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Women’s athletics drives audience attention 

Given the explosive growth in popularity, media and entertainment executives will do well to evaluate their investment in women’s athletics

April 24, 2024 | By Suzanne S. LaPierre – Independent Media Reporter @Bookmouser

It has escaped no media executive’s notice that women’s sports teams are on a rampage. However, media leaders may not be investing in coverage of women’s sports and athletes proportionally to the value they deliver. 

The 2024 women’s Final Four game between Iowa and UConn garnered the largest audience for any basketball game in ESPN history. More viewers tuned in for the women’s NCAA championship than the men’s – by over four million viewers. Disney sold out of ad inventory going into the Final Four, with women’s March Madness advertising revenue doubling from last year. Women’s Final Four games commanded ticket prices 47% higher than those for men’s games (although not in proportion to seats available); and Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark is currently finalizing an eight-figure deal with Nike. 

The stars are not just shining on women’s basketball. The National Women’s Soccer League signed the largest media deal in women’s sports history in November 2023, and Women’s College Volleyball recently shattered an all-time attendance record. More female athletes than males now represent Team USA at the Olympics and they have been winning proportionally more medals.  

Influence goes both ways 

Support from sports franchises is critical to the development of women’s sports, but so is media attention and investment. While teams and athletes lend their fame to media companies and advertisers, the reputation and popularity of teams and athletes are also influenced by media coverage. Decisions about which Olympic events get covered and which athletes get interviewed impact public perception of female athletes and sports. 

The study A Quarter Century of Prime Time’s Summer Olympics examined how women’s sports were framed for audiences over the past 25 years. Researchers analyzed 311 hours of NBC primetime Summer Olympics coverage and found female Team USA athletes were underrepresented in media coverage in proportion to medals won. Representation has soared in recent years though, with equal screen time given to men and women. In fact, two thirds of the athletes and coaches interviewed by NBC at the Summer 2021 Olympics games were female- indicating that women athletes are attracting more than their share of fans.  

However, the study found that at the 2021 Olympics, only 24% of the non-athlete sources interviewed – such as anchors, reporters, commentators, and analysts – were female. The sports media field is still largely male dominated, even as interest in female athletes rises. Improved gender equality among sports reporters, commentators, and others in media positions adjacent to athletics could help grow interest around women’s sports even more. It also positions media companies to better take full advantage of audiences’ increased interest.  

Female sports superstars drive views 

The explosion in women’s NCAA basketball viewership can be attributed in part to fandom for athletes such as Iowa Hawkeye’s Caitlin Clark (now with Indiana’s WNBA team, Fever) and South Carolina Gamecock’s Kamilla Cardoso (now with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky). Interest in the WNBA Draft soared to an all-time high after the record-breaking season, quadrupling the number of viewers for this year’s draft over last year.  

Superstars like Clark and Cardoso are bringing home the bacon for those who invested in them. As recently pointed out in an NPR interview, when Clark declared for the WNBA draft, Indiana Fever’s average ticket price doubled. Teams across the WNBA saw bumps in ticket sales at or near sellout levels when Clark is slated to be in town.  

Some worry the “Clark Effect” had an outsized impact on the spectacular ratings this past season. However, new stars are on the horizon. Stellar freshmen players include USC Trojan’s Juju Watkins, Gamecock’s MiLaysia Fulwiley, and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo. Viewers who admired their skills this season are likely to be tuning in next season to follow their progress. 

The fandom factor 

As fans rally around rising stars of women’s sports, new research emphasizes the importance of fandom among young viewers. According to the 2024 Digital Media Trends by Deloitte Center for Technology, Media & Telecommunications: 

  • 35% of young people surveyed say sports team fandom is important to their identity.  
  • Gen Z participants were especially likely to cite fandom as a component of their identity- whether they identified as fans of a sports team, movie franchise, music artist, or video game. 
  • People who consider sports fandom important to their identity were more likely to engage with sports content. 

About 10% of those surveyed were dubbed “M & E super fans” – people who consider fandom for a sports team, musician, video game, film, and TV series all important to their identity. These super fans were more likely to pay for streaming subscriptions and on-demand entertainment services. They were also more likely to use multiple social media platforms. While these super fans can have a higher churn rate, they may be attracted to cross-platform experiences and cost-saving bundles, according to Deloitte.  

Fans contribute greatly to media hype-building and the development of cross-media franchises. According to the Deloitte study, media companies can leverage the power of fandom in multiple ways. 

  • Seek deeper engagement with and understanding of fans. This might involve more granular interactions via online group forums and discussions.  
  • Discover burgeoning fandoms, nurture and learn from them.  
  • Consider the intensity of fan bases, not just their size. A smaller group of passionate fans may wield more influence than a larger but more casual audience. 

Once fandom is established, viewers often remain loyal even when their favorite athletes are off their game. The interest in gymnast Simone Biles and skier Mikaela Shiffrin is proof of that. Even after Biles had to withdraw from much-anticipated 2021 Olympic events due to “twisties” and Shiffrin was disqualified from her two best events at the 2022 Olympics, viewers remained glued to coverage of them, and both continue to thrill fans and score lucrative endorsement deals to this day. As one fan tweeted supportively when Shiffrin had to opt out of the 2024 World Cup Giant Slalom in Australia, “You owe us nothing, Mikaela. Save it for the Olympics.” 

Women’s athletics: more than a passing fad 

There are many signs that escalating interest in women’s sports is more than just a moment. With fandom increasingly important to young audiences, and female athletes tearing it up on court on field, media and entertainment executives will do well to evaluate their investment in women’s athletics.  

Media execs can deepen their investment in women’s sports by bolstering gender equality in adjacent media positions, evaluating their coverage of women’s events and athletes, and nurturing the fandom ecosystem. As Laura Correnti, founder and CEO of Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment, put it in an interview for NPR: “If you build it, they will come.”  

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