Authors: Isabell Mills

Corresponding Author:
Isabell Mills, PhD
1400 E Hanna Ave
Indianapolis, IN 46227

Isabell Mills is an assistant professor of sport management
at the University of Indianapolis. Her research areas are sport and fitness

Branding in women’s sports: A literature review


The purpose of this study was to explore the gaps in the branding literature as it pertains to women’s sports. The review included 11 articles from sport management and business journals, investigating personal branding, team branding, and media coverage. Additionally, the review explored the practical implications as well as avenues of future research (i.e., conceptual model).

Keywords: branding, women’s sports, media


According to Nielsen, 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports. Enthusiasm is emerging. For instance, in the WNBA’s 19th season average attendance was over 7, 000; more than the NBA in its 19th season (Griffin, 2016). Moreover, the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game was the most-watched basketball game broadcast on ESPN since the NBA playoffs (“Women’s title game”, 2018). Conversely, only 2-3% of network and cable television coverage of sports is dedicated to women’s sports (Fink, 2015). Additionally, women’s sports accounted for only 0.4% of total sport sponsorships between 2011 and 2013 (Rogers, 2018). Considering the purchasing power of women, this untapped market is prime from a spectator and consumer outlook (Fink, 2015). Although several studies provide a sociological view, few studies have taken a marketing approach when examining women’s sports.

Pursuing brand management strategies is one way to set your business apart in a competitive service brand industry (Williams & Pedersen, 2012). Women’s sports brands are in competition with the dominant men’s sports industry. An improved understanding of branding in women’s sports is needed in order to develop awareness, and ultimately brand equity. The present study aims to explore the literature relative to branding in women’s sports as a foundation for a proposed conceptual model. Thus, providing another avenue for more empirical research in this context while exploring a solution to the minimal consumption of women’s sports.

For the purpose of this study, women’s sports is defined as: individual and team sports played by females at the collegiate and professional level, nationally and internationally.


As the chief branding concept, brand equity is the set of assets and liabilities linked to a brand that adds or subtracts from the value of the brand in the minds of consumers (Aaker, 1991). According to the research, consumer perception is paramount for developing brand equity with service entities (Berry, 2000; Kwan Green, Hill, & Hunt, 2013). Developing service brand equity suggests that an organization has a recognized brand and brand meaning due to the internal promotion of the brands’ message, external brand communications, and customer experiences (Berry, 2000). This study will be the first to explore brand equity in a women’s sports context. Although there are multiple conceptualization of brand equity, consumer-based brand equity will be applied to the current study. Consumer-based brand equity is “the differential effect of brand knowledge on consumer response to the marketing of a brand” (Keller, 1993). Consumer-based brand equity occurs when a consumer is aware of a brand and holds some favorable, strong, and unique brand associations in their mind (Keller).

Brand equity has been conceptualized in the sport and participatory sport segments. Gladden, Milne, & Sutton (1998) developed the first brand equity model in sport. Their model was designed based on Aaker’s (1991) framework of brand equity assets (i.e., brand awareness, brand associations, perceived quality, brand loyalty). Ross (2006) developed a spectator-based brand equity model based on Keller’s (1993) conceptualization of consumer-based brand equity and emphasized the service oriented nature of spectator sport.

Brand-related studies in participatory sport (i.e., health clubs, campus recreational sports) have utilized previous brand association scales to examine consumer behavior (Alexandris, Douka, Papadopoulos, & Kaltsatou, 2008; Williams & Pedersen, 2012; Williams, Pedersen, & Walsh, 2012), and have conceptualized brand equity in campus recreational sports (Robinson & Gladden, 2003; Mills & Williams, 2016).

Although Keller and Aaker’s models have been utilized as the theoretical framework for previous brand equity models in sport, Berry (2000) argued that this conceptualization may not be appropriate for service-oriented brands because the core product is intangible and inherently difficult to differentiate. Therefore, future studies should consider applying Berry’s brand equity framework to women’s sports.


