Angel Reese of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts toward Caitlin Clark of...

Angel Reese of the LSU Lady Tigers reacts toward Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the national championship game at American Airlines Center on April 2, 2023. Credit: Getty Images/Maddie Meyer

Women have been competing in sports at an elite level for decades. But without adequate exposure to spread the word, the word often went unheard.

Television helped build men’s sports into a big business. The absence of it helped keep women’s sports on the fringes.

The 2020s are proving to be a games-changer.

What once was a novelty act, or perhaps a mere do-gooding attempt at equity, has become big business itself.

Women are playing and people are watching, from college and pro basketball to international and pro soccer to college softball and far beyond.

The buzz extends to non-live programming, where ESPN’s “SportsCenter” often leads with the WNBA and other women’s events.

Kansas City Current's Kristen Edmonds celebrates after beating OL Reign in the 2022 NWSL semifinals Credit: Getty Images/Steph Chambers

“You can feel it,” Carli Lloyd, a Fox soccer analyst and former U.S. national team star, told Newsday recently. “You can feel it as a player building. It’s great to see.

“I look at all that’s happening in the NWSL, the Women’s World Cup, and it’s just amazing .  .  . You turn your TV on and it’s ‘how many games can we stream or watch?’ It’s unbelievable.”

How did we get here? There are multiple reasons, including the growth of media inventory and the audiences that have come with it, an ever-improving product and better promotion.

The first step is exposure, a lesson men’s sports learned decades ago.

“What we’re seeing now is the exact example of reaping what you sow,” said Elle Duncan, who has hosted the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for ESPN. “If you build it, they will come .  .  . That’s the first key: accessibility.”

More quality, the merrier

Some of the programming bump is pragmatic on the part of media executives.

With cable and streaming platforms offering endless hours of capacity, they have to show something. Why not live women’s sports?

ESPN said that in 2022, its domestic platforms carried more than 33,000 hours of women’s sports programming over 18,000 events, numbers that until recently would have been physically impossible.

Among other content, Athletes Unlimited, launched in early 2020, runs women’s pro leagues in softball, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse, with games on ESPN platforms.

Victoria Hayward  of Team Osterman in the Athletes Unlimited softball league. Credit: Getty Images

“It’s a virtuous cycle,” said Jon Patricof, CEO of Athletes Unlimited. “It’s like the advertisers recognizing the fans are watching, advertisers spending money, broadcasters putting more games on and ultimately, you really get to that flywheel effect. We’re starting to see that flywheel effect.”

That logic extends to wider coverage outside of games. The attention loop feeds on itself.

“In my early days covering the WNBA [starting in 2004], it was challenging finding content about teams outside of game notes when I was prepping to call a game,” ESPN analyst and former UConn and Liberty star Rebecca Lobo said. “Some teams had a local beat writer, but others did not have consistent coverage of their teams. That’s not the case now. There are multiple outlets covering the league and each team.”

Duncan recalled Lobo being shocked to learn that postgame coverage of the 2022 NCAA women’s final was being carried by ESPN’s main channel.

“I think there’s still this sense of disbelief for women who had been fighting this for so long,” Duncan said, “because it felt like it was just this climb and climb and they would try and they would advocate and now they’re seeing their hard work come to fruition.

“That’s been the coolest part to me is just watching them go like, ‘Oh, [expletive], we’ve been telling you this is the party and now you’re all here. This is cool.’ ”

This past spring’s NCAA basketball tournament was a hit for ESPN, including a women’s final in which LSU beat Iowa, spiced by a controversy in which LSU star Angel Reese mocked Iowa star Caitlin Clark.

That game averaged 9.9 million viewers, with a peak of 12.6 million, the most by far for a women’s college game on ESPN platforms, in its first year on ABC. The men’s final on CBS averaged 14.7 million viewers.

The 2022 women’s final averaged 4.9 million on ESPN. The previous record for a women’s game was 5.2 million in 2002.

“I wasn’t surprised when we learned that [about] 10 million people watched the game on TV,” Lobo said. “But I was gratified. And now we want more. Hopefully we not only play on ABC in 2024 but perhaps in prime time?!”

Viewership and new audiences attract the attention of media executives.

“The knock you hear is it isn’t sustainable, that it doesn’t make the same sort of money and therefore it’s almost like a philanthropic effort,” said Deidra Maddock, vice present for Disney advertising sports brands solutions. (Disney owns ESPN.)

“The purpose isn’t just philanthropic; it’s because it’s also good for [companies’] brand as well.”

Maddock also addressed another common misconception that only women watch women’s sports.

“I categorically know that to be not true,” she said. “The demographic split on viewership is almost equal, men and women.”

AU’s Patricof said: “The audiences tend to be younger, they tend to be both men and women, digitally savvy. That’s the type of consumer brands are looking to reach — the media companies as well.”

