Sports continues to be the most popular genre on television. The ratings of the NFL, NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament NBA Finals and World Series continue to attract more viewers and ad dollars than other program types. The popularity has been growing with women’s sporting events resulting in higher ratings, greater attendance, more sponsors, increased prize winnings and greater media coverage.
This increase in interest with women’s sports coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX, passed in June 1972, which helped to create gender equality in sport. Nonetheless, there remain challenges ahead.
College Basketball: The recently concluded NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is a recent example in the progress women’s sports is making. The NCAA has been improving the profile of the tournament which began forty years ago. For this year’s tourney, the field grew to 68 schools matching the concurrent men’s tournament and for the first time used the famous moniker “March Madness” to brand the event. The training facilities such as weight rooms were also improved.
Ratings for the tournament were strong, highlights include; regional final contest between UConn-NC State averaged 2 million viewers, the largest non-Final Four Games since 2006. The Final Four averaged 3.5 million viewers, making it the most watched in ten years and a 20% increase from 2021. The title game between South Carolina and UConn on ESPN averaged 4.85 million viewers, the most watched championship game since 2004 and an 18% increase from 2021.
The NCAA also announced an attendance record for the first two rounds of the 2022 tournament. The first 32 games totaled 217,000 spectators surpassing the previous high set in 2004.
In December 2011 ESPN negotiated a 14-year $500 million multimedia agreement ($35 million per annum) to televise 24 NCAA women’s championships including the College World Series and basketball tournament expiring in 2025. Desser Media Sports estimates the value for March Madness alone is between $81 to $112 million each year. (By comparison, CBS and Turner pay the NCAA $770 million each year for the men’s tournament, increasing to $1.1 billion per annum in 2025.)
Despite marked improvements in interest, the NCAA Men’s tournament remains one of the blue-chip events each year. ESPN reports there were 17.3 million brackets filled out for the men’s tournament compared to 1.5 million for the women’s brackets.
WNBA: The WNBA celebrated their 25th season in 2021 with their most watched season since 2008, with the viewership reporting a year-over-year increase of 51%. In February the WNBA announced they had raised $75 million from investors to further develop the league and provide players with higher salaries and improved benefits. In a first for women’s league, Axios reports ESPN is planning a Fantasy League for the 2022 WNBA season.
Golf: The U.S. Women’s Open announced they would nearly double the overall purse from $5.5 million in 2021 to $10 million this year, making it the largest purse on the women’s tour, surpassing the AIG Women’s Open with a total purse of $5.8 million. Additionally, the U.S. Women’s Open plans to increase the prize money to $12 million within five years. Moreover, with a new title sponsor, the Chevron Championship, held in early April, increased the purse by 60% and now totals $5 million.
College World Series: Last year’s 17-game Women’s College World Series on ESPN averaged 1.2 million viewers per game, with the most viewed game averaging 2.1 million viewers. In contrast. The Men’s College World Series held several weeks later averaged only 755,000 viewers, reaching a high-water mark of 1. 7 million viewers.
Tennis: Last year’s U.S. Open final between teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez averaged 2.4 million viewers. It was the most watched women’s final not involving Serena Williams. By comparison, the Men’s Finals between Daniel Medvedev and Novak Djokovic averaged 2.1 million viewers.
Ice Hockey: The Premier Hockey Federation (formerly the National Women’s Hockey League) announced they were going to invest $25 million into the league in the near future to improve their marketing, competition, fan experience and higher salaries. All 60 PHF games were streamed on ESPN+. In addition, EA Sports included ten women’s hockey squads to NHL 22.
Soccer: Last November, the National Women’s Soccer League title game on CBS averaged a record 525,000 viewers, an increase of 216% from the 2019 game. Earlier this year the NSWL and player’s association reached their first collective bargaining agreement. As part of the CBA, minimum salaries will increase by 160%. Trinity Robinson, of the Washington Spirit and 2021 Rookie of the Year, signed a four-year $1.1 million deal, making her the NWSL’s highest paid player.
Last month’s UEFA Barcelona-Real Madrid Champions League quarterfinal was the most attended women’s soccer game to date with over 91,000 spectators.
