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Topic: Advocacy - March 14 2024
A New (TV) Deal for Women’s Sports

As women athletes, we’ve been breaking records and captivating audiences for decades. Finally, media coverage of women’s sports is catching up. As investment pours in, we’re taking a look at the most significant gains, why they matter, and the work that is left to do.

By: Carly Wetzel

VIS Creator

Topic: Advocacy

March 14 2024

On March 3rd, the Iowa vs Ohio State women’s basketball game drew four million viewers as Caitlin Clark broke the all-time NCAA career scoring record (for men and women). It was the most watched regular season women’s college basketball game since 1999, according to ESPN, with viewership peaking at 4.4 million in the second half. 

It's not just Caitlin Clark who is drawing massive viewership numbers and attention to women’s sports. Women’s sports across the board are breaking records and setting a new high water mark for TV coverage:  

  • 92,000 attended a University of Nebraska women’s volleyball game in August 2023, smashing the world record for the highest attendance at a women’s sporting event, according to the New York Times.

  • 2 billion total viewers were estimated to have watched the 2023 Women’s World Cup, says Forbes.

  • Over 1.77 million tickets were sold for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, reports CNBC.

  • 3.4 million viewers watched the 2023 U.S. Open final between Coco Guaff and Aryna Sabalenka, reports Forbes

These numbers speak volumes. The popularity of women’s sports is booming and shows no signs of slowing down. Now that media coverage of women’s sports is starting to catch up, it’s important to look at the progress and talk about what it means.  

The Growth of Coverage

Despite women athletes' success, talent, and star power, women’s sports have historically been relegated to the margins of mainstream media coverage. Primetime TV slots have almost always been given to men’s games, headlines in the sports pages have typically covered men’s events, and you’d be hard-pressed to see anyone on SportsCenter talking about women’s sports. For decades, women’s sports have received a small fraction of media coverage— between 3 and 5.5 percent, according to an ongoing study conducted by researchers at USC and the University of Indiana.

In recent years, we’ve seen massive improvements in media coverage for women’s sports. A new 2023 study by Wasserman found that women’s sports now make up 15 percent of all sports media coverage, “surpassing established assumptions of women’s sports.”

Finally, we’ve reached a breakthrough in the valuation of women’s sports that is long overdue. “Coverage is growing—and at a clip faster than many expected,” according to the Wasserman report, with the progress partly driven by the impact of streaming and social media. 

Wasserman cited a variety of factors contributing to the growth in coverage, including:

  • The creation of new professional leagues and the growth of existing ones. 

  • Increases in the value of professional leagues and teams. 

  • Monumental increases in attendance at and viewership of women’s sporting events.

  • Increased investment in women’s sports from sponsors and brands.

  • The unmatched engagement and following that women athletes generate on social media.

TV Deals

The power of fans in this shift is impossible to overlook. Women athletes and their fans have always demonstrated demand for women’s sports coverage, but broadcasting companies have been slow to respond. 

A common question is, how do TV deals work, and why are they important? To show a sports event on their network, broadcasting companies like ESPN, NBC, Fox, and ABC have to purchase broadcasting rights from the league or association. For the biggest competitions, broadcasters pay billions for the rights. The leagues earn massive revenue from the contracts, and the broadcasters earn revenue from the viewers who pay to watch and the advertisers who pay for commercial space. 

The most recent NFL contracts—which took effect in 2023—gave broadcasting rights to CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Amazon for a collective value of $110 billion over the next 11 years, according to a report by the New York Times.  

This money matters. The revenue generated by broadcast deals makes operations possible and enables growth for the sport.  But this kind of money has never been poured into women’s sports. 

Recent deals are setting new precedents: In 2023, the NWSL landed a major new TV deal worth $240 million. According to SportsPro Media, The NWSL agreed to a 4-year deal with multiple broadcasters. Splitting rights between CBS, ESPN, Amazon, and Scripps, the league will be able to reach a wider audience. The $60 million annual total is “the largest media investment in women’s sports in history,” says the league, and a huge increase from the NWSL’s previous contract, which paid them only $1.5 million annually. 

The WNBA also made a lucrative new TV deal in 2023. Their new multiyear contract with the ION Television network, made in addition to their existing deals with ESPN and ABC, will  “provide the WNBA with another national TV deal and allows it to build a consistent national window for its games,” according to The Athletic. Forbes reports that the deal has a total value of $39 million.

Compared to the value of the marquee men’s sports TV deals, women’s sports still have a long way to go. The NWSL deal gives the 4 networks the rights to 118 games every season, making the value per game about $508,000. In comparison, each NFL game’s rights are worth roughly over $385 million. While this comparison might seem discouraging, it’s important to recognize the massive gaps that still exist so that the progress doesn’t end here. 

“This moment is confirming that women’s sport was never ‘less engaging’ but that engagement is heavily influenced by visibility.”

Dr. Ajhanai Keaton - Title IX Education Program Lead at the VOICEINSPORT Foundation and Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville

Advertising

It’s not just the TV deals that make a difference. Advertising and sponsorships have huge influences on media coverage. Where companies use their advertising dollars, and who they choose to sponsor, not only control where money goes but signal what and who is valuable to consumers. When companies sponsor women athletes and women’s sports, they influence consumer interest, bring attention to women’s sports, and create more investment opportunities. 

