Women’s sports can, and must, be part of our recovery plan
Even in the time of COVID-19, there’s something very familiar about the sports world: the near total focus on men’s teams and leagues. What’s next for the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB? When will they return to normal (or a new normal)? How will they handle the economic fallout? Meanwhile, as usual, women’s sports get far less interest.
That helps explain why women’s sports will be hardest hit by delayed seasons and the other ripple effects of the coronavirus. Just like the men, women’s sports face the same questions, the same uncertainty, about what lies ahead. But they must confront that uncertainty from a far more precarious financial position. They don’t draw the same large crowds (and consistent ticket revenue) as men’s sports or the same number of deep-pocketed sponsors or the same rich broadcast deals.
Right now, women’s leagues are in the business of building critical momentum. Or, at least, they were.
Remember back before the pandemic? The WNBA appeared poised for a more marketable era with new Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and a new CBA. In February, when the NWSL hired Lisa Baird as its new commissioner, her brand-building expertise pointed toward a more profitable future for the league.
On March 11, the NWSL announced a multiyear broadcast deal with CBS that would showcase the season opener and championship game on network television. On March 20, the NWSL announced the start of its regular season would be delayed.
That timeline captures how quickly everything changed. No one knows what will happen next, when women’s (and men’s) leagues will return to our regular programming. But whenever they do, it will be another familiar story for women’s sports: They will be at a disadvantage, playing catch-up and competing for fans’ attention and dollars with more established leagues.
Some teams and leagues may not survive the economic fallout from the virus.
“We are seeing some momentum on the women’s side,” said Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross professor who studies sports economics. “That being said, setbacks are much harder for them than other folks because you can’t sit back and rest on your laurels. You can’t say, ‘Well, we got them hooked in the past. They’ll come back.’ You don’t have the same number of corporate sponsors and fans that are hooked in a way that as soon as you come back they’ll come back, too.”
Matheson pointed to the Arena Football League and the 2008 recession as a case study. After the recession, the league suspended play for the 2009 season and never really recovered. The league finally folded in 2019. “You could see the exact same thing happening with women’s sports,” Matheson said.
And then there’s the athletes. Whether they compete in team or individual sports, the majority of elite female athletes rely on league salaries or performance-based contracts or prize money. Disrupted seasons lead to lost earnings and possible financial struggles.
There’s also the timing. During an Olympic year, female athletes receive more attention from fans and sponsors. The Summer Games offer an opportunity to build interest in athletes who play in the WNBA and NWSL, along with the stars of track and field and gymnastics and swimming. For many female athletes, the Olympics provide a once-in-a-quadrennial opportunity to capitalize on their talents. Now, with the Tokyo Games postponed, that opportunity will be delayed as well.
But in times of crisis, other opportunities arise. Sometimes organizations and brands emerge better and stronger. When tested by a crisis, they think differently and discover new ways forward. Maybe that can be the case for women’s sports. Maybe COVID-19 and delayed games present an opportunity to connect with fans in unique ways, to showcase athletes and their talents differently for a big audience at home.
Of course, there are plenty of social media options. Female athletes have proved to be masters of making virtual connections and marshaling support that way. No reason that can’t continue on an even bigger scale.
But what about the games? Matheson said it’s time for all leagues to think creatively about scheduling, to consider what they could do with half or one-third of a season or less. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has raised the possibility of a tournament or charity game. Depending on when (or if) play starts this season, the WNBA and NWSL could do something similar as a relaunch event.
“With the NWSL, you need to look at what you make the most money on,” Matheson said. “Can you tag games along with the U.S. women’s national team? If you can make sure that in a 10-game season, instead of a 24-game season, each team is getting a visit from the U.S women’s national team for a doubleheader, that’s the sort of thing that can, at least, make sure that a higher percentage of home dates are big ones.”
Before new games resume, the leagues should politely pressure broadcasters to include more women’s competitions in their rundown of “classics.” FS1 reairing the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cup finals was a good start. Now, even though the catalog for women’s sports may be smaller than the men’s, the past offers a chance to move forward, to get back in the business of building momentum in unprecedented times.
Shira Springer (email@example.com) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.