Primary and secondary channels of information were accessed through a review of sport management journals. Seven journals were identified: (Journal of Sport Management, Sport Management Review, Sport Marketing Quarterly, European Sport Management Review, International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing, International Journal of Sport Management and Sponsorship, and International Journal of Sport Management). These seven journals were selected based upon Shilbury’s (2011a, 2011b) bibliometric analysis of the field of sport management which identified these outlets as the leading publications in terms of quality and longevity. Additionally, Google Scholar was used to search for relevant publications. Search terms included: branding and women’s sports, brand equity and women’s sports. The use of primary and secondary channels of information to identify articles for review aligns with Cornwell and Maignan’s (1998) approach. In total, eleven articles were included in the review with publication dates ranging from 2008-2018.


Three categories of research were identified: personal branding, team branding, and media coverage. Personal branding relates to professional female athletes while research related to team branding has investigated brand equity among professional women’s sports teams (i.e., net ball, soccer). The final category of research examined the relationship between media coverage and branding opportunities for women’s sports.

Specifically, personal branding pertains to studies that have examined the tactics and barriers that female athletes face (Lobpries et al., 2018; Parris et al., 2014). This includes how female athletes represent themselves on social media as well as the products and corporations they endorse (Cortsen, 2013; Toffoleti & Thorpe, 2018).

The next category relates to branding in professional women’s sports teams includes a rebranding case that implies increases in team brand equity due to the introduction of a new product (Cortsen, 2017), as well as marketing trends and image perceptions (Mårtensson, 2010). Additionally, this category of research investigates brand equity constructs such as brand personality or associations of a professional women’s netball team (Heere, 2017). Moreover, this particular research explores connections between gendered brands (i.e., WNBA), self-brand connections and attitude strength (Moore & Homer, 2008).

The last category addresses research that analyzes media coverage of intercollegiate sport teams. The research examined the amount of coverage dedicated to women’s teams on athletic department websites (Cooper, 2008; 2009). Moreover, the authors of this research allude to importance of media coverage as an opportunity for branding women’s sports.

The primary research methods employed in the review include: surveys, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, case studies, and thought listing. The secondary research methods employed in the review include: content analysis. Lastly, conceptual research included articles in which scholars advance their ideas based on theory, trends and concepts without presentation of empirical data. The following table provides a summary of the research assessed in the study.

Author(s), Year Theoretical/Conceptual Framework Context Research Type
Cooper, 2008, 2009 NA Women’s collegiate team sports Secondary
Cortsen, 2013 NA Women’s golf Primary
Cortsen, 2017 Brand management Women’s soccer Primary
Heere, 2017 Brand personality Women’s netball Primary
Lobpries, Bennett, & Briso, 2018 Brand identity Elite female athletes Primary
Mårtensson, 2010 Discourse theory Brand management/Hegemonic masculinity Women’s football (soccer) Secondary
Moore & Homer, 2008 Social identity Women’s professional sport Primary
O’Reilly & Braedley, 2008 Athlete-clothing relationship Women’s tennis Conceptual
Parris et al., 2014 NA Female wakeboarder Primary
Toffoleti & Thorpe, 2018 Athletic labour of femininity Professional female athletes Conceptual


This review reflects an initial exploration branding in women’s sports. Within the research selection process, the search for journal articles was initially limited to sport journals. Although an expansive search of mainstream business journals was employed, findings were minimal. This furthers the assertion that more substantial research in this context is needed. Additionally, the researcher only examined literature published in English, which doesn’t account for knowledge developed in other languages.

The purpose of this review was to provide a summary of sport management research conducted on branding in women’s sport. The current review analyzed prior research insights regarding the branding endeavors of individual female athletes, women’s team sports, and the role of media coverage in relation to building brands for women’s sports. The categories provide directions for future branding research as it pertains to women’s sports from the perspective of sport managers and stakeholders of women’s sports. Moreover, opportunities exist to build upon this research in scope. Specifically, research regarding branding women’s sports can benefit from variation in terms of the theoretical frameworks applied, methods used and research contexts examined. For instance, a large portion of the articles in this review pertain to individual athlete brands rather than team sports brands.

The current study illuminates the need for more conceptual and empirical examinations of brand equity in women’s sports. With minimal literature available related to brand equity in this context, the foundational work must be conceptual. Therefore, developing a conceptual model is optimal. Furthermore, as practitioners look for ways to improve consumption and overall revenue regarding women’s sports, continued research may provide a basis for improving the overall marketing of women’s sports. Hopefully, this review and the subsequent suggestions for future research provide a foundation for sport management researchers with interest and expertise in this continually developing context.




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