Just a few days ago, a historic record in women’s sports WAS broken. FC Barcelona welcomed 91,553 spectators at Camp Nou in the game against Real Madrid last 30 March. So far, the greatest attendance registered in Spain was 60,739 spectators who saw the game between Atlético de Madrid – Barça at Wanda Metropolitano in 2019, and in European competitions, 50,212 attended the Champions final between Olympique Lyonnais and FFC Frankfurt in 2012.
The other two historic highs were 90,185 spectators at Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the 1999 World Cup final between the United States and China, and the approximately 110,000 who attended the non-official final of the 1971 Women World Cup final between Mexico and Denmark at the mythical Azteca Stadium. In other sports, the 2018 cricket final in Australia held on 8 March, the International Women’s Day, had 86,000 spectators. This was the greatest attendance to a women’s event of the whole century.
The boom of women’s sports
Until 2019, before the pandemic, women’s sport was gaining unprecedented attention. Women athletes had acquired media presence not only as the main characters but also because of their claims such as pay equity. The pandemic marked a turning point for all the sporting disciplines. However, women’s sports started to send promising signs again. In the United States, while all the audiences became smaller, NBA and Super Bowl included, the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League, women basketball and football, registered remarkable increases. In the United Kingdom, even the average audience record was broken. Almost 33 million people saw women’s sports, especially cricket and football. In the BBC broadcasts during the Tokyo Olympic Games, 47% of the references were for women athletes.
Women’s sports seem to have a sustained and regular upward trajectory. In their predictions reports, the consulting firm Deloitte has not included the industry as an emerging one yet since women’s sports revenues are still under a billion dollars. However, they do think that it will continue growing even more in the following years.
Deloitte considered that tennis was one of the milestones achieved so far. The Grand Slam prize money is the same for both genders and the audiences are slightly bigger for women, at least in the United States, where THE women’s football World Cup final has 22% more audience than the men’s one. Meanwhile, sponsors have already noticed that the quality-price relationship in advertising is higher in women’s than in men’s sports. Not surprisingly, some brands have started to offer the same performance premiums for both genders and trophy awards are also experiencing a bigger growth in women than in men. However, generally speaking, in women it’s still much smaller.
The proof is that in January 2022, the record of women athletes’ revenues was broken, according to Forbes. The tennis player Naomi Osaka is in the top position with 57 million followed by Serena Williams with 45.9. For the first time, among the ten best-paid athletes in the world, there is a gymnast, Simone Biles, and a basketball player, Candace Parker. There are five tennis players on the list. However, this is the lowest proportion in a decade. There are more investments and new sponsors reaching more athletes and more sporting disciplines. Besides, this TOP-10 has experienced a salary increase of 23% in comparison to the previous year and of 16% over the previous top in 2013.
Lower media coverage
However, all these optimistic figures must be put in context. In Spain, traditional media, both general and specialized in sports, still provides low media coverage of women athletes. In Twitter, the general media speaks about women’s sports in a proportion of 3.15%, while the specialises in sports does it in 1.29%. Besides, as academic studies have shown, when speaking about women, it’s done with biases different to men, different qualities are highlighted or under certain stereotypes. Even though women’s sports have boosted since the 90s, they have never reached an equitable and proportional media coverage.
The situation is similar in the United States. A recent study funded by the Centre for Feminist Research of the University of Southern California and the Women’s Sports Foundation has found that the news media coverage in major mass media is 95% about men’s disciplines. This analysis has been carried out since the 80s every five years and the results have been repeated throughout this time. Women’s disciplines coverage does not exceed 10%. Besides, 80% of the mass media analysed has not even covered a single minute of women’s sports. For instance, between 2001 and 2011, the Sports Illustrated front pages were about women just a 4.9% of time. A fact that calls our attention because between 1954 and 1965 the percentage was 12.6%.
