Four months after their official launch, the Women’s Sports Network has secured its first major partner, Michelob ULTRA. The announcement of the yearlong deal comes days after WSN wrapped its coverage of Season 2 of Athletes Unlimited Basketball.
“We see this as a an amazing opportunity that is the right thing to do, but it’s also right for business,” Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Marketing, Michelob ULTRA, told me during a video chat Monday morning.
As an official partner of the network, Michelob ULTRA will support the development of WSN’s original programming, the daily GAME ON studio show and a series The World According to Sage hosted by world champion surfer Sage Erickson. In the second quarter, Erickson will expand her show to discuss and highlight other athletes across a variety of sports.
“The network is on track to have produced over 1500 hours of original programming featuring women athletes,” FAST Studios CEO Stuart McLean told me in an interview Monday morning. “Here at the Women’s Sports Network, we’re built to tell the stories. That allows us to offer to Michelob Ultra the ability to tell these great stories,” McLean said.
“From a storytelling standpoint, it this beautifully connects with our point of view as a brand, which is, it’s only worth it if you enjoy it,” Marques said. “What we actually mean is it’s only worth it if we all enjoy it.”
For years, Michelob ULTRA has over performed with women drinkers compared to other brands. Some attribute that to the beer being seen as the beer for the health conscious. That is, of course, not to say beer is healthy for you. Rather, at 95 calories and 2.5 carbs per 12 ounces, ULTRA hopes to be the beverage choice among highly active and athletic drinkers.
Though true, Marques offers another explanation for the brands growth among women.
“I tend to believe that one of the reasons why Michelob ULTRA is one of the fastest growing brands in the industry today is exactly because it is very healthy in terms of its representation with women drinkers. We also see the fact that the fans are there. So the thirst, let’s say, for women’s sports,” Marques said.
At first, he asked that I excuse his pun, but then leaned into it. Yes, there is a thirst among women and women’s sports fans for more sponsorship dollars and more storytelling. What was missing, Marques told me, were platforms dedicated to these stories.
“Ricardo just prepared you for your tagline with the word thirst,” Carol Stiff, Women’s Sports Network Board of Advisors Chair, said Monday. “I have been parched. I had been waiting to drink.”
Before joining McLean to launch the Women’s Sports Network, Stiff was an ESPN executive and helped grow the networks women’s basketball footprint. Part of that charge was brining us the UConn v Tennessee, or Geno Auriemma vs the late Pat Summitt, rivalry.
Fast forward to today and ESPN is up over 25% year-over-year in both the first and second rounds of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. UConn and Tennessee women’s programs both ranked in the top 10 most watched games in the early rounds of the 2023 tournament.
“You can program it, you can acquire it. You can look for the best windows to put it in. But until support came from the advertisers, it wasn’t going to grow,” Stiff said. “And so now advertisers can demand that they see the women’s sports portfolio, that they want to see women’s sports [amplified] with their dollars.”
And that’s just what companies like Michelob ULTRA have been doing. In 2021, the brand made a commitment to change the visibility of women’s sports. The commitment came with three main pillars – advertising production, talent, and media. The partnership with WSN will satisfy, in some ways, all the pillars and especially the latter.
“As we said back in 2021 This is not a campaign it’s not a stunt. It’s a multi year long term commitment from us at Anheuser-Busch and specifically with with Michelob Ultra. So we’re a long way from where we want to be, but we’re excited with the steps that we’re taking and in particular with this partnership.”
According to the press release, programming will also include behind-the-scenes stories within major moments, NCAA Women of the Year Awards Live, and more. The Women’s Sports Network will additionally supply league-specific digital content across multiple social media platforms.
“I never thought I would say the day,” Stiff said, pausing for a moment to settle into her emotions. “So anyway, I’m drinking. I’m drinking from the firehose now.”
Although Michelob ULTRA is the first major sponsor for the network, Marques hopes they are not the last.
“We are the first brand coming in and we are incredibly proud of that. But we don’t want to be the only brand. We want other brands to join us supporting Carol, Stuart and the mission of the Women’s Sports Network.”
Michelob ULTRA was an early adaptor of a growing trend to decrease media disparity in sports. A year after committing to reach equal media spending across women’s and men’s sports by 2027, Ally Bank has partnered with Sports Innovation Lab to not only sponsor and amplify women’s sports leagues, but to coordinate with other likeminded companies to take investment to the next level.
“There’s so much room for growth. I’m just really excited and thrilled to be part of this team,” Stiff said.
As we see more companies commit to women’s sports, I am curious to see if and how the industry addresses underrepresentation of BIPOC athletes, staff, executives, even in women’s sports.