A study released last week by National Research Group Sports, “Leveling the Playing Field,” notes that the popularity of women’s sports has grown in recent years. The report indicates that in the U.S., three-in-10 sports fans say they’re watching more women’s sports now than they were five years ago, and 25% say their viewership of women’s competitions has increased in the past year.
Unquestionably, there have been gains, but women’s sports still lag way behind men’s sports. According to the report, 85% of all sports fans feel it is important for women’s sports to continue to grow in popularity, but 79% of sports fans do not actively follow women’s sports.
Three key takeaways of the report are (1) people are paying more attention to women’s sports and as a result the broadcast rights market has seen growth. (2) A huge discrepancy in how fans approach men’s and women’s sports persist with people seeing men’s events as more exciting and competitive. No surprise, fans are willing to spend more money watching men’s sports and buying merchandise. (3) When given increased airtime, women’s events can find an expanded audience.
At present, U.S. broadcast networks spend just 0.2% of media rights budgets on women’s sports leagues. There are signs of improvement. In 2023, ABC will air the Division I women’s basketball championship game for the first time. What remains to be seen is how ABC/Disney and ESPN will view the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament when the current media rights expire. At present, the Tournament is bundled with other events, so the hope is that future contracts will be specific to the Tournament and therefore NCAA revenue allocation will use a formula like men’s basketball.
Despite becoming a head coach in the WNBA and leading the Las Vegas Aces to a WNBA Championship, people still ask Becky Hammon if her goal is to be a head coach in the NBA. It’s as if her returning to the league where she played for 16 years was at best a stepping stone and at worst a huge step backwards from being an assistant NBA coach.
“Leveling the Playing Field” pointed to three major hurdles limiting the growth of women’s sports: inertia, investment and inaccessibility. I would point to gender bias, which continues at every level of society. Here’s to breaking free and letting women’s sports soar.