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How One Media Buyer Quietly Snatched Up 35% of Commercials in Iowa-LSU Women’s Basketball Game

The outsized audience for this week’s highly-watched women’s NCAA basketball match between Iowa and LSU may also have noticed that many of the commercials seen during the game belonged to AT&T, State Farm, Home Depot and Gatorade. There was good reason.

Optimum Sports, a media agency that specializes in sports properties and is part of ad giant Omnicom Group, had quietly snatched up 35% of advertising time during the game, a record setter in terms of viewership for women’s sports and the latest example of how interest in female players and the leagues in which they play is booming. The match-up drew 12.3 million viewers — more than any individual game from the 2023 World Series or 2023 Stanley Cup Finals.

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“We placed a huge bet, and it came up for our clients,” says Jeremy Carey, chief investment officer at Optimum Sports, in an interview. The agency’s spend around the Women’s NCAA basketball tournament — televised by Disney’s ESPN, not the joint venture between Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery that has rights to the March Madness men’s tournament — increased by 88% over last year. It is helped in 2024 by the fact that AT&T and Home Depot are corporate sponsors with the NCAA, a marketing alliance that gives them first dibs on particular commercial opportunities.

More is likely on the way. With streaming video drawing away viewers who might once have gathered at a certain time and on a particular date, sports is proving to be the one format that keeps drawing the large, simultaneous crowds that advertisers and video distributors crave. All the media industry has to do is create more of it — not necessarily the simplest of tasks.

As the ratings suggest, interest in women’s sports is growing among both audiences and advertisers. A separate Monday-night game between UConn and USC delivered 6.7 million viewers. WPP’s GroupM media-investment arm announced last week that it intended to double the amount of money its clients spend on women’s sports in 2024, and had tapped adidas, Ally, Coinbase, Discover, Google, Mars, Nationwide, Unilever and NBCUniversal’s Universal Pictures to develop a new marketplace for women’s sports in the TV industry’s annual “upfront” market, when TV networks try to sell the bulk of their commercial time in advance of their next cycle of programming.

Optimum, part of Omnicom Media Group, a direct competitor of GroupM, opened a separate women’s sports practice in 2021, but didn’t unveil it to the overall market, says Carey. “Everyone wants to talk about women’s sports, and it’s only going to drive up the prices,” he quips. “That’s the reality.”

Optimum works to distinguish itself by doing more than using its clients’ dollars to reserve commercial time, say the executives. Optimum helped craft bespoke ads for its clients, including some for State Farm and Gatorade that used Caitlin Clark. Optimum in November of last year negotiated a promotional pact between the insurance giant and Clark.

“Part of our strategy is putting the best piece of creative where it will resonate with the consumer,” says Kristen Gray, managing director at Optimum Sports.

Another is jumping early into areas of likely interest. Already, says Gray, Optimum sees potential with Olympians such as Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, both of whom may be taking part in their last Olympics later this year.

“You have got a lot of people jumping in” to women’s sports, she says. “We will find more white space and we are going to create areas of opportunity.”

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