Digital Marketing Redux   //   June 27, 2024

More brands are scoring WNBA partnerships

Brands — especially beauty, wellness and skin care ones — are playing ball with the WNBA.

Feminine care product brand The Honey Pot Company is setting up a product display case in the Atlanta Dream’s locker room and adding courtside signage to games. Makeup brand Urban Decay is partnering with the Los Angeles Sparks for the second year in a row, doing players’ makeup before games and hosting events including Pride Night, Fan Appreciation Night and Sparks Player for a Day. Milani Cosmetics is working with athletes for the first time this year and featuring New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu in a new campaign for its Make It Last Setting Spray. And Glossier is working with the WNBA for its fourth consecutive season, putting athletes in advertisements and gifting products to players.

The WNBA has worked with brand partners since 2020 under the program WNBA Changemakers. But more brands are aligning themselves with the WNBA this season amid an increase in game viewership, attendance and coverage. May — the start to the season — was the WNBA’s most-attended opening month in 26 years. The WNBA’s opening game featuring Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark broke records for Disney and ESPN. Approximately 2.45 million people tuned into the WNBA draft in April, more than four times the year before. And, according to Google Trends, searches for “WNBA” spiked more than 1,500% from the beginning of the 2022 season to the beginning of the 2024 season.

Now, brands are taking advantage of those increased eyeballs. Many are using their WNBA partnerships — either with individual players, particular teams or the league as a whole — as an opportunity to reach new audiences, spread brand awareness or show the efficacy of their products. What’s more, Gen Z has a growing interest in basketball, and brands told Modern Retail they wanted to work with athletes who could be positive role models for the next generation.

There are 12 teams in the WNBA — six in the Eastern Conference and six in the Western Conference — so competition for team partnerships is tight. Oftentimes, brands choose to work with teams in the same state. The Honey Pot Company and the Atlanta Dream, for instance, are both based in Atlanta. Urban Decay’s headquarters is in Newport Beach, about 40 miles from where the Los Angeles Sparks play.

Some brands, like Skims and Nike, sponsor the WNBA outright and have their messaging present across games. Other brands, like Puma, work with individual athletes. Breanna Stewart, a New York Liberty forward voted the 2023 MVP, has worked with Puma since 2021. In 2022, Puma and Stewart launched the industry’s first women’s signature basketball shoe in 10 years, the Stewie 1. Stewart’s second shoe, the Stewie 2, came out in 2023.

“The [Stewie] franchise remains a priority for the brand and is a top performer in the women’s basketball category,” a Puma spokesperson told Modern Retail in an emailed statement. Puma also works with WNBA players Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jackie Young, NaLyssa Smith, Katie Lou Samuelson and Madison Siegrist.

While footwear brands are finding success with the WNBA, non-footwear ones are, too. Skin care and beauty brands, in particular, are finding that WNBA players can help showcase the durability of their products. The average basketball player runs 2.55 miles per game and works up a sweat in the first few minutes. Milani’s new Setting Spray campaign is about making makeup last longer, and “that really is a natural fit with athletes,” Milani Cosmetics CMO Jeremy Lowenstein told Modern Retail. “We have lots of products that are all around endurance.”

Likewise, Urban Decay does the Los Angeles Sparks’ makeup before games and finds that players still have it on afterward, Urban Decay’s Head of U.S. Marketing Arnaud Kerviche told Modern Retail. “[Working with] the WNBA was really a good way to show that our main benefit in terms of product is performance,” he said. What’s more, Urban Decay does the players’ makeup for game after-parties, which shows “there’s a versatility of the makeup that we can do,” Kerviche said.

Besides products, brands are doing more with their WNBA partners in regards to community events, promotions and retail media. The Honey Pot has a table at Atlanta Dream games to give out samples and educate attendees about the company, Jazmyn Williams, The Honey Pot’s director of brand marketing, told Modern Retail. The brand will also operate a community clinic in the stadium for teenagers who want to learn more about staying healthy physically and mentally, Williams said.

Urban Decay is doing more with in-stadium signage, especially on the Jumbotron and in the tunnel where players come out onto the court, Kerviche said. The second approach is new this year for Urban Decay.

There is, naturally, a retail component to these partnerships. The Honey Pot gives out complimentary products at some home games and tells game attendees about its partnership with Walmart. “We’ll be hoping to direct traffic to,” Williams said. Still, Williams and other brand executives told Modern Retail that it’s tough to measure the impact of WNBA partnerships on sales, especially when brands are running concurrent marketing campaigns. With that, these companies are finding other ways to try and boost business. Urban Decay, for instance, has invited buyers like Sephora to Los Angeles Sparks games.

Already, brands are pushing out their WNBA or WNBA-adjacent partnerships on social media. Milani’s new campaign, which features Ionescu as well as three non-WNBA athletes, is up on Instagram and TikTok and will continue in other iterations over the next three months. “What you’ve seen is just the tip of the iceberg,” Lowenstein said. Meanwhile, The Honey Pot is planning a content series in which players talk about their favorite products. Those videos will go live later in the summer.

Today, some brands are inking sports partnerships beyond big leagues like the NBA or NFL and partnering with college athletes via lower-cost NIL deals. Sprouts Farmers Market and Keurig, for instance, worked with March Madness players earlier this year. The energy drink company C4 partners with 100 collegiate athletes per month, it previously told Modern Retail.

Krishna Subramanian, CEO of the influencer agency Captiv8, told Modern Retail that brands ultimately stand to win by partnering with athletes. “Brands are always looking for their opportunity to create cultural impact, and this is a perfect opportunity for them to connect with consumers in an up-and-coming and unsaturated medium [like the WNBA],” he said. “Consumers and [sports] fans love brands, but they love creators and athletes even more.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the Stewie 1 was the first signature women’s basketball shoe in 10 years for all brands, not just Puma.