consumers.

Equal opportunity for athletes, fans and sponsors

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is known for winning on the field, and now they’ve won in their fight for fair pay following a long court battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation. But the pursuit of gender equity in sports includes more than compensation—and fans are leading in the evangelism.

Research from Nielsen Sports highlights the extent to which fans want change sooner rather than later. Not only do fans broadly expect leagues, teams and athletes to take a stand on societal issues they care about, 61% of fans in the U.S. specifically name gender equality as the cause they are most passionate about. That goes for fair pay of athletes across genders to equal airtime on TV for their events.

In addition to outcries from fans, leagues, sponsors and athletes are helping close the gap as well—and the efforts are paying off. An expanded TV deal in 2021 that made it easy for fans to find the Women’s Super League in the U.K. stands out as one of the most dramatic examples, as it led to a 542% increase in viewership. Fans in the U.S. also responded in a big way to the increased coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament—a move that doubled the audience reach in the first round of the 2021 women’s tournament compared to 2019.

For brands to deepen engagement with the ever growing female fanbase, it’s also important to consider relevant content and activation around men’s sports. A recent analysis of Super Bowl LVI ads leveraging Nielsen Ad Intel and found that 30% of the ads during the game featured women in the creative, lagging their representation in TV content of 43%, according to Gracenote Inclusion Analytics. Considering that women of color over age 50 are key drivers of weekly NFL ratings performance, increased representation of women in brand messaging throughout sports will help brands connect with some of the league’s most loyal fans. That goes for esports as well, as Nielsen Esports Fan Insights data shows that globally the female esports fan base grew by 19% in the last year, outpacing 12% growth among the male fan base.

What’s next for gender equity in sports? A recent Nielsen analysis found that media coverage of women’s sports still significantly lags men’s sports coverage. Making games more accessible to fans is a great first step, providing more opportunities for audiences and sponsors to connect. The sports commentary and analysis that complements those broadcasts should expand their coverage as well. Fans around the world are telling leagues and sponsors they’re ready for more when it comes to women’s sports.

Orginally published on Nielsen Insights