No Longer Just Fun and Games

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For women's televised sports, men may be buoys.

Are women's sports ready for TV's major leagues?

Oxygen Media is gambling on it. In February, the fledgling cable network announced it would carry television's first-ever block of women's sports programming on weekends. The network is anteing up about 9 percent of its $85 million annual program budget, betting that a host of offerings from boxing to rodeo to rugby to adventure racing to football is one reality programming trend on the rise among women.

On the surface, the move makes sense. Participation in athletics among girls and women is certainly at an all-time high, and new leagues continue to emerge. Events like the Wimbledon women's finals and the women's NCAA basketball tournament are achieving major-league television ratings, and women's sports sponsorship has crossed the $1-billion-per-year threshold. Women represent a potential audience-base of 140 million, account for as much as 80 percent of all consumer spending, and are projected to acquire up to 94 percent of the growth in private wealth in the U.S. by 2010. Says Lydia Stephens, president of Oxygen Sports: “We've gotten a lot of kudos for attempting this, saying ‘it's about time.’ There was simply no continuous block of weekly programming for women's sports, a way for people to have appointment television à la Monday Night Football.�

But behind the hype, crucial questions remain: Will viewership of women's sports ever reach critical mass, and what will it take to get there? The answer is as complex as trying to figure out what qualifies as a balk in baseball. As audiences splinter further and further thanks to proliferating channel and platform options, diverse lifestyles, and time constraints, and the economy casts a lengthening shadow over the media and advertising environment, Oxygen's wager comes with considerable risk. For marketers angling to use women's sports to build share for their products and services, opportunities are out there, but companies need to understand the dynamics of each game and the fan base that accompanies them before entering the fray.

The viability of women's sports TV, whose crown-jewel events in 1999 and 2000 attracted about $5 million in advertising revenues, hinges on three critical challenges in the months and years ahead. For one, age demographics create a disparity in interests between women who came of age before 1972 (when Title IX outlawed gender discrimination in funding school and college athletic programs) and those born later. An equally significant obstacle to marketers is bridging the gap between people who are just plain sports fans and those niche enthusiasts who like a single specific sport. Thirdly, male support has traditionally been a make-or-break factor for sports TV, whether it's men's or women's competition. Media companies such as Oxygen, new leagues such as the emerging Women's United Soccer Association, and marketers using the telecasts and events as promotional platforms position women's sports competitions as appealing to females only at their great peril.

While common traits account for the appeal of sports to women and men alike — the unpredictable outcome, the balletic grace of athleticism, the fire and drama of competition — homogeneity among women's sports fans is nonexistent. Reflecting the caveats of many who are trying to use women's sports to resonate with readers and viewers, Sandra Bailey, managing editor of Sports Illustrated for Women says, “You have to look at each woman's sport individually.� Apparently, SI for Women has begun to decipher the puzzle of women's sports, as it has more than doubled its ad revenues last year and increased its rate base by 33 percent. Fans of sports TV programs can be divided into at least two camps, according to Oxygen's Stephens. “A portion of our audience is an avid fan of sports in general, while a distinctly different group of viewers will be ‘sport-specific’ fans, say of figure skating or boxing or bobsledding,� she says.

It is the avid sports fans, particularly men, who have proven to make up the majority of viewers, excluding exhibition-type sports such as figure skating and gymnastics. According to ESPN, more than 70 percent of the viewing audience of its Ladies Professional Golf Association programming is male, while over two-thirds of those watching the Women's NCAA basketball tournament are men. ESPN's WNBA coverage comes close to parity. In the 2000 WNBA season, 41 percent of those who watched league games on ESPN were women. Even on the major networks, which reach a broader and more varied (read: less male) audience, men are still majority viewers of women's sporting events. “Fans of a particular type of sport are fans of that sport,� says Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research at ESPN, of the male fans. “So if you're a basketball fan, watching a hotly contested women's basketball game may be more compelling to you than watching a baseball game. I think the allegiance to the sport transcends gender.�

Fan numbers and television ratings illustrate other bipolarities in interest among women in sports rich in history like tennis, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics vs. team sports like women's basketball and soccer. Says Lisa Johnson, co-owner of Eugene, Oregon-based women's marketing consultancy ReachWomen: “Many pre-Title IXers are the ones who are fans of the traditional women's sports fare, while post-Title IXers are more apt to be fans of team sports like basketball and soccer,� Johnson says.

