Are Female Athletes Finally Poised to Become Beauty’s Superstars?
Chicago Sky forward Isabelle Harrison remembers the precise moment she felt most overlooked by the beauty industry as a female athlete.
It came during the fall of 2021 — just before Harrison’s fifth WNBA season — when Colourpop released a collection of themed eye shadow palettes paying homage to six NBA teams, including the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was one of the first times I really felt irritated by a beauty brand,” said Harrison, who had inked her first beauty deal with Neutrogena not long before then, and would go on to become a Glossier ambassador two years later. “To base the collection on NBA teams knowing there’s an entire women’s league, and you’re catering to a predominantly female audience — it felt like a missed opportunity on their part.”
Though it was clear to Harrison how an NBA partnership — one that marked the league’s first beauty foray at that — could quickly prove lucrative for any brand, beauty’s prevailing unwillingness to play a longer game, so to speak, in betting on female athletes, felt disconcerting.
That status quo has steadily been changing, though, as brands across hair care, makeup and skin care increasingly tap into the professional and collegiate female athlete pools as a means to further their reach, representation and — importantly — storytelling.
The WNBA, which reported a 21 percent increase in viewership in 2023 versus the 2022 season, has proven a key avenue, while other buzzy sports like tennis and Formula 4 are also emerging as ripe for the beauty treatment — to which brands like La-Roche Posay and Anastasia Beverly Hills can attest.
“We’re turning this corner where athletes are emerging as the ‘super women’ of endorsers,” said Rheann Engelke, director of athletic marketing at talent agency Range Sports.
“They’re dynamic in the sense that their makeup has to endure extreme conditions; they’re as gorgeous and influential as these straight makeup influencers we’re seeing, and they touch that world of celebrity — they’re like this one-stop power shop as ambassadors.”
Added Leslie Hall, founder of Iced Media: “A lot of your typical beauty creators are becoming pretty saturated in terms of the number of brands they’re promoting — it can be beneficial to look outside of that core beauty creator community that feels like it’s working with a different product every week.”
Because female athletes are still relatively nascent partners to the world of beauty, brands appear to be clamoring to inaugurate as many “firsts” as possible in their realm.
In 2020, Glossier’s multiyear sign-on as the WNBA’s first official beauty partner set the stage for a flurry of beauty deals to come for the sport. Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern Beauty signed with the Washington Mystics in 2022; Mielle Organics joined as the league’s first official textured hair care partner in 2023, and Nyx Professional Makeup announced its partnership with New York Liberty during the Brooklyn-based team’s lively 2023 championship run — one of the few bright spots of an overall lackluster year for New York sports.
LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Sephora will kick off the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic games as an official sponsor of the Olympic Torch Relay — one component of the French conglomerate’s broader inaugural sponsorship of the games — while Procter & Gamble is set to continue its longtime sponsorship of the Olympics in Paris with a series of yet-to-be-revealed activations.
Brands are also paying attention to the high-revenue world of college athletics following recent policy changes allowing student athletes to monetize their brand through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals.
One college sports star in particular — Louisiana State University forward Angel Reese — quickly climbed onto brands’ radars during the lead-up to her team’s historic basketball title win last April. Reese’s talent and charisma have so far garnered her more than 2.6 million TikTok followers, and deals with brands like Reebok, Tampax and Mielle, the latter of which signed a one-year partnership with her last May.
“She was definitely a bull’s-eye target for our Gen Z audience, but we also saw she was resonating with Millennials — she brought a level of fanfare and attention to the sport that just hadn’t been seen before,” said Mielle president Omar Goff.
Data from CreatorIQ indicates that during the first six months of her Mielle ambassadorship, Reese garnered $296,500 in earned media value for the brand across 17 posts, making her Mielle’s eighth-biggest EMV driver during the period.
Most of this EMV came from Reese’s TikTok page, which saw a number of “Get Ready With Me” videos featuring Mielle products, promotion of a limited-edition bundle of her favorite products by the brand, and a commercial in which she appeared alongside Mielle cofounder and chief executive officer Monique Rodriguez, which also aired on Hulu and other streaming platforms.
Though Reese’s current contract with the brand ends in May, Goff said that “for as long as she’s willing and Mielle is willing, I’d love to see, five to 10 years down the line, during her career in the WNBA — we remain partners.”
Mielle is also investing in other sports on college campuses, having recently teamed up with the Howard swim team and Florida A&M University’s cheer team, with other potential partnerships of the like on the horizon.
“This is not a short-term game for us; focusing on women’s sports and shining a light on those which have traditionally been ignored by beauty brands is going to be a core strategy we invest in for years to come,” said Goff, adding that it’s “hard to attribute which sport is driving the business more; I think it’s our unwavering commitment to the strategy, our showing up authentically and not just showing up for a moment — but actually making it a movement.”
La Roche-Posay, too, is doubling down on its efforts with an eye on longevity.
In 2022 the brand became the first sun care partner of the U.S. Open, and when it reignited the partnership in 2023 it added another dimension — individual partnerships with players Madison Keys and Frances Tiafoe lasting through 2024.
The partnerships marked the brand’s first long-term ambassadors who aren’t dermatologists, said Guillaume Monsel, vice president and head of marketing and digital, and involve three key elements.
The first involves public appearances at PR events or college campuses to guide discussions about sun safety alongside the brand’s dermatologists; the second, repping the brand and its products at sporting events like the U.S. Open, and the third, a minimum required number of social media posts each year — which Keys, a longtime fan of the brand, has already exceeded by her own accord.
“Both athletes are change-makers for us, but Madison, in terms of engagement and community building — she’s tremendous. She’s easily posted about us two to three times more than what is required in the contract,” said Monsel, adding that La Roche-Posay has a 65 percent female audience and is conducting research to assess — and hopefully, play a lead role in boosting — sunscreen adoption levels among male consumers, in part through partnerships like that with Tiafoe.
