As the NBA season cancellation signaled the beginning COVID-19 to the sports world, we were left wondering when we would ever see sports come back to our televisions. When the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced that it would seize the opportunity and become the first league back to action, sports fans everywhere were given a chance to watch a league and sporting demographic that has been on the rise for years. In this blog, we will take a look at some of the premier women’s sports leagues in the country which indicate that networks should be taking notice and placing an increased emphasis on taking advantage of this growth.
First, the Chicago Sky just wrapped up their first-ever WNBA Championship on national television to record viewership numbers with all of the championship series games airing in prime time slots. The WNBA regular season saw a record 100 national television broadcasts across NBA TV, CBS, and ESPN networks and its highest ratings since 2008. Additionally, the Finals posted the largest numbers since 2017 and the postseason saw the highest levels of viewership since 2014.
Next, the aforementioned NWSL has established media rights deals with CBS and Amazon-owned Twitch which will allow all 146 regular season matches to be streamed online. While the increased exposure is great for the league, these broadcasts do not typically receive sizable investments. The production budgets are just $10,000 for digital telecasts and between $50,000 and $100,000 for cable televised matches. Despite the low funding so far, it has become clear that there is a product worth investing in given the nearly 500% growth in overall viewership from 2019 to 2020. This is further testament to the quality of the product and the people at the networks working extra hard to make the broadcasts first-rate.
Women’s amateur sports are also seeing drastic growth in viewership. The women’s college basketball tournament saw 66% growth over the 2019 tournament in their Sweet 16 matchups, boasting 915,000 viewers on average. The Elite 8 matchups even saw a 6% increase despite competing for airtime with the men’s Elite 8 coverage. Of note, the men’s Elite 8 games saw a decline year over year when pitted against the women’s games. Perhaps that is why the “March Madness” brand is now being extended to include the women’s tournament for the first time ever.
These increases in viewership are not limited to sports traditionally viewed on television. Other college sports that are seeing drastic growth include the Women’s College World Series (averaged 1.2 million viewers over 17 games, a 10% increase over 2019 and comparable to the Men’s College World Series viewership), gymnastics (the final averaged 808,000 viewers, a 510% increase over 2019), and volleyball (the championship averaged 696,000 viewers, up 28% over 2019).
Going forward, major broadcast and streaming platforms will need to account for the exponentially growing demand in amateur and professional women’s sports. ESPN, is certainly trying to do this as they just inked a deal with the Premier Hockey League to stream 60 games for the 2021-22 season. But as Becca Roux, executive director for the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, puts it, “There’s a habit in women’s sports to dip a toe in and expect the same results as men’s properties, but you can’t expect the same result with far less investment.” To fully take advantage of this opportunity, networks will need to ensure they are increasing their budgets and investing to continuously improve production.