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Here’s What It Will Take for Women’s Sports to Grow in the U.S.

5 minute read
David Berri is a professor of economics at Southern Utah University. He is the lead author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins and continues to serve on the editorial board of both Journal of Sports Economics and the International Journal of Sport Finance.

The Women’s World Cup, which concluded Sunday night in the final with U.S. dominating Japan, has been a ratings success for Fox. The final match was the highest-rated televised broadcast of a soccer game in the U.S. And that includes any game previously played by men or women. Clearly, the Women’s World Cup is popular.

Yet the National Women’s Soccer League—which employs many of the same players—struggles to attract the same level of interest we see in Major League Soccer. And the same is true for other women’s sports leagues, including National Pro Fastpitch and the Women’s National Basketball Association. Neither of these leagues do as well as Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association.

There are significant factors that seem to be limiting the growth of women’s sports. Women are the majority of students on college campuses, but men receive a larger share of athletic scholarships. Except for professional tennis, compensation of professional female athletes lags significantly behind the pay of male professionals. Even in women’s sports, women are less likely to be hired as coaches. And in the sports media, women only create about 10% of the content. A recent study found that ESPN’s Sportscenter persistently devotes less than 5% of its highlight program to women’s sports.

Sexist attitudes and stereotypes also plague women’s sports. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated recently tweeted that “women’s sports in general (are) not worth watching.” In response to a Twitter conversation about why more people don’t watch women’s sports, Andy Glockner, executive editor of the Cauldron, tweeted: “When women can’t dunk or make shots, or women play on a huge soccer field w/ poor GKers, [goalkeepers] the product can get marginalized.” After scoring a career-high 45 points in a recent WNBA game, Elena Delle Donne read tweets questioning her skills and the entertainment value of women’s basketball in a video posted to Chicago Sky’s YouTube channel.

Yet many of these assumptions about women’s skills don’t match reality. It is true that WNBA players don’t dunk very often. The same, though, was also true for John Wooden’s championship UCLA teams and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry. But on shots that aren’t dunks, WNBA players have the same effective field goal percentage as NBA players. In addition, WNBA games tend to be more competitive than NBA games, according to a measure of competitive balance developed in the 1970s. With the teams more evenly matched, outcomes in the WNBA are little less certain, and this increases the entertainment value of the games.

So where are the fans? The major professional sports leagues for women are still in their infancy. The WNBA and professional women’s fastpitch has only been around for about 20 years. Professional women’s soccer has an even shorter history. To expect a league that is this young to have the fan following we see in more mature sports leagues is unrealistic. The NBA, which has existed since 1949, did not average 7,500 fans per game—or what the WNBA averages today—until the 1969-1970 season. A similar story can be told by about the early history of Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

Understanding why leagues struggle in their first few decades relates to why so many get excited about international competitions. When the U.S. women’s team takes the field, most in the U.S. are likely to take a interest in this team, which means a fan base already exists. The same is true for college sports: Colleges come with an extensive alumni base that is naturally going to root for the school’s teams. Therefore, it’s not surprising that women’s college sports tend to have a substantial following. In fact, the television ratings for the Women’s College World Series exceeded the ratings for the Men’s College World Series this year.

But when we turn to the professional ranks, this fan base takes time to develop. There are three reasons why time is so important.

1. A fan has to make the investment of time to get to know the players. In sports, familiarity breeds interest: If you don’t know who you are watching, it’s hard to be invested in the outcome of the game.

2. History is important. When fans today watch LeBron James, they talk about how he compares to Michael Jordan. And when fans watched Jordan, they talked about how he compared to Julius Erving. Whether a performance is “great”, “good”, or “bad” requires context. When the league’s history doesn’t exist, it’s hard for fans to relate to the story the sport is telling.

3. And then there are what economists call “network externalities,” or how the usefulness of something is related to the number of users. Part of the fan experience is discussing the sport with others. But when other fans are relatively scarce, this network externality is quite weak. Only with time will that network get stronger.

It seems easy for people to look at current attendance figures in women’s league sports and argue that people just don’t like women’s sports. But the ratings we see from the U.S. Women’s Soccer team and college women’s sports defy that argument. The history of men’s sports leagues illustrate that even if women’s sports leagues were fully supported by the media, and sexism did not exist, it would still take time for these leagues to grow.

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Write to David Berri at berri@suu.edu

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