What pro sports should learn from resilient women athletes post-pandemic

Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management, Lang School of Business and Economics, University of Guelph, Nancy Lough, Professor of Educational Psychology & Higher Education, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Katie Lebel, Assistant Professor, Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Nicole M. LaVoi, Director, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, University of Minnesota, and Dunja Antunovic, Assistant Professor of Sport Sociology, University of Minnesota
·6 min read
<span class="caption">Players for the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces square off during basketball's WNBA semi-final in September 2020 in Bradenton, Fla. </span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)</span></span>
Players for the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces square off during basketball's WNBA semi-final in September 2020 in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Elite women’s sports are predicted to generate US$1 billion in revenue in 2021.

With just a fraction of the investment dollars and comparatively paltry marketing and promotional budgets compared to those allocated to men’s sports, this is conceivably a conservative estimate. As sport emerges from the challenges imposed by COVID-19, women’s sports are becoming a lucrative business opportunity.

Don’t believe us? You’re not alone.

Despite record-setting momentum, the sports industry has continued to ignore the economic viability of women’s sports.

Read more: Women's hockey has avid fans but needs a corporate cash infusion

Many decisions are still based on outdated assumptions. Marketing has largely positioned women’s sport as the “right thing to do” as opposed to an exciting investment opportunity, and fans are treated as monolithic. The resulting narrative has left the women’s sport market both under-served and undervalued.

Sports fans, however, are telling a different story.

A Nielsen study found that 84 per cent of general sports enthusiasts of all genders are interested in women’s sport. If more women’s sports were available to watch, 46 per cent of fans indicated they’d tune in.

Giving fans what they want

What happens when you give sports fans what they want? The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup drew 1.12 billion viewers. Viewership for the WNBA this season was up 68 per cent; media coverage of their championship finals increased 15 per cent.

National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) viewership swelled 493 per cent for their 2020 Challenge Cup and 500 per cent year over year, LPGA viewership increased 21 per cent and this year’s U.S. Open tennis final between Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka averaged 2.1 million viewers on ESPN.

Naomi Osaka kisses the U.S. Open trophy.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships in September 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Keep in mind this was during a time when many sports were competing simultaneously and ratings for the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL all declined significantly. What’s more, women athletes have also been at the forefront of advocacy for social and political change.

The bottom line? Women are doing more with less.

They’re finding innovative solutions during these most challenging times. They’re seizing the moment and exceeding expectations. They’re putting on a master class in resilience — because for the past several decades, that’s how they’ve been conditioned to do business.

The changing sport landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented disruption. While the sports sector adapts to these new and uncertain conditions, resilience as a coping mechanism is serving women’s sports well.

Through this lens, the distinguishing qualities of persistence, adaptability and agility are assets that women in sport have been fine-tuning for years. As the world of sport continues to mount its recovery efforts and the sports landscape evolves, we argue this innately gives women a leg up in the new normal.

<span class="caption">Social Engagement Rates Across Professional Sports.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Winsights x Zoomph</span></span>
Social Engagement Rates Across Professional Sports. Winsights x Zoomph

And make no mistake. The sports landscape is in the midst of a revolution.

Gen Z has rapidly become the most influential generational cohort, commanding US$3.2 trillion in purchasing power. This demographic has high expectations around diversity and inclusion and they are following sports in very different ways than their predecessors.

With a preference for highlights on Instagram, they’re more likely to follow an athlete than a team, and the role of sport in their social life has redefined their fandom.

Layered on top of this, we know that women now control a third of the world’s wealth, adding US$5 trillion to the wealth pool globally every year. While traditional sport properties are struggling, women’s sports have the flexibility to be nimble and adapt to the new, increasingly diverse sport environment.

<span class="caption">Something to cheer about: breaking gender norms.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(Twitter Marketing 2020)</span></span>
Something to cheer about: breaking gender norms. (Twitter Marketing 2020)

We’re already seeing early evidence of this, with a 468 per cent increase in tweet volume around representation and equality. Advertising featuring women in sport is perceived as 148 per cent more empowering than similar ads with men.

Twitter has also found sports ads featuring women held viewers’ attention for an average of 6.5 seconds and drove 4.8 times higher ad recall than a control group. When women were featured in non-traditional gender roles, recall was 6.3 times higher.

If we consider merchandise as a proxy for demand, a whole new series of supporting metrics emerge. Nike’s 2019 U.S. Women’s National Team home jersey became the No. 1 selling soccer jersey ever, men’s or women’s. The WNBA’s now-famed orange hoodie has nine million impressions on social media, 238,000 engagements and US$250,000 in social media value. According to the online retailer Fanatics, the orange hoodie was the best-selling item across its website in August.

Pandemic disruptions

We’re currently witnessing a continuous series of disruptions exposing the widening gaps in society accelerated by the pandemic.

In sport, these disruptions have exposed the weaknesses of the traditional sports model. As we look towards the future of sport, COVID-19 may well be the catalyst for change that women’s sports have been waiting for.

Women in sport understand that success is not easy, convenient or comfortable because it never has been. They’re accustomed to coming up with constructive solutions that showcase persistence.

As the sports market reemerges in a post-pandemic world, women’s sports may be strategically positioned to not only better adapt to the rapid changes brought about by COVID-19 — they may be better prepared to lead the way forward in the development of a new model for sport. The future may be unwritten, but the time to invest in it is now.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Katie Lebel, Ryerson University; Ann Pegoraro, University of Guelph; Dunja Antunovic, University of Minnesota; Nancy Lough, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Nicole M. LaVoi, University of Minnesota.

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Katie Lebel is affiliated with the E-Alliance, Canada's new Gender Equity in Sport Research Hub.

Ann Pegoraro receives funding from Sport Canada. She is a co-director of E-Alliance, Canada's new Gender Equity in Sport Research Hub.

Nancy Lough is affiliated with the Sport Marketing Association (a scholarly organization) as the current President.

Nicole M. LaVoi is the Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Dunja Antunovic does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.