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“We’ve got to keep pushing forward”: Why greater media coverage of women’s sport will provide the platform for equality

Women’s sport has never been more popular, yet mainstream media coverage is still dominated by men. At OTT Summit USA 2022, many speakers argued that increased visibility and better quality coverage will create a foundation for greater commercialisation, professionalisation, and participation.

31 March 2022 Steve McCaskill
Why greater media coverage of women’s sport will provide the platform for equality

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There’s a video that DAZN and YouTube have created to promote their coverage of the Uefa Women’s Champions League (UWCL) that explains the correlation between greater media coverage of women’s sport and increased attendances, sponsorship, and participation.

“The more eyes, the more likes,” the video’s narrator says in short sentences, accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack and overlayed with vivid images from the world of women’s soccer.

The video is an effective way of explaining how the comprehensive and accessible nature of the two organisations’ coverage of the UWCL is something that men’s soccer takes for granted but is unprecedented in women’s sport.

“The more likes, the more tweets,” the video continues. “More tweets, more fans and more fans fill more seats. A full house means more noise, more heads getting turned. More cameras, more angles, more pundits, more press.”

The evidence suggests the confidence projected in the video isn’t misplaced. There are many studies that prove the link between increased exposure, interest and revenues. But men’s sport has long dominated the airwaves and column inches, denying most women’s competitions the opportunity of a platform to become more professional.

There are exceptions, like tennis, of course, and the situation has improved in recent years. Women’s sport is more popular, more attractive to brands and broadcasters, and more athletes than ever can earn a living from their craft.

But there is still much to be done to address this historic imbalance, change attitudes, and enable as many women as possible to make a living from sport. This doesn’t necessarily mean on the field or as a coach – women are also underrepresented in the back office and in the media.

In early 2021, Deloitte predicted that total revenues across women’s sports would amount to well under a billion dollars this year, a fraction of the global value of all sports, which in 2018 stood at US$481 billion.

Change starts with more media coverage, a point made by several attendees at SportsPro’s OTT Summit USA in March, which coincided with International Women’s Day. It featured the most diverse and representative speaker line-up in the event’s history and many used their sessions to highlight the ongoing challenges for women’s sports, while some explained how they were taking matters into their own hands.

The challenge of visibility

When many people think about sports broadcasting in the US, ESPN is the first thing that comes to mind. The flagship SportsCenter news and highlights show is often a close second. Yet in 2019, just 5.4 per cent of SportsCenter’s airtime was devoted to women’s sport, a figure which falls to just 3.5 per cent when that year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup is excluded.

A great deal of ESPN’s live programming owed much to former executive Carol Stiff, who was instrumental in bringing the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and women’s college basketball to the network. She retired from ESPN in 2021 and now chairs the advisory board for the Women’s Sports Network (WSN), a new platform that aims to make a greater variety of content more accessible to more people.

“We had 16,000 hours of women’s sports programming on ESPN, and we’ve often heard people can’t find it,” she said during her session at CitiField, adding that it was imperative that WSN was not behind a paywall and offered something unique.

A daily studio show, live coverage, and archive footage that shows the best bits of classic games and events will all be pillars of WSN. And events can be shown on the network when it makes the most sense for a more engaged audience – not because there’s a gap in the schedule.

“We know we’re not here to take down ESPN,” Stiff said. “We know we can’t get WNBA game rights right now, but we’ll be there in the future. I’d love to see the WNBA, I’d love to see women’s pro [American] football.

“We can [schedule] women’s sport at times of day that are [impossible elsewhere]. Most women’s basketball [coverage] is on Sunday afternoon up against the National Football League, PGA Tour or the NBA. Now if the [Atlantic Coast Conference] wants to play on a Saturday afternoon, we can put women’s sports there. Or we can put women’s gymnastics there instead of only every four years [during an Olympics].

“We’re talking to a ton of people, trust me, and we have a lot of people reaching out to us. Once we launch and once people have a taste for what we’re going to offer, I think the phone’s gonna ring off the hook.”

Alex Morgan, Simone Manuel, Sue Bird, and Chloe Kim co-founded women’s sports platform Togethxr

Female athletes are acutely aware of the problem. It’s why Olympic champions Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel, and Sue Bird created their own media and commerce platform Togethxr last year in a bid to tell stories that will increase visibility and engage fans through mainstream channels.

While there is no shortage of ventures seeking to tap into the convergence of sports and culture, the majority of these focus on male sports. Togethxr believes this is a huge gap in the market ready to be exploited.

“As female athletes we are very aware of the lack of coverage, because we’re not getting it, we feel it, we sense it, we don’t see it,” said Bird, one of the greatest players in the history of the WNBA. “So, Alex [Morgan] was just basically saying, ‘hey, we have a chance if the four of us get together, we have a chance to change that.’”

“It was a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ vibe.”

Bird believes the answer in more equitable coverage relies on valuing women’s sports coverage for what it is rather than what it’s not.

“Don’t treat us like a charity, invest because you believe in [women’s sport],” she said. “Don’t compare us to the men. Why can’t women be appreciated for who they are and what they bring to the table?”

The world’s game

Just as women’s basketball is frequently compared to the men’s game, so is soccer.

Esmeralda Negron understands the frustration of being denied a professional career in sport. Inspired by the success of the US women’s soccer team at a home World Cup in front of sell-out crowds in 1999, she found the reality much different.

