March Madness just got more sane, thanks to Aflac

Author: Cameron Wicker

Women athletes have long been viewed as different from men.

Not as serious. Not as strong. In it for the comradery, fun and friendship. And worst of all, not as commercially viable as men's sports.

In 2021 the NCAA men's and women's Final Four tournament was held in the same city so teams could bubble during Covid. Oregon player Sedona Price created a TikTok video that went viral. It showed the men's sprawling, fully stocked workout room juxtaposed with the women's workout rooma paltry single stack of barely-there hand weights. Initially the NCAA blamed the disparity on lack of space, but the truth was evident even before they eventually fixed it: there is a glaring divide in how elite women athletes are viewed.

Last month, Tiger Woods had to apologize after a sexist prank. Tiger outdrove Justin Thomas during the Genesis Invitational, then slipped a tampon in Justin's hand implying the weaker shot was "playing like a girl." Of course, there was backlash. Even as Tiger backpedaled and apologized, the incident shone yet another light on how women athletes can be trivialized. 

But things are changing. Late last year Jen Barnes opened Rough & Tumble in Seattlehallelujah, a women's-first sports bar! Eighteen screens prioritizing women's sports. Which means no more calling ahead to see if the bar will be playing the women's game...and no more getting bumped by the men's schedule. I visited on Saturday afternoon and found the bar filled with equal numbers of women and men watching and cheering on women's college basketball.

And for this year's NCAA Final Four, Aflac announced what may (finally) topple the argument that women's sports are not a commercial draw. Aflac's CMO was watching the inequities unfold during November's Las Vegas Invitational. A player with a head injury waited 45 minutes for paramedics to arrive. Players were asked to use their own hotel towels as sweat towels. Why were the nation's best women college basketball players being treated this way?

The Aflac team wondered 'what can we do as marketers to help better support women's college basketball?' Immediately, Aflac shifted their activation dollars from the men's Final Four to the women's, meaning the ubiquitous advertiser will have three times as many spots in the women's tournament.

To give credit where it's due, many brands support men's and women's sports. Our financial services client, Symetra, is a title sponsor of the Seattle Storm and has Sue Bird as their spokesperson. That's progress!

To my knowledge, though, Aflac is the first advertiser to completely shift dollars from men's to women'sit's a financial statement that speaks volumes. And one that will hopefully dispel the notion that women's sports aren't lucrative enough for the limelight. 

Agencies and clients, let's take a page from Aflac's playbook and put our money where our mouths are when it comes to leveling the playing field.