Is now the time for women’s sports?
Given the last 18 months, it’d simple to conclude “how could it not be?” In two of the largest global showcases of women’s team sports, US team have turned out the most thrilling and inspiring performances imaginable. At the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, the USA Women’s hockey team won the gold medal, beating arch-nemesis Canada in a shootout that featured a deke so exquisite that it demands to be watched slowly and from every feasible angle. More recently, the truly dominant USA women’s soccer team somehow surpassed expectations by running absolute roughshod over their competition to win the World Cup. They did so with skill, flair, controversy, and personality, all of which contributed to the magnetism of both the team and the moment.
With the tailwinds created by these performances, it’s easy to believe that, yes, now is in fact the time for women’s sports to take the leap into the long-term public consciousness to produce sustainable professional leagues.
But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Dynamic performances by past women’s teams have been used to spur the launch of women’s professional leagues, almost all of which have sputtered, flickered and then died. The WNBA has been in operation for 23 years, but may have folded years ago without the backing of the NBA. Other women’s startup leagues such as the NWHL and NWSL are seemingly always on the verge of closing their doors.
With so many cautionary tales, is hope for pro women’s sports leagues misplaced? Not necessarily, as a number of forces are coalescing to add further propellant to the launch of women’s league and teams.
Greater Competition for Rights: The insatiable hunger for sports content continues, with tech companies elbowing their way to the table to sit with traditional rights holders (broadcast networks)
Added Coverage: Digital outlets like The Athletic are leading a gathering charge of media outlets beginning to increase their coverage of women’s games.
Increased Sponsor Investment: Budweiser recently became the largest non-endemic sponsor of the NWHL, a 5 team hockey league.
Social Media: The latest crop of female stars is proving particularly adept at leveraging social media to connect and engage fans.
So it’s a flow tide for women’s sports… right?
Here’s a totally unsurprising thing: starting a new league is hard. Even football, by far the most popular sport in the US, features a veritable graveyard of failed start up leagues (oh, AAF, we hardly knew ye….) The hottest league in the US, Major League Soccer, limped along for years before shifting demographics and an infusion of new ownership dollars sparked its current trajectory.
For women’s professional sports to find the success they’ve earned, organizers cannot rely on the way professional leagues have been organized for the last 100 years. Aligning with a metropolitan area and playing in existing, overly large stadiums is expensive, has terrible optics, and requires building a fanbase from scratch.
There’s potentially a lesson to be learned from the Premier Lacrosse League. Rather than adopting the 100-year-old model for sports, they adopted a travelling model (like NASCAR and the PGA Tour), pursued a digital and social media first strategy, and provided players with equity in the league. This ‘event-based’ style of play increase the likelihood of reaching younger fans, particularly those who don’t to be want saddled with the cost of season tickets.
A look back in time presents another strategy worthy of consideration. Back in the 1950s, when the NBA was still referred to as the Basketball Association of America, the league and its teams were struggling to connect with fans in local markets. To address this, the league implemented the concept of territoriality in its draft, giving teams priority for players that played for colleges within 50 miles.
Most women team athletes make their mark competing in college. Those colleges and conferences are where their notoriety (and fanbase) grows. To borrow from the precedent set by the NBA, rather than representing cities for which they have not connection, create regional teams that roughly overlay Power 5 college conferences, and develop rosters from players who competed there. This will help create connections to fans who rooted for the schools in those conferences, as well as create interesting story lines regarding former rivals now teamed up.
The way people consume sports is changing. For women’s professional leagues and teams to flourish, they need to avoid the traditional model of sports that has been the rule for the last century.