Women’s sports face an uphill battle for viewers. Overall, sports attract fans due to athleticism, geographic tie-in, or some other personal affiliation. Professional sports are popular, in large part, because they present the sport at the pinnacle of athletic ability. College football and men’s college basketball present a diminished version of these sports, but they generate local and regional alliances in fans, particularly in places with little pro sports presence such as Kentucky. In addition, the product is differentiated somewhat from the pro game. Finally, some fans will watch games at college, high school, or even Little League levels because of personal affiliations – family, school, gender, or others.
Women’s tennis is unique among women’s sports in its permanent fan base. Many speculated that the 2011 World Cup run by the American women might help the sport become revenue-viable in the U.S., but it has not moved the needle. The WNBA has been around since 1997 but depends on subsidy from the NBA to exist. In contrast, women’s tennis can stand on its own revenue legs and toe-to-toe with the men’s game. While the women’s tour (WTA) generates only about 2/3 of the men’s tour (ATP) in terms of regular events, in the grand slams it’s a different story. The Women’s U.S. Open final has outdrawn the Men’s final 6 out of the last 11 years. The equal prize money for women at Wimbledon reflects these underlying economic fundamentals.
In contrast, the Wimbledon semifinal match between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova may only draw a million U.S. viewers. A finals between Serena (most likely) and whoever wins the other semifinal might draw 2 million viewers in the U.S. Yet, in contrast to the World Cup, the interest will be ongoing. In less that two months, millions of viewers will watch women’s tennis at the U.S. Open as well as at weekly events between Wimbledon and the Open.
The U.S. victory in the Women’s World Cup produced a record 25 million viewers, up a couple of ratings points from their 1999 victory. However, just like 1999 or 2011, it’s almost certain that women’s soccer will drift into the background of American sports interest just as with Olympic sports (both men’s and women’s). Viewership in these sports is fleeting and seems driven more by interest in the national jersey than in the sport.
I’m Distinguished University Professor of Economics at Gordon Ford College of Business at WKU. I’ve published 6 books including From The Ballfield to the Boardroom (2006) and The NCAA (1992) along with many academic articles. One of special note is a 2002 study with Robert McCormick and Bob Tollison of Clemson that looks at the racial integration of MLB and the ACC as a type of innovation. I’m supported by an incredible wife, two great daughters, and two not-so-smart but lovable Labs.