Serena And WNBA Show Gender Equality Is Possible In Sports
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On Women’s Sports day, I reflected on the last 25 years where I have seen the struggle to promote gender equality in sports, seemingly to no avail. I recall representing Lisa Leslie, arguably the greatest WNBA player ever, and first women to dunk a basketball, in her footwear negotiations with Nike. Every year Nike would reduce the amount of money they were willing to pay her, despite her MVP status. The reasoning was that Nike discovered that male athletes were still driving the sales of the shoes anyway (girls looked up to the male athletes more because of the additional exposure and promotion that they received).

When I asked for a “signature” shoe, Nike’s head of sports at the time, Ralph Green, told me: “girls don’t buy basketball shoes because of what WNBA players wear, they want to wear what Michael Jordan wears.” The reason is quite obvious: cultural bias. “Air” Jordan was flying through the air in Nike commercials produced by Spike Lee and women’s sports, including the WNBA, were nowhere to be found on Madison Avenue or on the airwaves for that matter.

A few years later, in 2001 I had the opportunity to acquire the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour and put men and women together under the same umbrella. For the first time in sports, we mandated equal prize money and television time for both men and women and NBC Sports Chief, the legendary Dick Ebersol, made women’s beach volleyball a featured Olympic sport and nearly 30M people watched Misty May and Kerri Walsh capture the first of 3 straight Gold Medals at the Olympics and became household names. Today women’s beach volleyball is an NCAA Championship Sport and the pathway for many girls to attend college.

People talk all the time about the great Serena Williams and the increased ratings whenever she plays in the US Open, especially when she retired this past year and point to her as an example of women’s sports finally breaking through.

However, the Serena effect on TV ratings and the beach volleyball example were anomalies because the Olympics were once every four years and the US Open was once a year. Until recently there had been very little movement in the distribution and coverage of women’s sports on TV and in the media. Across the board, 95% of all sports distribution and coverage on TV and the media has been devoted to men’s sports.

I have advocated in the past that if we really want to see change, the sports media, starting with the major distributors like ESPN, Fox and NBC, should be required to promote and distribute a certain amount of women’s sports on TV. This would require legislative action much like Title IX or the Children’s Television Act. The Federal Communications Commission and perhaps the courts would likely follow to support and give teeth to that legislation. Girls and women need to be conditioned to watch women’s sports. They make up more than half the viewing audienc

For years I have been saying that investment in women’s sports were being treated as a “cause related” donation or charity rather than based on economic reality (i.e. distribution and reach). For the first time, I’m seeing the possibility of a cultural shift supported by some statistics that would justify media company and corporate investment.

You have heard the saying “if I can see her, I can be her”, but we have been challenged to see women’s sports both on TV and in the media in general. To that end there are three important areas to be focus upon. The first is the TV ratings. If the ratings increase TV distributors will provide better time slots and promotion for the programming. The second is the media coverage which draws attention to that programming. And the third is the amount of sponsor activation or marketing support that exists.

The WNBA has a breakout year in the TV ratings department. The WNBA ratings were up a whopping 22% from 2021-2022. That’s a sign that people are finally starting to “see” the sport in greater numbers. This ratings increase sends a powerful message to TV distributors, in this case ESPN, that additional promotion and better distribution is warranted.

One reason for this increase is that ESPN Social doubled the number of WNBA-focused social posts across the company’s various accounts in 2022. Those efforts resulted in 1.1 billion impressions, a 20% increase over 2021, and more than 193 million total video views, a staggering 90% jump from the prior year.

In addition, sponsorship deals and activation around women’s sports increased across 15 professional women’s leagues and 3,500 brands bought 5,650 sponsorships or media deals. Meanwhile, the advent of “name, image and likeness” (NIL) deals in the NCAA has seen female college standouts sell 680 partnerships across more than 350 brands, engaging 30M followers. the WNBA has since a staggering 1,000% surge in player endorsement deals since 2019.

Adam Silver says its not so much the money that a sponsor pays but the marketing spend behind the league that really makes a difference in shaping the consumers perceived value of the league.

Although we still have a long way to go, our culture is beginning to communicate the right way about women’s sports and we are seeing the movement to support true progress. It’s time to celebrate these recent successes but keep our foot on the gas to maintain the momentum.

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