Truth: The business of major league sports was designed for men, by men. We all know it. So it’s no wonder that women athletes have historically suffered from a chronic lack of investment. For decades, women’s sports have been forced to work within entrenched business models copied and pasted from men’s leagues — without the funds or sustained commitments that made those leagues the profitable, longstanding institutions they’ve become today.
But women’s sport is the moment, and 2023 has been a watershed year for athletes and sports-industry innovation across the board, and unsurprisingly, the driving force behind that shift? Women. From better protections against exploitation and pay disparities to creating entirely new revenue models, women are reimagining the sports industry in big ways. Here are three major reasons we should all be investing in — attending, watching, supporting — women’s sports right now.
1. Women’s sports are on the economic upswing
One of the most played-out arguments for not investing in women’s sports is that they’re not as profitable as men’s sports. But turns out that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Experts say the narrative that big organizations have pushed about women’s sports have framed them as a financial drain, which in turn discourages the kind of investment they need for growth, financial or otherwise. (Kind of like how men justify paying women less for doing the same job, or not promoting them because they “lack the right experience.”)
Nevertheless, women’s sports have become a hotbed for investors anyway. (ICYMI: The WNBA’s audience has grown nearly 70% from last year.) Despite financial hamstringing from major orgs like the NCAA, global revenues from TV and sponsorship deals for women’s sports reached $1 billion in 2021. (The same figure quoted for men’s sports — $467 billion — includes “mixed” sports, which means it includes events like the Olympics and major tournaments, where women athletes are among the biggest draws.) Interest in women’s leagues has climbed rapidly and dramatically, with FIFA selling the broadcast rights to this year’s Women’s World Cup separately from the men’s for the first time and this year’s NCAA women’s basketball championship drawing a record 9.9 million viewers.
2. Women athletes, owners, and investors are thinking innovatively
Those recent successes in women’s sports have been hard-won, achieved under undue pressure, out of necessity, through sheer creativity and tenacity. They’ve had to come up with innovative solutions to ongoing problems — problems that men’s leagues have been able to sweep under their own rug with a large stack of cash.
For example, Angel City FC is thriving under a collective ownership model by a group of progressive women celebrities, venture capitalists, and retired National Women’s Soccer League players. Additionally, Athletes Unlimited, which operates basketball, softball, volleyball, and lacrosse leagues, saw sponsorship revenue increase by 122% year-over-year.
Athletes themselves are securing big wins, too: WNBA players successfully renegotiated their contracts for more appropriate salaries and benefits. The US Women’s National Soccer Team used their increased visibility around the 2019 World Cup to ensure equal compensation for US women competing in international events.
Every industry is hungry for business models that do more with less. Combine that need for creative financial strategies with the growing demand among increasingly powerful consumer groups (namely women and Gen Z) for women athletics specifically — and equitable business practices in general — and women’s sports are poised for a major breakaway play.
3. When women invest in women’s sports, it changes the game
Independent bookstores often urge readers not to buy books from the big online retailer (you know the one) by explaining it like this: That big company won’t feel you leave, but your local bookstore will feel you show up. In other words, it’s not always about withdrawing support, but rather putting it where it counts.
The same goes for sports. That’s why Angel City’s collective model is catching on with teams in Washington and Chicago and North Carolina. It’s why Naomi Osaka has used her position to opt out of press conferences, sparking major conversations about expectations for athletes and how sports organizations view mental health. Women, both athletes and civilians, are showing up to foot the upfront costs men have consistently deemed not worthwhile — because they understand the difference that that investment can make for the future of the industry.
We have the power to elevate women by being intentional with where we spend our time and money. And as with any other gains for women in the workplace, we won’t get what you don’t ask for. We can’t afford to wait a couple hundred years before gender parity is reached in the United States.