Dan Weinberg, CBS Sports’ executive vice president for programming, said the NWSL is a “case study” in what a programmer wants, given the quality of play and broad viewership across multiple platforms.

“It’s a diverse audience for us, which is great because it brings in new eyeballs to the CBS Sports brand,” he said. “It’s great for our advertisers.”

Better than ever

Kylie Ohlmiller, a former Stony Brook University and Islip High...

Kylie Ohlmiller, a former Stony Brook University and Islip High School lacrosse star, plays for Athletes Unlimited. Credit: Athletes Unlimited/Kait Devir

Elite women’s sports had a lot of catching up to do with the men because of lack of opportunity, but in the half-century under Title IX, progress has been steady.

Other than tennis, occasionally golf and the Olympics once every four years, they once largely were invisible. Now they excel on all manner of playing fields.

“Above all, what I would say is, I run programming, but I’m also a sports fan, and the product is good,” Weinberg said. “You turn these games on, and it’s a compelling watch.”

Susie Piotrkowski, ESPN’s VP for women’s sports strategy and espnW, is a former NWSL executive (and college lacrosse player).

“I often refer to women’s sports as the start-up of the sports industry,” she said. “Now people not only are getting to see and know these sports exist, they’re recognizing the competition that exists that has previously been reserved for men to lean into that space.

“Women can hold that space, too, and are holding that space. They’re just athletes.”

Said Duncan, “You should want to be invested because these women are the best in the world at what they do, all the same reasons you watch the men’s games . . . I’m sorry, but our women’s [NCAA] tournament was far and away better than the men’s.”

Believe the hype

Having games on TV helps. Having those games be played at a high level helps, too. But to break through the noise of 2023 media, promotion is a key.

That includes the players themselves doing their parts on social media.

Patricof said that while appearing on streaming platforms is a “nice-to-have,” two essentials remain: promotion on major cable and broadcast outlets, and on social media.

“The women athletes are so compelling on and off the court and they’re building followings now in college and coming into the pros with those followings and we’re really seeing the benefit of that,” he said. “We’re trying to support the athletes but also leverage their followers.”

Said Lobo, “The media climate has changed significantly, allowing players to provide their own content as well. And the audience for it certainly continues to grow.”

That was part of the mix in the commotion during and after that LSU-Iowa NCAA final.

LSU's Angel Reese reacts toward Iowa's Caitlin Clark in the national...

LSU's Angel Reese reacts toward Iowa's Caitlin Clark in the national championship game. Credit: Getty Images/Maddie Meyer

“Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, they’re talking smack,” Piotrkowski said. “Those are stories that have historically been reserved for men, but there’s no reason why women can’t hold these spaces.

“It’s kind of like there’s been a dialogue around women’s sports are only family-friendly. Well, yes, of course they’re family-friendly. But they’re also great competition.”

Reese’s taunting may not have been polite, and purists may have winced, but it was great for business, another crossover moment for women’s sports.

“I love that the women are not just taking the approach that they have for a long time, which has been, just be happy to be here,” Duncan said. “You know, keep your head down, be humble.

“I love that they’re owning who they are. And they’re unapologetic, and they’re taking up space, and I think people love it, too, clearly.”

A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces drives to the...

A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces drives to the basket against Sabrina Ionescu of the New York Liberty. Credit: Getty Images/Ethan Miller

Next up is a juicy story line at the next level: WNBA superteams in the Aces and Liberty, who appear headed for a Finals showdown. The playoffs start Wednesday. The WNBA Finals are about a month away. Buckle up.

Their Aug. 28 game at Barclays Center was the most-watched WNBA regular-season game on ESPN2 in five years, averaging 328,000 viewers.

“Everybody waiting for this inevitable matchup between the Aces and the Liberty, it’s the exact same formula for men’s sports,” Duncan said. “For a long time, people acted like we were trying to solve the Da Vinci Code instead of saying, let’s go to the same well that makes men’s sports successful and do it the exact same way. And now we’re seeing that.”

ESPN ratings highlights for women's sports

2023

  • Women’s national championship Iowa vs. LSU: 9.9 million viewers (Highest rated college basketball game ever on an ESPN platform)
  • WNBA Draft: 572,000 viewers (No. 2 all time)
  • WNBA midseason: 548,000 average
  • NCAA Gymnastics championships: 1.02 million
  • College Softball World Series: Averaged over 1 million per game for entire tournament
  • AU women's lacrosse: 25% increase in viewership on ESPN2 and ESPNU

2022

  • NCAA women’s volleyball: 73,000 viewers (most-watched since 2012)
  • WNBA season was most-watched regular season since 2008
  • Live women’s sports events totaled nearly 19 billion viewing minutes on 33,000 hours of programming for more than 18,000 events.

More women in sports

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