SPORTS Women's sports 'not a specific moment but a movement'...

Women’s sports ‘not a specific moment but a movement’ for Disney ad sales team

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Alexis Morris of the LSU Lady Tigers drives to the basket against Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament championship game, Disney’s most-viewed college basketball game.
Source: Tom Pennington via Getty Images.

➤ Disney is finalizing a couple of multiplatform women’s cross-sports deals under its recently introduced Level Up initiative.

The company has sold 80% of its game inventory in the women’s March Madness basketball tournament and is looking to leverage the tournament’s popularity to help push other properties.

➤ Viewers can expect to see more women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and softball air on ABC.

Walt Disney Co. is leaning in on women’s sports. In 2023, Disney’s various linear, digital and streaming platforms — including broadcast network ABC (US), flagship cable channel ESPN (US) and direct-to-consumer offering ESPN+ — will carry some 33,000 hours of women’s contests. As audiences for women’s sports have grown in recent years, so have commitments from the advertising community, with more brands intent on securing connections with various women’s competitions.

S&P Global Market Intelligence recently caught up with Jacqueline Dobies, vice president of revenue and yield management at Disney Advertising, to discuss the rising interest in women’s sports both from viewers and advertisers. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: So, Disney/ESPN’s women’s sports have a lot of, er, game. Across platforms, the company is presenting more than 18,000-plus events across more than 33,000 hours this year.

SNL Image
Jacqueline Dobies, vice president of revenue and yield management at Disney Advertising
Source: Disney.

Jacqueline Dobies: This has been part of our work here at Disney for a long time. It’s great to see women’s sports getting the attention it deserves. It’s such a good story and one we believe in.

It’s not a specific moment but a movement. There are gains from an audience perspective from the collegiate level to the professionals. The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship was our most-viewed college basketball game, men’s or women’s, while the WNBA Finals was the most-watched in 20 years. Coca Gauff’s win at the US Open tennis championships was the most-watched women’s Grand Slam event on ESPN. The 2023 Women’s College World Series, our second-largest sporting event, averaged 1.06 million viewers, with eight of the 14 games exceeding 1 million viewers. And for the second year, two of the games were on ABC.

Are advertisers looking to secure women’s-only sports schedules?

We’ve seen a lot of interest in women’s schedules, while others are buying both. Many more clients say we want to match what we spend on men’s platforms.

Who are some of the top players?

Capital One is one of the longest-running and most consistent women’s sports sponsors on ESPN platforms; Google has expanded with WNBA. We also have an innovative partnership with Ally Bank that we kicked off this year.

What can you say about the Ally deal?

It’s a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment intentionally designed to advance equality in women’s sports coverage. The deal is anchored in promoting women’s sports and telling the stories of female athletes across the ACC. The brand was the first-ever title sponsor of the 2023 ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and Ally will be the title sponsor of the ACC Women’s Soccer Championships for the next three seasons.

This summer, there was also a “SportsCenter” takeover with Ally, including custom content, emphasizing women in sports.

And you have the Level Up initiative, which asks brands to spend more on women’s sports content across platforms.

This is the first year; it was part of our upfront. We saw a need for this in the market as advertisers see the size and growth of women’s sports. We’re looking for intentional advertisers to level up, to spend more, so we can continue to invest more in the sustained growth of women’s sports.

The goal is to amplify women’s sports through media and sponsorship. There are also research and activations, including at our ESPN W summit.

Early returns?

There is definitely a lot of interest. We’re close with a couple of deals. Given the depth of the partnerships, it’s taking some time to level all the unique details.

What kind of overall growth has Disney seen with women’s sports this year?

Across the entire portfolio, revenue is up 30% and continues to grow. Over the past four years, the growth is over 200%. The audience has grown exponentially. It’s very rare when audience growth is matched by demand.

There has been a migration of some key women’s volleyball, softball, gymnastics and basketball events from the ESPN platform to ABC. Does that raise the profile and ratings as well?

Our strategy includes taking key content for premium opportunities. Disney acts as a megaphone to celebrate women’s sports. This has been a key part of our success, and you will see more of that.

Can you talk about the women’s basketball tournament where you saw a record 9.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN2 for the LSU-Iowa final last April?

The women’s tournament is the crown jewel of our women’s sports, especially over the last few years. More advertisers are looking to secure schedules earlier than ever before.

Where are you on the sell-through level for the 2024 tournament?

Eighty percent. It would be much higher if we acted on advertiser interest during the upfront. We’re using the demand in the tournament to support other properties like gymnastics.

So you left some tournament dollars on the table to help trigger sales for other assets?

Exactly. We’re using it to create awareness of and opportunities within other properties. These are easy conversations.

Oklahoma has a 53-game winning streak and won three softball titles in a row, six of the last 10. It’s akin to the dominant run UConn women’s basketball team enjoyed. Is it good for women’s sports to have such a dominant team that fans either love or loathe?

I’m good with whatever gets fans talking about women’s sports. From an advertising perspective, the interest sparks more around storylines than specific teams. Everybody was interested in the Angel Reese-Caitlin Clark story as part of last year’s women’s basketball championship. We’re seeing that again this year.

Also, I’m interested to see the continuing impact of [athletes earning money for use of their name, image and likeness] in the college ranks and how that raises the profile of the athletes and brings more awareness as they move into the professional ranks. There is certainly more attention around women’s sports on other networks. It’s also great to hear our Stephen A. Smith and others talk about Caitlin Clark. Advertisers are also interested in being around those conversations on our TV and social platforms.

ESPN’s rights deal for the NCAA men’s and women’s Division 1 championships expires at the end of the 2023-24 academic year. There are reports that NCAA is looking to sell women’s basketball separately. What can you say?

We don’t know that we know how the negotiating situation will pan out. As I said, the women’s basketball tournament is the crown jewel. It’s very important to us.

I assume you would like to retain as many of those other NCAA championships as possible. But others are in the game, too. Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. properties presented a women’s basketball doubleheader and holds rights to the US women’s national soccer team. NBC Sports added a ton of women’s basketball games under its Big Ten rights pact. FOX (US) aired women’s volleyball in different windows on an NFL Sunday and garnered very strong audiences.

Heightened competition for rights helps women’s sports grow, and we welcome that type of competition. Women’s sports have been a major part of Disney for a long time. We don’t see that changing any time soon.

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