“Frances has been transparent about not necessarily wearing sunscreen every day,” said Monsel, adding that Tiafoe’s content has consequently focused on changing his usual SPF behavior, while Keys’ approach has been about promoting her core habits.
In a bid to establish its dominance in the outdoor sports space, La Roche-Posay signed on last November as the official sponsor of the National Pickleball Tournament and has begun backing a number of small golf tournaments. In total, the brand sponsors around 35 outdoor events — up from zero in 2021 — and aims to reach a total of 100 in the near future, including some concert and lifestyle events.
“We want to find pockets, whether in tennis or other female sports where there is not equal pay, not as much sponsorship dollars or support, and be the first brand to be there,” said Monsel, adding that the brand’s skin care business has grown roughly 500 percent during the last four years, while its sun care business has tripled during the period, a success he attributes in large part to investment in education-based social media content.
While Glossier initially kicked off its WNBA partnership with a focus on the brand’s body care offerings, chief marketing officer Kleo Mack said the brand soon “realized the potential of the partnership far beyond body [care]; WNBA players love beauty in all forms, whether that’s a full face of glam on the court, or just moisturizer and sunscreen.”
The brand most recently tapped a cohort of players including Harrison, Ariel Atkins and Natalie Achonwa last summer for a campaign promoting the launch of its Stretch Fluid Foundation, $34, and has continued to steadily pump out activations including courtside signage, product seedings to athletes and hosting influencers at games.
“Like Glossier, the WNBA has multigenerational appeal; we want this partnership to feel wholly integrated into what we’re doing as a brand,” Mack said.
As part of its Fluid Stretch campaign, Glossier brought Atkins and Anchowa onto Brooke DeVard’s Naked Beauty Podcast to discuss the partnership and their respective athlete journeys, during which Anchowa discussed her experience playing in games while being pregnant.
“I think female athletes as ambassadors can translate across channels,” said DeVard. “For younger people, especially those who are buying more mass brands, they can look up to these women as role models, but then in the luxury space, there’s something about the level of accomplishment these women are reaching that is extremely aspirational.”
It can also defy expectations — one of the core goals of Anastasia Beverly Hills’ recent sponsorship of F4 racing driver Bianca Bustamente at the Macao Grand Prix.
“I’ve gotten criticism for wearing makeup while I race, but that’s one thing I’ve always loved — is the fact that I can combine creativity, beauty and motorsport, and be feminine in a male-dominated sport,” said 19-year-old Bustamente in an interview with celebritiestalks last November.
Last fall, track and field Olympic gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone joined the ranks of Jenna Ortega and Kerry Washington as a Neutrogena ambassador, and Saint Jane founder Casey Georgesen — whose 14-year-old daughter Sofia plays indoor volleyball — more recently tapped Olympic volleyball player Kim Glass for a campaign promoting the brand’s recent Star Flower Niacinamide Serum.
Notably few beauty brands have tapped into gymnastics, which has long touted one of the largest viewerships of any Olympic sport — a 2021 survey by Statista reported American adults were most interested in watching gymnastics (32 percent were “very interested” in tuning in), with swimming, diving and track and field following as the next most-popular sports.
Hall posited that beauty’s lag in taking to the sport could in part be due to the fact that competing gymnasts often skew younger than active athletes in other sports — Paris hopefuls Kaliya Lincoln and Joscelyn Robertson, for example, are both still minors, which complicates NIL deals.
There are some exceptions, however. P&G Belgium is presently sponsoring 23-year-old Olympic hopeful gymnast Nina Derwael; gymnastics powerhouse Simone Biles previously linked with SK-II and a handful of other female athletes for a campaign ahead of the 2021 Olympics, and six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman inked short-term ambassadorship deals with Revision Skincare and Philosophy in 2015 and 2022, respectively.
With college gymnastics seeing its highest ESPN viewership of any NCAA gymnastics championship in 2023 — up 11 percent from 2022— rising college athletes like LSU’s Olivia Dunne, who has nearly 8 million TikTok followers, could very likely prove fruitful beauty ambassadors.
While L’Oréal Paris has tapped Dunne to create some odd TikTok videos using the brand’s products, she has yet to be scooped up by beauty in a big way — despite On3’s NIL tracker indicating she is the highest-paid female athlete in the NCAA with an estimated valuation of $3.5 million annually, thanks to deals with GrubHub, American Eagle Outfitters and other companies.
“The WNBA feels easier to plug into because there’s precedent of sponsorship there,” said DeVard, who anticipates that gymnastics sponsorships in beauty could — and should — be on the up soon.
Opportunity for beauty brands is indeed ample at present in the WNBA, which will add a 13th, San Francisco-based team in 2025 — the same year the league is slated to renegotiate its collective bargaining agreements, which determine players’ salary caps.
“With WNBA players — their contracts are not big on the court whatsoever. Endorsement money can at times triple what they’re making on the court — it’s a huge source of income for them,” said Engelke.
Faith Suggs, director of marketing at Sports International Group, sees this rise in ambassadorships as having a reciprocal benefit for the league itself by further propelling its visibility.
“Viewership is directly correlated to the growth of the league, and the growth of the league directly impacts athletes’ salaries — [ambassadorships] not only provide a financial boost for athletes, but they provide that platform for them to tell their stories and build their own brands off the court,” she said.
It’s precisely the kind of storytelling that is poised to define the future of beauty marketing.
“Partnering with athletes specifically speaks to women that are just juggling multiple things. Career women, mothers, multihyphenates — they have a sort of duality women want to see more and more,” said DeVard.
Are Female Athletes Finally Poised to Become Beauty’s Superstars?