When Minnesota Aurora FC takes to the TCO Stadium pitch in Eagan later this month to kick off their second season, fans might notice a small patch on the jerseys' right sleeves.
There's another by the right shoulder, plus big banners across the chest and underneath the players' names and numbers on the back.
These are just a few visible examples of brands — in this case, TruStone Financial, Hummel sportswear, Explore Minnesota and Twin Cities Orthopedics — both investing and capitalizing off of women's sports.
"We kept an open mind about possible partners," said Marty Kelly, TruStone's chief marketing officer, of deciding to partner with the pre-professional soccer team. "When the Aurora opportunity presented itself, there was a lot to like about the program, and one of those elements was the fact that while women's athletics is surging in popularity, it is still somewhat unappreciated by advertisers."
TruStone Financial — a Plymouth-based and community-owned credit union with 19 branches — was struggling to gain a better foothold in a crowded Twin Cities banking market. While it's been around since 1939, it's still just the second-largest credit union in the state after Wings Financial Credit Union. But both pale in comparison to big banks, including Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, which ranks No. 1 in the state.
Like many companies, TruStone viewed women's sports as a growing and untapped resource.
An emerging market
In 2021, the credit union became an Aurora FC sponsor, ahead of its USL W League debut in 2022. In addition to the kit patch, TruStone Financial promoted Aurora FC to its 200,000 members through team-branded debit and credit cards.
That led to face-to-face engagement with thousands of fans at Aurora games through the 2022 season as well as millions of impressions through social media posts and online streams of the team's home games on WCCO's digital platform, Kelly said.
That same year, TruStone invested in the University of Minnesota's 50-year celebration of Title IX, the civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in federal-backed education and activities, like sports.
The financial institution had previously sponsored the University's men's and women's athletics but saw a unique opportunity to attach its brand to a positive message honoring the rise in women's sports. The Title IX sponsorship with the University resulted in hundreds of thousands of social media and online impressions for TruStone Financial and thousands of visits to its website, Kelly said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in both 2020 and 2021, women were the primary earners in 39% of U.S. households. Marketing studies show women influence 85% to 90% of consumer purchases, and 80% to 90% of women want advertising and marketing that speak directly to them.
And per a Nielsen global study, 84% of sports fans have an interest in women's sports, with 51% of those being men.
But in a $70 billion global business, only a fraction of corporate sponsorship dollars go to women sports, said David King, vice president of corporate partnerships for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx and NBA counterpart the Timberwolves.
Yet brands are hesitant to step forward for several reasons, experts said. Some women's sports tend to have fewer events, which means fewer televised games and fewer fans through the duration of a season. Front offices are also smaller, and teams don't always have dedicated personnel to handle or secure corporate partnerships.
For many brands, it's a decision between putting ad funding behind an established sports entity with a known following — i.e., a men's team — or an emerging team with a fast-growing audience — like a women's team — said Andrea Yoch, president and co-founder of Aurora FC.
But from the moment Yoch announced the franchise, Aurora's front office has received inquiries from companies "saying they wanted to be a part of it," she said.
Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism agency, is Aurora's marquee sponsor, and Twin Cities Orthopedics also sponsors a shirt patch. The team also has partnerships with Mall of America, Volkswagen of Inver Grove, Cub Foods and Delta Dental.
So far, Aurora is the most sponsored team in the USL W League, Yoch said, with all of its ad inventory sold for the upcoming season.
"It's only been a few years that people have been aware of what a really great product women's sports are," Yoch said. "Now that crowds are there and ratings are there, companies are figuring out this is a great place to spend their money."
Fans at all levels
At the college level, 42% of 180 million college sports fans are women, and women make up 48% of followers interested in college sports on social media, according to Learfield, a collegiate sports marketing company in Texas that operates the Gophers' marketing deals.
In addition to TruStone Financial, brands like UnitedHealth Group, Cub Foods and Dove have sponsored partnerships with Gophers' women's sports.
"It's a low entry point to get in and try something," said Greg Gerlach, vice president and general manager of Learfield's Gopher Sports Properties. "A lot of brands are surprised when they get it. The following of these teams are young teens and older [fans], so there's an opportunity to reach a new audience of customers of all ages."
Minnetonka-basedUnitedHealth Group puts its money behind several women's teams and women's sporting events in Minnesota as recognition of "the importance of supporting strong female role models," the company stated, and as a means to connect with people in its home state.
UnitedHealth is the presenting sponsor of a Lynx program focused on youth wellness and mentorship. It also provided funding for multiple initiatives centered on developing young leaders that happened around the 2022 NCAA Women's Final Four held at Target Center.
The company is one of roughly 40 Lynx corporate partners, which is less than the league average. It's an intentional strategy to not overwhelm fans with ads and give partners top value, King said.
When King joined the organization a decade ago, a majority of the Lynx's sponsorship deals were much smaller, often with local mom-and-pop businesses.
Since 2011, however, the Lynx have won four WNBA championships. And brands want to be associated with winners, regardless of the athletes' genders.
"It's raising the floor of what it means, financially, to be a Lynx partner," King said. "We've done that and have created a floor that's 10 times higher what it was 10 years ago because there's absolute value in association alone."