Consider a 13-year-old who posted the following message on Oxygen's online discussion board: “Hello everybody … I love tackle football. I'm in eighth grade and the boys say I play like a boy, and they are always saying how strong I am and stuff. Well, I just want other females' opinions on if I should play JV football next year when I go to high school.�

In general, women are a growing sports audience. The Women's Sports Foundation estimates that the number of 18- to 34-year-old women who watch sports has increased by as much as 40 percent over the past 25 years. But television coverage reveals another telling statistic about female fans of women's sports: Ratings show that audiences skew older than one might expect, even though it is largely young women who participate in sports. The 55-and-over market is a notable demographic: The 2000 WNBA championship on NBC had an average of 312,000 female viewers over the age of 55, but only 275,310 female viewers ages 18 to 34. The same holds true for women's college basketball. For all of the NCAA women's basketball games shown on CBS in 2000, the average 18 to 34 female viewership was 91,350. However the over-55 group who watched the games more than doubled those numbers.

Oxygen Sports hopes to bring younger sports fans into the mix. “The key demographic for us would be 18- to 34-year-old active women, but we're programming and producing the shows to appeal to all fans,� Stephens says. She adds that Oxygen is taking a Title-IX approach to its sports programming production values, committing the same money to a women's sports event as any broadcast network would commit to a mainstream sporting event.

Among all female fans of women's sports, one thing binds most of them together: an active lifestyle and connection to sports. “The common denominator among our readers is sports participation, those who are hungry for news about women's sports,� says SI for Women's Bailey — unlike the men's NFL, where a typical fan might be “a 300-pound guy eating chips.�

IN THE GAME

Nearly 19 percent of all sports sponsorships last year were of women's sports, up from 13 percent in 1995.

YEAR SPENDING ON WOMEN'S

SPORTS SPONSORSHIP
SPORTS

SPONSORSHIP TOTAL
1992 $285 million $2.10 billion
1995 $405 million $3.05 billion
1996 $480 million (+19%) $3.54 billion
1997 $600 million (+25%) $3.84 billion
1998 $728 million (+21%) $4.55 billion
1999 $867 million (+19%) $5.10 billion
2000 $1.10 billion (+27%) $5.92 billion
Source: IEG Sponsorship Report, Chicago

ON THE BENCH

Female viewers of women's sports, by age.

AGE VIEWERS
2000 WNBA CHAMPIONSHIP, NBC
18-34 275,310
35-54 206,100
55+ 312,000
2000 TOTAL FIGURE SKATING BROADCASTS, NETWORK
18-34 336,490
35-54 824,400
55+ 1,279,200
2000 TOTAL LPGA BROADCASTS, NETWORK
18-34 91,770
35-54 164,880
55+ 343,200
2000 NCAA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL, CBS
18-34 91,350
35-54 206,100
55+ 218,400
Source: Nielsen Research

Another plus for women's sports, say experts, is a highly positive perception among both sexes, especially in light of some of the off-the-field antics of celebrated male athletes. “Women's sports are seen as examples, especially in basketball, as sports at its purest,� says Peter Fondulas, executive vice president of Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Taylor Research & Consulting Group. “There seems to be less concern about egos getting in the way, that players are less likely to be doing it for the money.�

The team at Smartix, a sports-focused, “affinity commerce� solutions provider, agrees. “The American sport with the most advertiser affinity is NASCAR,� says Ray Katz, CEO of Smartix, which specializes in “smart card� opportunities for sports events such as buying tickets or accruing loyalty points. “But I don't think women's sports takes a backseat to much else. I don't think that's widely known. Certain women's sports fly under the radar screen as marketing opportunities.�

Most experts agree that networks and advertisers do not need to compare men's sports with women's in order to measure success. “The feeling is that women's sports are sending a good message that networks want to be associated with,� says Fondulas. “They want to be aligned with an admirable aspect of sport, and are willing to sacrifice ratings in favor of targeting an audience that they want to go after.�

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