The future of women’s sports is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet

The arguments around women’s sports, media, and fandom have been the same for years: do women’s sports have smaller audiences because women’s sports aren’t on TV as much, therefore aren’t sponsored and promoted as much by big brands, and ultimately suffering primarily due to a self-fulfilling lack of exposure or are women’s sports not shown on TV as frequently or backed by the big brands because the audiences truly aren’t there to be had?

This week, the Sports Innovation Lab released initial findings from The Fan Project, an innovative new approach to analyzing the state of women’s sports fandom through extensive social data provided by thousands of volunteer participants. The data shows what many of us have observed for some time: the avidity of fans of the WNBA, NWSL, and other women’s leagues and events are increasing–in many cases, faster than their men’s sports counterparts–creating a growing supply/demand gap.

So why is that growth taking so long to translate to increased commercial success? As SiL rightly points out, a lot of it boils down to media metrics and industry inertia. Case in point, this data from last year’s NBA and WNBA summer bubbles:

This is a perfect encapsulation of the industry inertia we’re battling: to the media buyer looking for aggregate eyeballs, the women’s sports opportunity doesn’t stack up to its male counterparts. It’s a legacy measurement model still driven largely by archaic Nielsen methodology, at a time when the most coveted audiences are increasingly opting out of that old mode of TV viewing. And it’s one that has driven any number of brands to mediocrity over the last decade, fueling the rise of upstart DTC brands using modern media metrics to connect with more highly-engaged audiences (the kind who tune in longer, pay closer attention, etc).

Meanwhile, we need look no further than our own partner set to see a lot of the template to drive audience and business growth for women’s sports:

For decades, NBC Sports has excelled at narrative storytelling that equally elevates male and female athletes prior to the games. They’ve spent 30 years pioneering ways to bring more events (male and female) to viewers, first through cable and now increasingly via streaming (where richer data around viewership becomes available).

The result? When the media exposure is at parity, we see clearly that viewership (male and female) follows, as evidenced by this recent research from Morning Consult:

It goes without saying that the Olympics are a unique event, that not every sporting event benefits from the global and generational connection that come with the winter and summer games. It’s a massive stage, one that routinely takes niche sports and makes them appointment viewing for a fortnight, and it happens just once every four years. At the same time, put that stat in the context of Olympic broadcasts spread across an array of channels and streams, featuring multiple events at any given moment. If those male viewers weren’t interested in those women’s events, it’s not like they wouldn’t have an abundance of male events to choose from at any given moment.

Think about how athletes are presented by NBC (and other global media companies) during the Olympics. From the opening ceremonies to each event, it’s not a men’s team and a women’s team, it’s one single team. We don’t pinkwash the women’s uniforms, we don’t keep separate medal counts for men’s and women’s events. NBC elevates female athletes with the same dramatic storytelling, on the same stage with spotlights of comparable wattage.

Giving women’s sports airtime is a critical part of the equation to attracting more sponsor dollars and viewers, but maybe we’re skipping over something with regards to how female athletes are presented, side-by-side with male counterparts, throughout media coverage before, during, and after the Olympics? Maybe the fact that the Olympics are one of the few times where we show male fans and athletes supporting female athletes plays a bigger role than we acknowledge?

NBC and the Olympics certainly aren’t the only example in our partner cohort. The USTA brings together millions annually to watch male and female athletes on the same stage. Angel City FC has purposefully built an ownership group capable of uniting fan communities to help the soon-to-launch women’s soccer team build a diverse base of supporters worldwide. NASCAR continues to add female drivers, racing right alongside its male stars. Each of you are forming pieces of a blueprint that has the potential to unlock decades worth of growth in women’s sports in the U.S. alone, not to mention the even larger global opportunity.

Over the coming months, the Global Sports Venture Studio will be launching several new initiatives aimed at harnessing our collective knowledge and influence to drive change around not only women’s sports, but female fandom in men’s sports as well. We look forward to sharing those plans during upcoming sessions. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting involved, please let us know.