Research in Progress: Corporate social advocacy in women’s sports
June 29, 2021
By Dunja Antunovic, University of Minnesota; Nicole M. LaVoi, University of Minnesota; Katie Lebel, Ted Rogers School of Management; Nancy Lough, University of Nevada Las Vegas; Ceyda Mumcu, University of New Haven; and Ann Pegoraro, University of Guelph
In 2020, women’s sports leagues in the United States saw remarkable commercial success. As we noted in our article for The Conversation, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) viewership numbers exponentially increased, social media engagement went up, and merchandise sold out.
Over the last few years, women’s sports leagues, teams, and athletes have taken a stand on social issues such as gender equity, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights through statements, marketing initiatives, community partnerships, and merchandizing. In fact, the WNBA’s 2018 ticket sales campaign quite literally urged the fans to “Take a Seat, Take a Stand.” In 2020, during the time of nation-wide protests, athletes, teams, and leagues posted a wide range of statements and varying language around inclusion, diversity, and social justice. In 2021, some teams such as the OL Reign in the NWSL, switched from the typical strategy to sell ad space on the front of the team’s jerseys and, instead, featured the name of a Black women-led collective. These are just a few of the examples of ways in which women’s sports leagues and teams are actively communicating about social justice issues.
We know based on previous research, including the work of Page Center scholars, that sports-related brands and organizations have embraced corporate social advocacy (CSA) and that these campaigns have implications for consumers’ attitudes and purchase intentions. We also know that, because women’s sports tend to receive minimal coverage in mainstream media, digital communication strategies employed by women’s sports teams are even more important for telling compelling stories that reach their audience and reflect their organization accurately.
These efforts have significant practical and theoretical implications for public relations, relationship marketing, and branding—as well as corporate social advocacy.
Our research examines CSA from the perspective of professional women’s sports organizations in the United States. We plan on interviewing sport organization staffers who oversee communications-related functions, including public relations, digital media, marketing, and community relations. Our goal is to better understand the challenges and opportunities women’s sports teams’ experience when using digital media for corporate social advocacy.
This study is situated in relation to research in sport communication, sport management, sport sociology, and public relations. While there are plethora of studies on the uses of digital media in sport, on sport organizations’ corporate social responsibility initiatives, and even on CSA in sport-related campaigns, the majority of these studies focus on the context of men’s sports.
Focusing on women’s sports leagues and teams in research is important because these organizations are still in marginalized positions within the sport industry and face unique challenges in relation to staffing and resources. These conditions require different communication practices than those employed by men’s organizations. To fill this gap in research, the first part of our study will ask staffers broader questions regarding the objectives of their targeted digital media.
The financial viability and the visibility of women’s sports is increasing at the same time that messaging related to social issues is becoming more prominent. According to Zoomph’s 2020 data on sports leagues and teams, purpose-driven posts can “fuel engagement if properly employed” and drive change. As such, the second part of our study asks staffers how their organization uses digital media to communicate about social issues and how they perceive the opportunities and challenges of digital platforms for corporate social advocacy.
This project is one of the several studies conducted by our multidisciplinary research team examining the changing elements of the women’s sports ecosystem. For more information about our research, visit the Tucker Center for Research on Girls &Women in Sport website and listen to our Tucker Center Talks podcast.
For more information about this study, email Antunovic at firstname.lastname@example.org. Results of this study will be available next year. This study is a part of the Center’s 2021 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants call for research proposals focusing on corporate social advocacy.