“I went abroad to Europe 15 years ago and, as you can imagine, it wasn’t so professional at the time,” she told the audience. “The conditions weren’t great, and the pay wasn’t great, so I had to hang up my boots probably a lot sooner than I’d have wanted to and that was pretty difficult.”

Negron felt she could have an impact on the business side of the sport, believing that one of the reasons for low interest was a lack of awareness of leading players and clubs. This is what ultimately led to the launch of Ata Football, a women’s soccer platform featuring live games from Europe’s top leagues, as well as original content and a tactical library for coaches.

The ultimate ambition is to improve the level of play and give women the opportunity to benefit from a professional system that wasn’t there when Negron started out.

“When I think about everything we’re doing with Ata, I think every step of my journey inspired this company – my frustrations and anger because I couldn’t continue to play because conditions and investment weren’t there,” she said.

Obviously, the intention is for Ata to be sustainable, but there is an acknowledgement that a startup platform focusing on what is still an underrepresented sport might need some help. Partnerships with more established broadcasters seeking to benefit from the growing interest in women’s soccer is a way of doing this.

Our vision is a world where women’s and men’s sports are perceived and viewed equally and equitably.

Andrea Ekblad, Rights Director of Women’s Sport, DAZN

“We talked to premium broadcasters because we want [women’s soccer] to be normalised alongside men’s sport and so we wanted our partner leagues to be visible,” Negron explained. “We pitched it to NBC, DAZN, and BT Sport and lo and behold, they all wanted to make an investment and support the women’s game. We invest in the rights and share those rights, so it’s a bit of an atypical model. But we knew women’s sport needed that visibility and broad reach.”

DAZN’s interest in women’s soccer is commendable but it is of course also commercially motivated. The streaming platform hopes that by acting as a single global destination for the UWCL, and by making matches available to partners like YouTube, it can grow the overall audience for the competition and ultimately attract more subscribers.

“Our vision is a world where women’s and men’s sports are perceived and viewed equally and equitably,” said Andrea Ekblad, rights director of women’s sport at DAZN. “Our mission is to create more demand and everything we’re doing around women’s sport, whether it’s the UWCL, boxing, or other rights is to create more content so it’s accessible and to give it all the coverage you need for growth.”

DAZN is happy with the progress made so far, highlighting the potential of increased exposure. Ekblad said it’s UWCL coverage had received more than 15 million views across all platforms and the signs were that many people were making repeat visits and staying for longer. Accordingly, it is doubling down on its investment in women’s sport.

YouTube says DAZN Women’s Champion’s League deal is already attracting new audience

DAZN has a global deal for the Uefa Women’s Champions League which is designed to grow the game as a whole

Media challenges

But broadcasting isn’t the only medium that can have an impact. Traditional, online, and social media have a critical part to play.

Hannah Withiam always wanted to be a sports writer but found nearly all sports journalists were men writing about men’s sport. At the New York Post she found that there was opportunity in women’s soccer because everyone else was ignoring it. However, traditional attitudes came with additional pressure.

“The stories I wanted to tell were in women’s sports, and that was natural for me as a storyteller,” she told an International Women’s Day panel on how to make women’s sport more sustainable and accessible. “Unfortunately, it’s all about the numbers and results and when one women’s sports story wouldn’t perform well, it would lead to a destructive cycle where you might not get the opportunity next time.”

The reason we all became women’s sports fans is because sports are awesome, the athletes are inspiring, and their stories are worth reading about.

Hannah Withiam, Managing Editor, Just Women’s Sports

Withiam left to join The Athletic, where she launched a WNBA vertical. She said she was proud of that achievement but became frustrated at a lack of investment. Whereas the publication had at least one dedicated writer for every major league men’s team, it was left to a single person to cover a whole women’s league.

She felt women’s sports coverage needed even more investment to become a genuine business proposition, which is why she left to become managing editor of Just Women’s Sports – a publication that covers exactly that.

“There’s no use guilting people into following women’s sports as a short-term fix, you want to normalise it” Withiam suggested. “The reason we all became women’s sports fans is because sports are awesome, the athletes are inspiring, and their stories are worth reading about. You need to provide that coverage, follow the games, and bring the exciting moments that will draw these new fans in. That’s what the mission is.”

Sometimes it takes an entirely new format to get noticed. While working at the NBA’s New York Knicks, HighlightHER founder Arielle Chambers noticed the discrepancy in coverage with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, so started recording her friends on a smartphone and posting it online.

Bleacher Report took notice and Chambers was able to build a women’s sports platform that celebrated all backgrounds, ages, levels, and ability. She said the recipe for success was to stay true to your audience and understand what the consumer wants, but she also hoped more people would actively support women’s sport for the benefit of everyone.

“If you’re a consumer and you’re demanding more women’s sports coverage but you’re not clicking on newsletters or watching highlights, it doesn’t make sense, right?” she told the panel. “We’ve got to keep pushing forward. Bring a friend to the arena, talk about [women’s sport] and be energised by the upward trajectory.”

This upward trajectory, she argued, is an opportunity for sports media. But she warned that those who fail to adapt to this new reality will miss out.

“Women’s sport is here to stay and everybody [in the women’s sport ecosystem] is working hard so there’s a generation coming up that doesn’t know there was a time when women didn’t play professional sports,” Chambers said. “The longer you wait, the more you’re going to be playing catch up. The cost of inaction is greater than the risk.”

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