Have Women’s Sports Arrived in the Mainstream?

Those at all levels of women’s sports face a constant battle to receive the same treatment and exposure that is afforded to their counterparts in men’s sports. Several recent developments in women’s sports are evidence that the gap between the two is closing, and the arrival of women’s sports to the mainstream may be imminent.

In the past two years, the fight for equal treatment of female athletes received a lot of publicity when it came to light that there were large discrepancies in how the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) and U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) were treated. Despite achieving more success during their World Cup run, the USWNT did not get paid as much as the USMNT, nor did they receive the same services, such as chartered flights.[1] A lawsuit against U.S. Soccer followed, that resulted in the members of the USWNT splitting a $24 million settlement, and U.S. Soccer promising to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s teams in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. [2] The CBA, which was agreed to in May of 2022, equalizes the pay structure for the two teams and improves the services given to both teams, such as travel accommodations and player health and safety measures.[3] While the issues surrounding the USWNT were not the start of the fight for equal treatment, it seems to have sparked a domino effect that has elicited far more support for it, as well as support for women’s sports in general.

On April 4, 2023, an expansion team based in the Bay Area was approved to join the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for the 2024 season.[4] The team is backed by the venture capitalist investment group, Sixth Street.[5] When the expansion was announced, the league had 82 interested parties, but only anticipated five to 10 official bids when the time came.[6] In the end, four potential ownership groups were presented to the NWSL owners before the Bay Area was selected.[7] Another expansion team is set to be introduced in 2024, with a third expansion team in the coming years.[8] The demand for women’s soccer is rising, evidenced by the amount of interest in establishing an expansion franchise, even at record high expansion fees for the league. Two of the groups behind these expansion teams are slated to pay $50 million in franchise fees.[9] The third group will not have to pay as much due to an agreement between the NWSL and a current team that relocated in 2021.[10] The interest from fans has allowed women’s soccer to expand to the extent that it has. This expansion will only allow that interest to further grow and reach a wider audience, helping garner public interest in women’s sports.

The support for women’s sports does not only extend to soccer. The Women’s March Madness tournament set records for viewership in 2023.[11] Viewership was largely driven by excitement around stars in the tournament, such as Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark. The championship game that saw pitted the two stars against each other averaged 9.9 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million viewers.[12] Viewership for the 2023 championship game increased by 65% from viewership from the 2022 women’s championship game and broke the record for the most viewed women’s tournament game in history.[13] Comparatively, viewership for the Men’s March Madness championship game was down 15% from 2022.[14]

Further support was shown for the 2023 women’s tournament via social media. En route to the championship appearance, Clark recorded the first ever triple-double in either the Women’s or the Men’s March Madness tournaments.[15] Historically, coverage of women’s sports on social media has been met with negative and misogynistic responses from other users. However, the comments on an Instagram post by ESPN about Clark’s triple-double were overwhelmingly positive, as noted by Twitter user @its_whitney

Neither Reese nor Clark was eligible for the 2023 WNBA draft due to controversial eligibility requirements that require four years of collegiate play.[16] There is no doubt that they would have brought attention to the professional league if they were eligible, but another year at the collegiate level could lead to even greater viewership numbers in the 2024 March Madness tournament. Additionally, both stars saw an increase in the value of their names, images, and likenesses.[17] Their increased popularity could lead to more fans following their journey to the WNBA after the 2024 tournament.

As the trend of support continues, women’s sports will continue to grow at all levels. As they do, women’s sports will draw the attention they deserve.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/22/sports/soccer/us-womens-soccer-equal-pay.html

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2022/05/ussf-womens-and-mens-national-team-unions-agree-to-historic-collective-bargaining-agreements

[4] https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/bay-area-awarded-nwsl-expansion-team-2024-location-be-determined

[5] Id.

[6] https://www.cbssports.com/soccer/news/nwsl-week-4-power-rankings-washington-spirit-rise-with-trinity-rodman-portland-thorns-in-class-of-their-own/

[7] https://www.sportico.com/business/sales/2022/nwsl-expansion-bids-1234697670/

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2023/04/05/ratings-for-the-march-madness-finals-games-sets-a-record-high-women-and-a-record-low-men/?sh=2a4afbcd6837

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] https://ublawsportsforum.com/2023/04/24/revisiting-wnba-draft-eligibility-rules-in-the-age-of-nil/

[17] Id.

[Photo] Jeffrey F. Lin/Unsplash

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