There is a new financial model emerging in women’s sports, one that doesn’t depend on the traditional gatekeepers to coverage.
On Monday, the media startup Just Women’s Sports announced a $3.5 million investment from a number of entities, including Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures and individuals like WNBA players Elena Delle Donne and Arike Agunbowale and ice hockey player Hilary Knight.
Last week, the NHL’s Alex Ovechkin headlined a group of investors in Washington’s NWSL club, The Spirit, with women like Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Hagar Bush, gymnast Dominique Dawes and 99ers goalie Brianna Scurry.
Tennis player Naomi Osaka has invested in the North Carolina Courage. Actress Natalie Portman, Serena Williams and 99ers Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy are in on the Los Angeles team Angel City FC. Gold medal ice hockey player Kendall Coyne Schofield and ESPN’s Sarah Spain have put up for the Chicago Red Stars.
See the pattern? All over the map, athletes are fronting the long-overdue investments in women’s sports, particularly women who experienced the inequities that came with being pioneers.
“It’s a watershed moment,” Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist said. “It’s been almost 50 years since the passage of Title IX and some of these women athletes have enough money to make that investment.”
Take Foudy for instance. The gold medalist and longtime ESPN analyst has expanded way beyond soccer and has a podcast called Laughter Permitted. As a player, she and her teammates challenged US Soccer to hold the 1999 World Cup in larger venues like Giants Stadium and the Rose Bowl. After becoming a broadcaster, she has seen the same reluctance in some corners when it comes to covering women’s sports.
“There’s a lag time and they’re slower to react, “Foudy said as a guest on The Ladies Room. “It’s still a very older white guy that’s running a lot of these departments to be fair you see it at ESPN where you’re sometimes saying why are we still doing this and have we not realized there is a shift?”
The shift is in viewership. Last year when the WNBA and NWSL played in bubbles during the start of the pandemic, they attracted viewers.
“For NWSL there was a 500 percent increase in viewership,” Foudy said. “I do see we’re starting to see a shift.”
After years of waiting for the gatekeepers in sports, the broadcasters and the sponsors, to see the potential in the game, athletes are making the investments themselves.
There have been a number of failed attempts to start a pro women’s soccer league in the United States despite the excellence and popularity of the USWNT. Zimbalist noted that when a pro women’s league was started in the early 2000s, companies were more interested in Brandi Chastain’s celebratory shirt-shedding than women as athletes.
“It wasn’t a commitment to the value of the sport, it was about enthusiasm for women as sexual objects,” Zimbalist said.
You can see how radical the change in point of view is, when the women in these leagues aren’t oddities to be market-tested and packaged. They don’t need to be made palatable to the male audiences that broadcasters use to sell advertising to, they can just play – which is what this new ownership class understands.
“As the athletic world becomes more politically aware, they are going to look for more opportunities for parity,” Zimbalist said.
Leah Vann wrote an excellent piece on the impact of social media engagement between women and their fans, and how that points to the potential for growth.
Fans are often driving the demand for coverage that hasn’t yet emerged, and women in sports are leading the way when it comes to social media engagement with fans. Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video showing the inequity in the weight equipment the women’s tournament site had compared to the men’s. It went viral, and it launched a backlash against the NCAA’s gender-based caste system.
Women’s sports can’t avoid the equity discussion. Over the centuries, women have been banned from playing sports, forcibly attacked on marathon courses, deliberately underpaid, objectified, humiliated and gender-tested. Even though we like to think we have evolved, the mere presence of a woman on a sports field is a more political act than, say, donning an apron.
Taking literal stake in teams and leagues, as opposed to waiting for the approval of an ownership class that may never have wanted women’s sports in the first place, is the next natural step.
Women have proven the concept. Why keep knocking on a door that might never be answered?
The pandemic has been a moment to evaluate what really matters. And for many who care about women’s sports, it has become a moment to act.
“And coming out of it, at least I hope we’re coming out of it,” Foudy said, “I feel like we’re in a stronger place.”