However, the adversity, the gender bias, and the lack of interest in major mass media can be considered the keys to explaining why the women’s sports industry has the characteristics needed for the future of business. This has been manifested in the long-awaited report The Fan Project of Sports Innovation Lab in which ten thousand data sources coming from social media have been analysed.
How are women’s sports followers?
The study results show a difference between a traditional fan, who goes to the stadium and watches the games on TV, and a fluid fan or transmedia fan, who follows the sport through OTT and, instead of going to the stadium, they are active and create content on social networks. At the same time, while there is a continuous exponential growth of women’s participation in sports since the beginning of the 80s, the coming of the Generation Z has been useful to promote a series of values on social networks that lead to a greater and deeper commitment between athletes and fans.
In this way, women’s sports have reached a turning point. Due to the growing interest of fans but considering the mentioned limitations and their exclusion from major mass media, fans were forced to resort to modern means of following their favourite athletes and teams. In order to get any related product, they have resorted to e-commerce. To comment about the results or find an analysis of them, they could only do in online communities. This means that such fan has been forced to become digital.
This study has found that, in recent years, the profile of a women’s sports fan is that of a fluid fan, which is the most sought after in the industry for the future. One of the report’s conclusions is categorical. It establishes that whenever the industry has tried to analyse the interest in women’s sports, it has done so by using obsolete methods. So, generally speaking, when the demand increased, it could not be detected and there has been a loss of money. An example of this would be the victory of the American women’s national team in the World Cup in 2019. Just by occurring, there was a 500% increase in the sales of T-shirts and the demand could not be met.
A fluid fan is a fan who:
- Listens to podcasts
- Creates content
- Searches for non-conventional information
- Buys events or games souvenirs
- Is in contact with other fans on social networks
- Always watches the games in second screens experiences (with chats and networks)
- Tries to learn more about the sport they follow. They want to have a deeper understanding of it.
- Interacts in digital communities
- Goes to stadiums
According to The Fan Project report, the interest in women’s sports complies with this follower profile. This way of experiencing their interest forces the fans to permanently look for channels that allow them to be connected to athletes on a daily basis, who are more and more conscious of that, and who also share personal stories, entertainment or claims.
To compare data, women’s sports fans tend to subscribe to media with paywalls, or simply, watch games on digital channels even though they are broadcasted on open ones. 43% of the Women’s World Cup audience in 2019 came from digital channels while in the 2018 Men’s World Cup, that audience just represented an 8.9%. Besides, women’s sports fans are more loyal to brands that sponsor them. Based on the report, the key is to understand how the quality of the audience can boost revenues. It’s not about knowing how many fans watch a broadcast, but about finding out what they do while watching a game.
This report had almost immediate consequences. On February 1st, the LA Times announced the news that Fast Studios, based in Los Angeles, had decided to launch a 24-hour TV channel broadcasting just women’s sports in and out of the field. The CEO of the company, Stuart McLean, has revealed that he took the decision after reading The Fan Project investigation. And that was not all. Apart from the fluid fan’s habits, there is a hidden purchasing power. According to another study carried out by Fox Corp. which was taken into account to launch this TV channel, almost 3/4 of sportswomen fans between 24 and 34 years old have full or part-time jobs and more than half are graduated from university.
Awareness is the last characteristic that defines the profile of this type of fan. Due to certain sexist innuendos in mass media or to problems such as athletes’ wage differences and maternity management, sportswomen have been forced to be athletes and activists on social networks. The current trend is to sign with sponsors who respect and defend the causes they support. However, this has also been an advantage. New generation fans are also worried about social problems and they tend to prefer public figures and brands that share their values. Meanwhile, women athletes are paid attention not only to their jobs but also to the different roles they are forced to take. They attract a more diverse public or followers.
The setting of women’s sports consumption today may be similar to the way sports will be followed in ten years’ time and how the business will work in the future. This situation is the result, paradoxically, of the exclusion and underestimation of women athletes. As the saying goes, it’s made a virtue of necessity.