The month of March features two annual celebrations that, at first glance, may not necessarily seem to be linked – Women’s History Month and NCAA March Madness®.

This year, though, as the calendar flips to April and the official month-long commemoration of women’s contributions to American history draws to a close, the NCAA has made a bit of history of its own. For the first time, the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship is being marketed under the same March Madness® branding that, prior to 2022, had been the exclusive domain of the men’s tournament.

Viewed in isolation, the NCAA’s move may not be monumental. But in a year that includes a landmark settlement in a pay-equity lawsuit filed by US women’s soccer players and the 50th anniversary of the historic Title IX legislation governing gender equity in sports, March Madness® becomes another milestone in the continuing quest to level the proverbial playing field.

With that backdrop, this latest installment of our Audience Insights series focuses on five findings that can help marketers better understand and engage with female sports fans:

1. Female fans are sports fans – not just fans of women’s sports.

In a study encompassing two decades of college sports viewership, Learfield’s Empowering the Influence of the Female Fan report found that female fans make up approximately one-third of the typical viewing audience for Women’s College Basketball – the same share female viewers traditionally represent for College Football telecasts. Cox Media analysis of Nielsen national data from the 2021 NCAA basketball national championship games shows similar results. Female viewers represented 43% of the average TV audience for last season’s women’s title game on ESPN and 39% of the audience for the men’s championship game on CBS.

2. Female sports fans tend to be more engaged with their favorite teams.

The same Learfield report found that women represent 42% of the overall college sports fan base. By comparison, women represent almost half (48%) of the social media followers in college sports, indicating that female fans are more engaged than their male counterparts when it comes to following their favorite team on social media. In another indicator of engagement, Learfield finds that female college sports fans are 28% more likely to wear team-branded apparel leading up to a game.

3. Greater engagement among female sports fans leads to more co-viewing.

The Sports Innovation Lab’s Fan Project report includes a study of common community-based behaviors among female sports fans. Co-watching televised and streamed sporting events was far and away the most frequently observed behavior – outpacing sports wagering, for example, by a nearly 9-to-1 margin. “Fans of women’s sports,” the report concludes, “want to watch, and they want to watch together.”

4. Female sports fans are more likely to stream live sports.

The Learfield report found that female college sports fans have a median age of 48.8 – a full three years younger than their male counterparts. That younger skew and a higher-than-average viewing propensity for sports not as commonly featured on traditional broadcast and cable TV networks (e.g., gymnastics and volleyball) points to female fans “likely turning to streaming services and other digital methods” to follow their favorite sports and teams. Tapping into this part of the female fan phenomenon, Fast Studios announced in February the launch of the Women’s Sports Network, a free ad-supported streaming service featuring around-the-clock coverage of women’s sports.

5. Female sports fans influence a fortune in consumer spending.

According to the Learfield report, the female college sports fan “influences 85% of all consumer spending power.” From a brand perspective, Sports Innovation Lab’s Fan Project reports that Nike has enjoyed twofold and threefold lifts in brand affinity among female sports fans as a result of sponsoring the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and WNBA, respectively. For all of Nike’s success, though, Learfield’s report notes that opportunities abound for businesses of all sizes to better connect with female fans: “Research suggests that 80-90% of women report feeling that advertisers and marketers do not seem to understand or cater to them.”

Putting the pieces together produces a roadmap for local advertisers looking to increase their influence among female sports fans. To say it another way, the conclusion of March Madness® can mark the beginning of a refined marketing strategy built around Cox Media’s sports programming opportunities and incorporating these key conclusions from Learfield:

1. Create authentic and trustworthy marketing content targeted specifically to female sports fans

2. Leverage traditional, digital, and social media platforms to maximize reach among female fans

Follow us here for more Audience Insights updates, and feel free to contact Cox Media with any questions!