FIFA World Cup: No women’s sporting event however, generates more interest than the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) and the FIFA World Cup. The squad has won four World Cups including the last two. The 2019 title game on Fox averaged 14.3 million viewers, a 22% increase (11.4 million) from the Men’s Final in 2018. (The USMNT failed to qualify in 2018.) Globally, the 2019 World Cup was watched by 1.12 billion viewers. The 2015 World Cup final generated 25.4 million viewers. Total prize money for the Women’s World Cup squad of $4 million paled in comparison to the $38 million in prize money the Men’s World Cup champion (France) received in 2018. The USWNT has generated more revenue for the U.S. Soccer Federation than USMNT.
After six years of litigation, in February, the U.S. Women’s World Cup soccer team reached a financial agreement with the governing body which pledged equal pay with the men’s squad and eliminating such discrimination practices as travel arrangements. Part of the settlement is a $24 million payout (primarily in back pay) to the players.
Olympics: Another global stage in which U.S. female athletes have shined is the Olympics. In both the Tokyo and Beijing Games, female athletes reaped more medals than their male counterparts. For the Tokyo Games female athletes won a record 66 medals accounting for 58.4% of Team USA’s total medal haul. By comparison, in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics females accounted for 38.6% of total medals.
While Team USA finished fifth in medal counts for the Beijing Games, the U.S. women won 13 medals, more than any other nation. It marked the second straight Winter Olympics that women had won more medals than men.
Endorsements: Forbes reports the top ten highest-paid women in sports earned a combined $167 million in pretax earnings in 2021, a 23% increase from 2020. Tennis players continue to dominate with top three earners; Naomi Osaka with a record $57.2 million, Serena Williams at $45.9 million and Venus Williams at $11.3 million. Osaka earnings ranked twelfth among all athletes. A large majority of Osaka’s earnings came from product endorsements rather than prize money. Additionally, in 2021 Simone Biles and Candace Parker became the first gymnast and basketball player to crack the top ten in earnings in over a decade.
With the U.S. Supreme Court allowing sponsorship deals for college athletes that allows players to use their name, image and likeness (NIL), women’s basketball players are financially benefiting. A study from Opendorse reports that women’s basketball players rank second to football in NIL earnings with a 17.8% share (men’s basketball was 15%). UConn point guard Paige Bueckers with a high social media following on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, has the greatest social media earnings potential valued at $62,900. Bueckers has struck deals with Gatorade, CashApp and StockX. Bueckers could potentially earn millions in product endorsements. Other college players also have sponsorship agreements including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston with Bose, and Stanford’s Haley Jones with Beats by Dre roster.
Media Coverage: With the exception of the quadrennial World Cup, media time spent with women’s sports on newscasts and cable networks has been at a minimal accounting for under 10% of total coverage. A majority of telecasts have overlooked women’s sports entirely. To remedy this, Fast Studios will launch The Women’s Sports Network, a dedicated 24-hour streaming service across several digital platforms. Set to begin this Summer, coverage will include the LPGA, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the World Surf League (WSL) and women’s sports news. Plans are in the works to stream other events.
In addition, this June, ESPN has plans to celebrate the impact of Title IX with a month-long series of short and long-form documentaries called Fifty/50.
Sponsors: Blue-chip advertisers are ramping up their marketing dollars on women’s sports. For example, Buick during the March Madness tournament launched a “See Her Greatness” campaign. The ads point out the lack of media exposure which has deprived millions of fans of some of the sport’s most exciting live sporting events. In December Visa announced they would expand their support of the USWNT for the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Michelob Ultra announced they would invest $100 million in sponsoring women’s sporting events over the next five years.
The popularity of female sports comes at a propitious time. Live sports have never been more popular, with the emergence of legalized wagering, NIL, esports, the popularity of gaming and fantasy leagues. The growth of streaming video seeking content deals with live sports will provide additional exposure and revenue. In addition, female athletes are amassing millions of loyal followers across social media platforms and have been active in such important areas as mental health as well as social and racial justice. Marketers are investing in women’s sports and making sponsorship agreements for increased prize money and athletic endorsements.