TV ratings are surging for women’s sports … so why aren’t networks investing more in them?

Oklahoma won the 2021 Women’s College World Series, its third title in six years.

A month ago, the Women’s College World Series took over the sports world for a week-and-a-half. Cinderella James Madison crashed the semifinals, and powerhouse Oklahoma won a thrilling final series against Florida State.

The 17-game tournament averaged 1.2 million viewers per game on ESPN networks, with the most-viewed game bringing in 2.08 million viewers. By comparison, the Men’s College World Series three weeks later averaged 755K viewers, with the most-viewed game bringing in 1.67 million viewers.

The showing by the WCWS continues a trend of women’s sports garnering strong TV ratings. The women’s college basketball national championship game between Stanford and Arizona brought in 4.1 million viewers — its highest since the 2014 title game between UConn and Notre Dame. WNBA and NWSL broadcasts have also set records in recent months.

We’re seeing more women’s sporting events in prime windows on major networks, but why aren’t those networks seeing these ratings and jumping to add more women’s sports programming?

I’d been wondering that for a while, and I finally got some answers in this article from The Athletic. This particular passage really stood out:

I’d never considered this point, but it really hit home when I read it.

Last month, I went to a National Women’s Soccer League game for the first time. I saw Gotham FC (Carli Lloyd’s team) beat OL Reign (Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle’s team), 1–0, at Red Bull Arena. The atmosphere was awesome, but it felt different than men’s games I’ve attended.

Gotham FC beat OL Reign, 1–0, on June 5 at Red Bull Arena

I’ve been to a lot of Yankees games, college football games and college basketball games in my life. I’ve even gone to a few NYCFC soccer games. The crowds at those games all look pretty much the same. Most people there look like me. They’re mostly male, mostly white, mostly in their 20s, 30s or 40s.

There’s a clear demographic there for advertisers to target. No wonder there are so many Bud Light ads, Nike ads and Chevy ads shown during those games.

At the Gotham FC game, I was struck by the diversity of people in the crowd.

There were as many women as men, maybe more. There were people from many different ethnic backgrounds. There were groups of young girls and there were middle-aged couples. There were people holding up Pride flags scattered throughout the stadium.

After reading the article by The Athletic, I can see how that crowd might not be as enticing to an advertiser as a men’s game. In turn, that game wouldn’t be as enticing to a broadcast network as a men’s game. The interests of advertisers ultimately dictate the interests of the networks.

All along, I’ve thought that the 100-plus-year head start that men’s sports leagues had to build popularity in this country was the main reason women’s sports leagues have struggled to become mainstream. But I hadn’t considered that an even bigger challenge may be that they’re working against an economic model that disvalues the diverse audiences watching their games.

Thanks so much for reading! Hope you enjoyed this newsletter. If you have thoughts and feedback, I’d love to hear from you. Every newsletter will be posted to this website, so you can comment there. You can also email me directly at this address.

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Zach Miller examines conference realignment and other college sports topics through numbers.

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