Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

NWSL dramatically expands TV audience as women’s sports leagues see viewership growth

The Houston Dash, winners of the NWSL’s 2020 Challenge Cup.
The Houston Dash, winners of the NWSL’s 2020 Challenge Cup.
Photo: (Getty Images)

When we talk about “sports ratings” being down, let’s start adding a “men’s” before the phrase.

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The pandemic shut down the sports world in March. In June, the NWSL became the first American team sports league to return to play. In the league’s first game, athletes stepped onto the pitch in the midst of racial unrest and all took a knee during the national anthem.

That was the first NWSL game to set a viewership record in 2020.

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The Challenge Cup championship game between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars set the next new record for the league, bringing in 653,000 viewers.

This year, after an additional fall season, the NWSL grew their television audience by 500 percent. The NWSL’s social media mentions also grew 152 percent year over year. The league was openly and relentlessly political, but they didn’t see a drop in viewership.

The WNBA, too, saw an uptick in ratings. On the opening weekend, ESPN reported that the league had it’s most watched season opener since 2012.

That game, players wore “say her name” on the backs of their warm up shirts and “Breonna Taylor” on the backs of their jerseys.

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Renee Montgomery opted out of the 2020 WNBA bubble to focus on racial injustice. But after the first weekend’s ratings came in, she told Deadspin, “the more people give [the WNBA] a chance, the more the ratings will go up.”

And it’s not just basketball and soccer. Millions also tuned into the inaugural Athletes Unlimited softball season.

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Montgomery was right … to an extent. The WNBA regular season saw a dip in their ratings, as most sports have seen in the pandemic. But the WNBA Finals saw 15 percent growth from last year’s championship series. It was one of the only sports events with ratings up from last year. The Stanley Cup Final, U.S. Open (golf and tennis) were all down dramatically, according to Sports Media Watch.

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A recent Marist poll found that american sports fans have not been watching sports for a number of reasons, politics being just one of them.

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While 70 percent of Republicans say they’re less likely to watch sports because of athlete activism, 61 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents say politics makes “no difference” in their sports consumption habits. Thirty-one percent of Democrats say they are “more likely” to watch sports now because of athlete activism.

But the belief that sports is becoming too political and the ratings are, therefore, suffering is not all true. As Jane McManus, the brains behind this study, suggests, maybe the life-altering event we are all living through is contributing to how we consume something as trivial as live sports games.

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The WNBA, though, is the most politically outspoken sports league in the country and the NWSL is not too far behind. Clearly, politics haven’t influenced these ratings.

I asked McManus what she made of the growing audience of women’s sports and what it meant to the assumption that sports ratings are down because of athlete activism.

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“If you’re drawn to the WNBA,” she said, “then you’re probably drawn to watching powerful women who are not afraid of their own shadows. So hearing people speak their mind is probably in concert with what you’re expecting from those athletes and not in opposition to it.”

While political outspokenness could’ve enticed more folks to tune into the games, both the WNBA and NWSL were also given more TV exposure to showcase their play this year. The NWSL had a new TV and streaming deal heading into the 2020 season and the WNBA added more games to its national TV lineup before the bubble.

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It’s funny how providing more opportunities to watch women’s sports can help bring ratings up.

Still, both leagues did not shy away from political statements in 2020. The viewership, in many cases, has never been better.

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