What Will It Take to Grow the Women’s Game?

cheryl miller, billie jean king, serena williams, megan rapinoe

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Women’s athletics lags in nearly every measurable way, but experts are optimistic the gap is shrinking.

On a Wednesday night this past July, I arrived on the Jersey Shore where my partner’s family gathers each summer, prepared for a minor skirmish over the TV. The seventh inning of the Yankee game was on just as the U.S. women’s national team was set to kick off against the Netherlands, but only a small contingent of us were stirring to watch the World Cup.

I expected resistance but did not anticipate the sulking that ensued. After all, the Yankees play 162 games a season — the World Cup comes once every four years. Plus, we’re talking about the two-time defending champions here, world-class athletes on their sport’s biggest stage. Ultimately, we won the big screen. (It didn’t hurt that I’d come armed with four pies from one of Brooklyn’s best pizzerias to win over this very Italian family.) But before stalking off to watch the ball game on another of the several TVs in the house, a relative turned to my boyfriend and asked him, in all sincerity: “You want to turn the Yankees off to watch women’s soccer? Are you crazy?”

To plenty of people, you’d be crazy not to change the channel. But this attitude, that women’s sports are, at its core, not as compelling or competitive as men’s, is still fairly widespread. It’s a bias that’s baked into our culture, and it’s part of why women’s sports still haven’t reached parity, says Macaela Mackenzie, the author of Money, Power, Respect: How Women In Sports Are Shaping the Future.

Female athletes are still undervalued, but progress has been made

“There have always been people who say women’s sports aren’t as worthy, and I think those attitudes really need to shift for us to see real change in the way women athletes are treated,” she tells us. 

Women’s athletics lags in nearly every measurable way. The numbers say it all: The 2022 WNBA finals averaged 534,000 viewers; the NBA finals had 12.4 million. Alex Morgan became the world’s highest-paid female soccer player in 2021 when she signed an $800,000-a-year contract; Cristiano Ronaldo became the highest-paid player full-stop last year with his $136 million-a-year deal. I could go on, but I think you get the point. 

The thing is the disparity used to look a lot worse. The National Women’s Soccer League, for instance, didn’t even exist until 2012 — and it was only established after two failed attempts to build a sustainable organization, both of which crumbled in a little over a decade. One thing that often gets lost in this conversation is the progress that’s already been made, says Mary Jo Kane, founder of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. If you consider that in two generations — from before Title IX was passed in 1972 to now — we’ve gone from accepting that sport was a man’s domain to female soccer players selling out stadiums, it’s pretty remarkable.  

Kane’s right, that shouldn’t be overlooked. But what will it take to get even more people watching, to elevate these players and leagues to the level male athletes enjoy? The answer seems pretty clear: more investment, the erosion of sexism in the sphere, and time.

An “untapped market”

The cash, at least, is coming, Mackenzie says. Companies, which have traditionally poured billions into men’s sports advertising are starting to divert a growing portion of those dollars to women’s sports. In 2022, sponsorships for women’s professional leagues rose 20 percent year-over-year, and it’s only going up from there, says Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and PR officer for Ally. She believes that for decades female athletics has been trapped in a “vicious cycle.” 

“It starts with bad time slots, like running a game at 9 p.m. or midnight when no one’s going to watch it,” Brimmer tells us. “As a result, brands don’t see the value of investing because the audiences aren’t there. The trickle-down effect is that leagues are undervalued compared to their male counterparts, which means players are underpaid.”

Slowly, corporations are stepping up to dismantle this doom loop, Brimmer says. Google recently partnered with The Athletic to double its coverage of women’s sports, in March Michelob Ultra became the Women’s Sports Network’s first major sponsor, and Ally has committed to spending just as much on men’s sports media as it does on women’s over the next five years. 

“I think we’re at an inflection point,” she says. “Companies are coming forward and insisting on more and more coverage. And they’re bringing dollars with them to create that systemic change.”

But it’s not charity, companies are beginning to see it as a “tremendous untapped market,” Kane says. Brimmer agrees: “Our dollar goes further from a media investment standpoint. The space isn’t as crowded, so you have the ability to break through in a greater way than you do in men’s sports.” 

All that has led to higher pay for athletes, a higher level of competition, better facilities, and more eyeballs. “It’s really a case of, If you build it, they will come,” Kane says.

A “sense of entitlement”

There’s another factor too, she says, and that’s the boldness of today’s athletes. Remember the hell raised by NCAA basketball players over their substandard weight room during March Madness in 2021? And think of the guts it took for the U.S. women’s national team to take on U.S. Soccer over equal pay, Kane says: “They didn’t apologize, they didn’t take a back seat. They said, ‘We have earned it, we deserve it, and we’re gonna get it.’”

It’s this sense of “entitlement to sports” that’s pushed the women’s game to grow in recent years, she says. When Kane was growing up before Title IX there were virtually no opportunities for her to play at an organized level. It’s estimated that before the landmark law, only one in 27 girls played a sport; now, two in five do — and they’re insisting on leveling the playing field.

“Back then, if you could just get an hour of time on a court, you were thrilled,” she says. “Now athletes are demanding their fair share.” 

This brings up another important point: that change, the meaningful capital-C change that Mackenzie talks about, often doesn’t come quickly. But we’re starting to see things tilt. In a survey conducted by Nielsen in 2018, 84 percent of sports fans said they have an interest in women’s sports — 51 percent of those respondents are men. And just take a look at the ratings for this year’s World Cup. Over 2 billion people have tuned in — up from 1.2 billion in 2019. 

“That’s a huge cultural shift,” Mackenzie says. 

Kane is thoroughly optimistic about the future of women’s sports, but I went into our interview with a little more cynicism. I wasn’t a “pre-Title IX tomboy” like her. I was a tomboy who had the full benefit of that legislation, playing soccer all throughout high school and for a year in college. I grew up going to Sacramento Monarchs games (RIP) and watching the 99ers — that miraculous U.S. team with Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and of course Brandi Chastain — win the 1999 World Cup. I’m completely entitled, as Kane puts it, and impatient to see the women’s game flourish at the same level as the men’s. 

But, as she points out, the WNBA is a full 50 years younger than the NBA. Men have had decades longer to develop rivalries, create franchises and storylines, and elevate players to superstardom. By comparison, the WNBA is only now just hitting its stride. But I wonder, Can women’s leagues continue to grow when it feels like there are legions of online trolls meme-ifying female athletes? Will people watch when they know that, as Kane concedes, that the “U.S. women’s soccer team couldn’t beat the men in a match”?

She thinks so. 

“There will always be naysayers, but I think they are far outnumbered,” Kane says. “And the base will only grow with each new generation.”