In May 2022, banking and financial services firm Ally, “made a ’50/50 pledge’ to spend equally in paid media across men’s and women’s sports by 2027,” reports SportsPro Media. This means that the company is upping the share of its advertising budget spent on women’s sports, and encouraging others to do the same. Ally also made an advertising deal with Disney’s ESPN, which according to NBC “requires 90% of its investment to be put to women’s sports, through expanding game highlights, branded content and features across ESPN.”  

When companies like Ally choose to use their investment to boost equity, women’s sports see gains in coverage, support, and revenue. The payoffs of that investment are big: 

  • In 2022, Google partnered with The Athletic to double news coverage of women’s sports and grow professional women’s sports journalism by investing in more staffing and resources and producing more content across multiple platforms, as covered by the New York Times.

  • The number of sponsorship deals in women’s sports grew 20% from 2021 to 2022, CNBC reports.

  • More brands like Gatorade, Nike, and Hilton Hotels are spending their advertising money on women’s sports, according to CNBC.

  • CNBC also reports that in 2022, Athletes Unlimited, a network of professional softball, lacrosse, volleyball, and basketball leagues, “saw sponsorship revenue increase by 122% year-over-year.”

It’s worth mentioning that women are spearheading these groundbreaking investments. Kate Johnson, Google’s Director of Global Sports, Media, and Entertainment Marketing, is at the helm of the Google-Athletic Partnership. At Ally, CMO Andrea Brimmer is leading the company’s women’s sports initiative. The work these women are doing to amplify women’s sports is a shining example of the progress toward equity that can be made with women in positions of power.

Growth like this is extremely promising, and it’s definitely worth celebrating. It has taken decades of work for women athletes to get even a fraction of the recognition and visibility they deserve. But equity is still a long way to go. 

What It Means

Media coverage of women’s sports has grown to new levels in recent years because the value of women’s sports—both monetary and cultural—is being increasingly realized. For decades, investors, media outlets, and even fans discounted women’s sports. They claimed that no one would watch, the athletes weren’t as talented as men, and women’s sports were simply not interesting. 

This was never true. Women athletes consistently draw in major crowds, break records, and captivate audiences on and off the field in unprecedented ways and finally, media companies are recognizing the value. 

“This moment is confirming that women’s sport was never ‘less engaging’ but that engagement is heavily influenced by visibility,” says Dr. Ajhanai Keaton, an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville who studies how race and gender impact organizational and societal norms and structures. “We’ve seen awesome data that shows many women’s basketball games this season have higher viewership numbers than ‘big’ men’s college basketball games and even a handful of NBA games.”

Throughout its history, women’s sports have pushed boundaries and broken barriers for women off the field. When we can turn on the television and see young women just like us competing at the highest level and showcasing strength, confidence, and success, it shows us that we can do the same. 

Women’s sports have always contributed greatly to the project of empowering women. But for too long, women athletes have been doing this off-screen, out of sight, with no one watching. And it has been this way not just because our value was not realized, but also because “The image of women who are not passive, weak… and non-competitive shakes up society's perceptions and assumptions about men and women,” writes Sena Christain in “The Radical Potential Of Women In Sports.” 

“I believe women have always believed their product was quality and the increased coverage confirms these beliefs,” Dr. Keaton says. “I believe young girls are more empowered, as they are experiencing women’s sport in an era with record-breaking attendance and viewership.” 

The Road to Equity

The 15 percent of media coverage now dedicated to women’s sports is surely great progress, but it’s a far cry from equity. 

To continue building visibility for women athletes and better accessibility for fans, broadcasters and advertisers need to continue growing their investment and commitment to progress. This means prioritizing sustainability and longevity by building up systems of support and investment that help women’s sports to continue growing and “extend this fervor for the next generation of girls, but also sport enthusiasts,” Dr. Keaton says. 

It also means being intentional about who is visible and making sure that women of all identities are benefiting from increased coverage and representation. It’s vital to “consider how this increased visibility coincides with meaningful representation on the axis of class, culture, race, and sexual orientation,” Dr. Keaton says. 

Building a promising future for women’s sports goes far beyond the moment it’s having right now. Women’s sports are exciting because they defy norms and barriers. It’s critical to carry this momentum forward with sustained commitment while prioritizing inclusivity and representation.

Tune In

While broadcasters and advertisers hold the power to invest and control air time, there is still a lot that can be done on our part to continue amplifying women’s sports and making new deals. 

Here’s how you can help women’s sports attain the VISibility they deserve:

  • Watch women’s sports – More viewers means more investment. You can find out where to watch your favorite women athletes in action by checking the links below or visiting league websites.

  • Go to games – Attendance records have driven a lot of the hype for women’s sports in the past years. Plus – going to games is fun and affordable! You can find tickets on your favorite team’s website.

  • Follow women athletes on social media – Massive social media followings are helping women athletes gain sponsorships. You can support your favorite athletes just by following them and engaging with their content.

  • Read journalism about women’s sports – Investment for journalism coverage is driven by readership and engagement. You can support women’s focused coverage just by reading it.

  • Buy from companies that invest in women’s sports – Buying from companies that support women’s sports signals to other companies to do the same. Your dollars make a difference.

Take Action

Here’s how you can watch women’s sports this spring:

NWSL: Games start March 16th and you can watch on multiple platforms. Find where to watch games here
WNBA: The WNBA is back in action May 14th. The broadcasting schedule is not yet released but check back here. PWHL: The PWHL is in full swing. You can watch on YouTube and find channels here NCAA WBB: March Madness Games will be aired on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPNEWS.