In the male-centric sports world, where the likes of LeBron James score $65 million in endorsement deals, female athletes have largely been an afterthought. But thanks to a constellation of superstars—including a reenergized U.S. women's soccer team, powerhouse tennis players and UFC's unbreakable Ronda Rousey—more marketing dollars are ending up in the pockets of female sports figures.
With the exception of tennis, women athletes historically have not racked up lucrative contracts with brands. On Forbes' recent list of the world's highest-paid athletes, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were the only women to crack the top 100, racking up $23 million and $13 million in endorsements, respectively. While impressive, those paydays pale in comparison to male tennis stars like Rafael Nadal, who banked $28 million over the last year, and Roger Federer, with $58 million.
But the tide is slowly turning. Williams has landed campaigns for Gatorade, Chase and Beats by Dre, plus many other brands. Rousey teamed up with Carl's Jr., Reebok and MetroPCS, ringing up $3.5 million in endorsements over the last year. Meanwhile, U.S. women's soccer player Alex Morgan, hot off the U.S. team's 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup win, rakes in an estimated $3 million per year from her pacts with Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and others. (Morgan is also featured on the cover of EA Sports' FIFA 16 with Lionel Messi—the first time the game's U.S. edition, available Sept. 22, sports a woman on the cover.)
Peter Laatz, evp of sports marketing firm Repucom, attributes advertisers' growing interest in female athletes to the potent purchasing power of women—who control 70-80 percent of consumer purchases—coupled with the growth of the women's activewear market, with $18 billion in annual sales, per NPD Group.
Laatz observed that brands have finally figured out that female consumers, especially millennials, connect best with authentic stories, and many of those stories are from female athletes.
"The ability to speak to women with a relevant personality versus, say, a burly male athlete with his shoulder pads on, that brings a degree of reliability for women," he said. "These women athletes have different stories that are unfolding, and they're doing things at a more grassroots level."
Take Under Armour. When the brand wanted to move away from its testosterone-heavy image in reaching out to millennial women with its "I Will What I Want" campaign, it enlisted underdog Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater, who rose to the top of her field despite being told her body type didn't fit the bill of a ballerina. "The insight behind the pressures surrounding female athletes and having the inner strength to overcome that, with Misty as a vehicle to tell that story, made the campaign so powerful," said Candice Chen, senior strategist on Under Armour at agency Droga5. Since Copeland's spot premiered in July, it has achieved 10 million views on YouTube, while Under Armour's women's business has grown 60 percent year over year to $600 million.
After Carl's Jr. aired its spot with UFC champ Ronda Rousey, 72andSunny group creative director on Carl's Jr. Justin Hooper pointed out that sales soared. "She's a huge name in a male-dominated sport, and she's at the top of the game," he said. "Her background and work ethic are really impressive. I think the target audience really crave that in a spokesperson."
Added Matt Powell, sports analyst at NPD: "Women have always performed at a high level. But the industry has started to figure out that they're not just celebrities and fashion icons, but athletic heroes as well."
This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.