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Volume 22 No. 27
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Forum: Summer storylines show influence of women’s sports

Earlier this summer, it was debated just how much the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s World Cup win would amplify coverage and interest around women’s sports. Unequivocally, it had a profound impact, as the storylines of women’s sports were a significant and consistent thread through the summer of sports business. There was an increase at the gate, in sponsorship, in media coverage and in social discussions — and it felt notable.

The NWSL clearly benefited. In the 38 games played since the World Cup, the league averaged 9,168 fans per game, a sizable increase of 51% over the 6,069 before the World Cup. At the local level, the Portland Thorns continued to raise the bar for women’s sports and set a single-game record by drawing more than 25,000 to Providence Park in August. That figure broke the previous club record of more than 22,000, which the team drew just weeks earlier. The Thorns are the most inspiring team business story in women’s sports.

But other markets saw lifts as well: The Washington Spirit drew nearly 20,000 for a Saturday night game at Audi Field in August, which The Washington Post called a “remarkable sign of growth for an organization without a winning tradition.” This came as team owner Steve Baldwin vowed to make major investments to improve the team’s travel while expanding staff. 

The women’s national team were pop culture stars, and attendance for their Victory Tour ranged from a sellout of nearly 20,000 at Allianz Field to 37,000 at the Rose Bowl to nearly 50,000 at Heinz Field. But it wasn’t just in the United States where women’s soccer benefited. The Women’s Super League in the U.K. saw more than 30,000 attend a Man City-ManU WSL match at Etihad Stadium, a new high for the league. More than 60,000 attended the six WSL games over opening weekend in England, a twelvefold increase from the 2018-19 season. The London Times wrote the “landmark weekend” offered a “glimpse of just how big” women’s soccer could become. 

The numbers were smaller for the Women’s International Champions Cup, which drew more than 8,000 for its title match in Cary, N.C. But that was better than the event’s inaugural year in 2018 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, and founder Relevent Sports also landed Budweiser as the Cup’s first presenting partner. 

Let’s not limit the attention to soccer. Women dominated the tennis headlines this summer, led by the emergence of 15-year-old Coco Gauff. London’s The Guardian noted that Gauff’s matches at Wimbledon “attracted the largest TV audiences and the most boisterous roars on Henman Hill.” She later became the youngest player to reach the U.S. Open’s third round in more than two decades, and her postmatch interview with Naomi Osaka was one of the most talked about moments of the event. In addition to Gauff, 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu was another new name on the scene, winning the U.S. Open, and The New York Times wrote that the new generation of female tennis players “represent various races and nationalities.”

The WNBA introduced new Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in July, and she has received strong early reviews. The league also took its All-Star Game to Las Vegas for the first time, drawing more than 9,000 fans, with Kobe Bryant, Megan Rapinoe and Chris Paul taking in the action.

Finally, one can’t overlook the impact and influence of Simone Biles, who had a historic performance at the USA Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City in August. The embattled sport proved it could still be a draw, as the four-day total of 33,894 was a record for the event. Even Biles was surprised by the publicity around it, saying, “Not too many people pay attention to gymnastics, especially in a non-Olympic year.” 

There were other signs of a shift — the Jerry Solomon-backed, all-women Aurora Games debuted, and while it drew sparse crowds, Solomon vowed to bring it back. There was also the powerful ad campaign from the U.S. Tennis Association and SheIS, #WomenWorthWatching, which ran throughout the U.S. Open and had Billie Jean King lead with the pointed narration, “Today, only 4% of sports coverage features female athletes.” All positive signs over a nine-week period.

For me, what truly stands out is the letter I received from a young man named Seth Rubinroit at NBC Sports, who said all the debate about the appeal of women’s sports inspired him to attend a WNBA game with a group of 30-plus work colleagues. Afterward he told me, “I am encouraged that so many of my colleagues, after being exposed to professional women’s basketball for the first time, said they wanted to go again.” 

That’s what you can build on. It’s what women’s sports needs more and more of — and what it got this summer.

 

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 25:40 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.