Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the SportsBusiness Journal’s Game Changers Conference. This annual event focuses on the intersection of women and sports. Overall, the conference was excellent, but I want to focus on a topic that came up in the middle of the day: why women’s sports struggle so much, and how to grow them.
There are all sorts of theories about why people don’t watch women’s sports – some believe the games themselves are not as good as men’s games; some believe we are all socialized not to care about women’s sports; still others believe that if only more women watched women’s sports, they would succeed. I believe the answer is far simpler. Women’s sports need to be invested in as though they matter – particularly on the business side. I believe that if significant resources and strategy were applied to improve the distribution, promotion, and coverage of women’s sports, the TV ratings, fan bases, and revenue would all improve.
Before I make my case, a few thoughts: first, I believe that all three of the above arguments are sexist in nature, and also not true. Whenever the Women’s World Cup, the Olympics, or a major tennis tournament come around, we see amazing female athletes do incredible things, and huge audiences tune in. Yet somehow we are supposed to believe there isn’t a market for women’s sports nationwide, and year-round. Additionally, since people of all genders watch men’s sports, I don’t understand why the burden of supporting women’s sports should fall solely on women. And finally, even if it is true that people are conditioned to care less about women’s sports, I believe that is a problem that can be overcome by education and marketing.
I believe the first problem facing women’s sports broadly is distribution, or access from a fan perspective. Both national and local sports channels cover women’s sports much less frequently than they do men’s sports. A recent USC study indicated that women’s sports were mentioned on ESPN’s SportsCenter a mere 2% of the time. For fans who live in markets that do not have professional women’s teams, lack of media coverage of teams in other markets is an impediment to becoming a fan. I believe that good business is not magic, and equitable media distribution of men’s and women’s sports is not magic either. The media must intentionally and strategically invest in increasing the amount of airtime given to women’s sports, and ensuring that they are covered nationally and locally.
The second problem facing women’s sports is promotion. A really dedicated super fan will take the time to hunt down their favorite team no matter how long it takes, but it is impossible to gain new fans if they don’t know that you exist or where to find you. Personally, I find many men’s sports impossible to avoid, but outside of a few major events, I never know where or when to find women’s sports. If there were even half as many commercials for women’s sports as there are for football or baseball, maybe more people would tune in.
The last problem I see is the coverage itself. According to the USC study, when women’s sports are covered on television, the format is completely different from men’s sports – and completely boring. The delivery is flatter, and they don’t do the vignettes and other features that make you care about the players. I believe that the media should take a look at what drives interest in men’s sports, and cover women’s sports in the same format.
Women’s sports have historically struggled in many dimensions – TV ratings, attendance, and revenue among them – but I firmly believe that more serious and focused investment in broad distribution, significant promotion, and high quality coverage could significantly increase their standing.
What role do you think the media should play in the promotion of women’s sports? Let us know!