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After World Cup Win, What It Will Take for Women’s Sports to Grow

The Women’s World Cup, which concluded Sunday night in the final with U.S. dominating Japan, has been a ratings success for Fox. The final match was the highest-rated televised broadcast of a soccer game in the U.S. And that includes any game previously played by men or women. Clearly, the Women’s World Cup is popular.

Yet the National Women’s Soccer League—which employs many of the same players—struggles to attract the same level of interest we see in Major League Soccer. And the same is true for other women’s leagues, including National Pro Fastpitch and the Women’s National Basketball Association. Neither of these leagues do as well as Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association.

There are significant factors that seem to be limiting the growth of women’s sports. Women are the majority of students on college campuses, but men receive a larger share of athletic scholarships. Except for professional tennis, compensation of professional lags significantly behind the pay of male professionals. Even in women’s sports, women are less likely to be hired as coaches. And in the sports media, women only create about 10% of the content. A recent study found that ESPN’s Sportscenter persistently devotes less than 5% of its highlight program to women’s sports.

Sexist attitudes and stereotypes also plague women’s sports. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated recently tweeted that “women’s sports in general (are) not worth watching.” In response to a Twitter conversation about why more people don’t watch women’s sports, Andy Glockner, executive editor of the Cauldron, tweeted: “When women can’t dunk or make shots, or women play on a huge soccer field w/ poor GKers, [goalkeepers] the product can get marginalized.” After scoring a career-high 45 points in a recent WNBA game, Elena Delle Donne read tweets questioning her skills and the entertainment value of women’s basketball in a video posted to Chicago Sky’s YouTube channel.

Yet many of these assumptions about women’s skills don’t match reality. It is true that WNBA players don’t dunk very often. The same, though, was also true for John Wooden’s championship UCLA teams and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry. But on shots that aren’t dunks, WNBA players have the same effective field goal percentage as NBA players. In addition, WNBA games tend to be more competitive than NBA games, according to a measure of competitive balance developed in the 1970s. With the teams more evenly matched, outcomes in the WNBA are little less certain, and this increases the entertainment value of the games.



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