Why do we ignore women’s sports?

Lynne Kiesling

I’ve scheduled this to post while I’m out on one of my long rides … this interesting Outside magazine article explores why women’s sports attract so little attention. The article focuses on cycling:

The Giro d’Italia Femminile is the biggest race you’ve never heard of. Covering 961.4 kilometers of Italian countryside over nine days, 127 athletes compete for one of the sport’s biggest prizes—the pink jersey. And in 2010, an American won it all. But as is usual for women’s cycling, the coverage was muted.

Again in 2012, American cyclists should be in the news: Evelyn Stevens became only the second American—after Lance Armstrong—to win the spring classic Fleche Wallone. She also recently won a stage at the Giro d’Italia Femminile. And Kristin Armstrong is a favorite to defend her gold medal in the time trial at the London Olympics. There’s even a new race on the map: The Exergy Tour, a women’s only stage race with $100,000 on the line. But for some reason, nobody seems to notice.

Some women’s sports have had some success — tennis is popular, and even though soccer and basketball are both popular and have spawned professional leagues, those leagues have struggled to maintain enough teams and enough profit.

As with most human phenomena, I think the reasons here are economic, cultural, and psychological, and the article explores all of them. First, the economic: sponsors and media, and the connection between them, which has a chicken-and-egg tension to it. Sponsors want media coverage, but which comes first — does media coverage attract sponsorship, or does sponsorship attract media attention? Or is the relationship among sport, sponsorship, and media more complex than that? And what constitutes media in such a decentralized technology environment as we inhabit and create? In women’s cycling, for example, two big team sponsors are Luna (part of Clif) and Lululemon; it’s a good bet that the athletes present role models to recreational athletes who can look at them and see something of themselves and their own athletic aspirations in them. Those women may turn that association into transactions.

That’s where I think the cultural and psychological intersect with the economic. Should sponsors expect that women’s sports will increase spending/transactions primarily from women? Speaking personally, I know I consciously direct my spending toward products that are thoughtful in their production of products for women athletes. Women account for the majority of consumer spending, but is the pool of women athletes too small a share? Do sponsors of women’s sports deliver meaningful commercial messages and aspirations to men, in ways that at the margin affect their spending decisions? Does media have to “use sex” to sell women’s sports to male spectators? Should it?

And how will social media affect that revenue model? Will the ability to generate social media attention for sports that are out of the mainstream, including women’s sports, increase the value that sponsors attach to sponsorship? I think we’re seeing that with men’s cycling, and given how strong the US women cyclists are for this year’s Olympics, I think women’s cycling may be able to leverage some of that combination of strength and social media into more awareness and media opportunities and revenue and sponsorship.

What do you think? Why do women’s sports attract less fandom, sponsorship, and media?

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10 thoughts on “Why do we ignore women’s sports?

  1. My only experience with this was in college. We were big fans of men’s hockey, but went to see a women’s game one day. It was boring, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. Then someone pointed out that women were not allowed to body check.

    On the other hand, I’ve attended UConn women’s basketball games, and the games are every bit as exciting as the men’s games, and that team at least sells out large arenas and does very well in television ratings.

    My guess is that if the women can play with the same physicality as men (true in basketball, not true in hockey), they have a chance of being as watched.

    I understand that during WWII, baseball put a very good product on the field with the women’s teams. I still think we’ll see a woman in the majors someday, probably as a knuckleball pitcher.

  2. Two reasons: 1. In most sports (but certainly not all) men (on the whole) out-perform women. Therefore, persons who watch sports for the enjoyment of excellence will (usually) prefer men’s sports to women’s sports. 2. Women are (generally) less interested in sports than men are. Therefore, even if some women prefer women’s sports over men’s sports because of gender bias, they constitute a much smaller prospective audience than the audience of men who are biased toward men’s sports.

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