It was a sunny June day in Central Park, when 6,500 women runners and countless more spectators at the Advil Mini Marathon were cheering and hugging one another, all with the Advil brand name boldly displayed from every banner and T-shirt seen within miles (to say nothing of on national TV, thanks to ABC’s Wide World of Sports). Advil is onto something, and it’s not alone. Sportswear brands, too, are recognizing the unique sponsorship value that women-only competitions can offer. In addition to the Advil race, there’s the five-year-old Danskin Women’s Triathlon series, expected to draw 7,500 participants in six cities this summer. Nike’s Girls Volleyball Festival at the University of California, Davis, in its 11th year, will include more than 700 teams made up of 7,000 girls ages 12 to 18 from throughout North America. The Lady Foot Locker 5K in Denver, in its sixth year, draws roughly 5,000 women runners. Reebok will initiate sponsorship of the U.S. Open Women’s Pro Beach Volleyball tour this summer in conjunction with the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association. Others include Nike’s Alaska Women’s Run and Everlast Woman’s Miss Fitness in South Florida.

Event marketing aimed at women is clearly on the rise. While corporate funding of these competitions is nowhere near the level it’s at for men’s events, more and more companies are backing events for both professional athletes and first-timers alike. Among both groups, the ranks are growing. The Advil race, which, until the brand took over sponsorship in 1991, was referred to simply as “the Mini” in runners’ circles, is now known as the “Advil mini.” “The fact that the company wants to celebrate and reward women is reflected back upon it,” says Raleigh Mayer, director of public affairs for the New York Road Runners Club. “An event like this provides tremendous value in terms of publicity and marketing,” Mayer says, echoing the very intent of the marketers themselves. Depending on the size of the event, scale of media coverage and amount of cash in the winner’s purse, corporate sponsorship of a sporting event can run anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few million, says Allen Furst, managing director at events consulting firm D&F Group in Washington, D.C. Yet gone are the days when corporate bigwigs decide on sponsorship based on the sports they like and what celebrities they want to mingle with at the post-event party. “The bottom line,” says Furst, “is that every dollar spent on sponsorship is looked at as an investment with some form of anticipated payback.”

And since they tend to be smaller and don’t attract much broadcast media attention, women’s events often offer more bang for the buck, being cheaper to sponsor than co-ed or men’s competitions. They also provide an opportunity for a company to promote something perceived as progressive. “What women-only events have going for them is that they can be a much more efficient way to spend money,” Furst adds. “There is such a dire need for sponsorship of them, it gives companies the chance to be a leader while allowing them to reach a targeted audience.”

Supplementing, or in some cases replacing, traditional advertising with creative alternatives like sponsorship, is looked at by marketers as a more direct, less expensive means of reaching a target group of consumers. And while no one is willing to divulge what it costs them to be a sponsor, Debra Bet, promotions manager at Everlast Woman, says the price is minimal when compared to rates for advertising in print and other media to gain similar exposure. “A good part of our advertising dollars are spent distributing products at athletic competitions,” she says. “We are reaching a wide audience of consumers at the grassroots level.” As marketers come to appreciate the enormous buying power of the female market, they are becoming more interested in sponsoring women-only events, says Tuti Scott, director of corporate relations and membership for the Women’s Sports Foundation in East Meadow, N.Y. A 1993 study done by the Foundation showed that there are 21 million “active women” consumers (those who exercise or participate in a sport at least two times a week) in the continental United States, more than 50 percent of whom have a household income of more than $45,000. These women, according to the study, are more likely to own and use credit cards, purchase active and sport wear, and travel.

“Women often control the purse strings in a family,” says Scott, “and women tend to be much more loyal than men to product and brand support.” For them, still, the spotlight is an unfamiliar place.

“People are grateful to be given an opportunity to participate,” says a Nike spokesperson. “And sometimes, in the smaller events like the women-only ones, the sponsor gets a little more appreciation.”

“Women pay attention to companies that support issues important to them,” says a spokesperson for Lady Foot Locker. “That’s why sponsoring a competition is a powerful way to compliment the other advertising and marketing you do. There are so few resources in this area available to women; many recognize that without sponsorship they wouldn’t have any opportunities at all.”

One of the first brands to sponsor a women’s event at a national level was Danskin, which hosts a multi-city triathlon series that gets bigger and better known with each year. If there’s any one company that can attest to the power of event marketing to women, it is this one. Consider a letter received by the president of the company last year:

“On January 1, 1993, I was in the University of Chicago Hospital and I weighed 263 pounds with a 5’2” frame. On August 1, 1993, at the age of 41, I ran across the finish line of the Danskin Women’s Triathlon in Milwaukee. It took me one hour, 57 minutes and 59 seconds. I was third to last.

“… Not once did someone look at my thunder thighs and cast off any indication that they thought I may have gotten off at the wrong exit. The race was not some backyard, second-rate affair that didn’t really count, but a first-class professional race.

“+ Will I remember that Danskin believed in me when it comes time for making purchases? Every niece, aunt, sister and friend I have can look forward to years of gifts with nothing but Danskin tags. You can be assured of my loyalty.”

And that’s what it’s all about.