More women are playing sports. Why is no one watching?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Naomi Osaka representing Japan (left) consoles Coco Gauff of the United States after their third-round match on Day 6 of the 2019 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 31, 2019.
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Public interest in events like the soccer World Cup and the U.S. Open tennis tournament often belies the fact that women make up 40% of athletes, but are featured in 4% of coverage.

League after league has struggled to gain traction with fans, even as hundreds of thousands of girls and young women have growing access, training, and opportunity to continue and excel in athletic careers. 

Why We Wrote This

Why should inspiration be limited to one gender? Grassroots efforts are aimed at making the stories of all athletes, regardless of sex, known to the public. The first step: engaging fans.

For some groups advocating for change, the fans, rather than the media, are the target. SheIS, a group that debuted in 2018 to elevate women and their sports, is on track to send 5,000 fans to women’s professional matches this year, and hopes to grow that number to 50,000 by 2025. 

For Brenda Andress, the former commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and founder of SheIS, it’s a place to start. “[W]e’re asking the entire population to ... not just say they are a fan of women’s sports but to actually purchase a ticket or watch it because that’s what makes the difference.” 

Something unprecedented happened at the U.S. Open – before the stunning upset that Bianca Andreescu delivered to Serena Williams on Saturday.

Defending champion Naomi Osaka invited Coco Gauff to the post-match on-court interview after she beat the 15-year-old in the third round. “I think it’s better than going into the shower and crying,” Ms. Osaka is heard saying as Ms. Gauff wipes away tears with her wristbands. 

Ms. Gauff, a rising star and fan favorite, appeared reluctant but agreed to address the 23,000 fans in the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, and around 2 million TV viewers. “She’s been so sweet to me, so thank you for this,” she said, gulping down sobs. “I don’t want people to think I am trying to take this moment away from her because she really deserves it.”

Why We Wrote This

Why should inspiration be limited to one gender? Grassroots efforts are aimed at making the stories of all athletes, regardless of sex, known to the public. The first step: engaging fans.

It was a moment of compassion in a high-stakes arena – not unlike the year prior, when Ms. Osaka defeated Ms. Williams in the 2018 final amid controversial calls that brought boos raining down on the court. In that moment, it was Ms. Williams who consoled an overwhelmed Ms. Osaka. 

Women athletes supporting each other is a message that those working to expand women’s professional sports hope will continue, not only on the international stage but also as a grassroots, fan-driven movement.

If you were one of the millions of viewers who tuned in to the U.S. Open, you may have seen an ad aired by the United States Tennis Association. Narrated by Billie Jean King, the SheIS ad points out women athletes receive 4% of all sports coverage and invites viewers to use #womenworthwatching to “tag your videos and pictures of the indomitable female athletes who inspire you and together we can change not just how women are watched, but how they’re seen.”

The 90-second spot brings into sharp focus questions that have long troubled the business of women’s professional sports. League after league has struggled to gain traction, even as hundreds of thousands of girls and young women have growing access and opportunity to excel in athletic careers. With data showing that 40% of all athletes are women, some observers wonder why women’s sports receive minimal media coverage. Would a groundswell of fans at games draw sponsors and TV contracts – or do fans need the media to provide more stories in order to be drawn to regular-season matches? 

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Purdue University. “The interest for women’s sports is there. It’s just a problem of how leagues and teams are marketed. … We don’t see the same amount of coverage. We don’t see the same investment in women’s sports.”

Interest is strong and growing

Consistent high viewership for major tournaments reaffirms interest in women’s sports. Coverage of this year’s final match between Ms. Williams and Ms. Andreescu earned ESPN its highest overnight ratings ever for a U.S. Open women’s tennis championship game. In 2018, the U.S. Open final between Ms. Williams and Ms. Osaka averaged 3.1 million viewers, according to ESPN. The men’s final, in which Novak Djokovic beat Juan Martín del Potro, drew 2.07 million viewers. (Numbers for the 2019 tournament have yet to be released.) This summer, the FIFA Women’s World Cup final match between the U.S. and the Netherlands outperformed the men’s 2018 World Cup final by 22% among U.S. viewers, according to Fox Sports. That’s in part because the U.S. men failed to qualify for the tournament.

International tournaments are strong pulls for fans. But translating that interest into day-to-day fan engagement with women’s professional sports leagues is proving difficult.

“When we look at the Olympic events, the coverage of men’s and women’s events is relatively equitable. So you get these really high-profile international events where people are tuning in. People are excited, fans are going, but then what ends up happening is that as soon as that event is over ... the cameras shut down,” says Professor Cooky.

A large part of sustaining fan interest, experts say, is accessibility – whether it is TV contracts that regularly air games, stories in the sports pages, or stadiums that are in close proximity to city centers.

Over 25 years of research, Professor Cooky says the amount of media coverage of women’s sports on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and other TV highlight shows has stayed at about 2%. However, she notes one recent positive trend: The objectification of women athletes has declined.

Grow the sport from the stands

Brenda Andress, for one, is tired of pointing fingers at low media coverage. The former commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League wants to grow women’s sports from the stands. In 2018, she founded SheIS to elevate women and their sports alike. Through a partnership with Adidas, SheIS encourages cross-pollination among women’s leagues by buying up tickets at 12 professional women’s sports events in North America – from hockey and basketball to boxing and surfing – and sending fans to the games. SheIS says it’s on target to send 5,000 fans to women’s professional sports matches this year. Ms. Andress hopes by 2025 that number will reach 50,000, more than enough to fill a baseball stadium. 

“[W]e’re asking the entire population to ... not just say they are a fan of women’s sports but to actually purchase a ticket or watch it because that’s what makes the difference,” says Ms. Andress. 

If anyone feels the urgency to help grow women’s sports, it’s Ms. Andress. In March, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded after 12 years – a surprise to its 150 players that came despite the sport’s growing popularity after the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, SBNation reported. A recurring criticism centered on the fact that games regularly drew only 400 to 500 fans on average.

But there are positive signs. The National Women’s Soccer League, still riding the high of the World Cup, reports league-wide attendance has increased 70% since the July tournament – a 53% increase from the 2018 season. Before the tournament ended, ESPN signed a deal, its third, to televise 14 matches – including all three playoff games – this season.

Staff writers Lindsey McGinnis, Riley Robinson, and Dwight Weingarten contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Brenda Andress is the founder of SheIs.

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