Each day around the globe, nearly all men’s games for every major mainstream sport are available for fans to watch in real-time or on replay. Further, media outlets provide avid reporting on the games and players before, during and after. But women’s games and female athletes are another ball game.
According to a 2021 article in Sage, over the course of three decades, a stunning 80% of top-ranked sports news and highlights shows in the U.S. had zero stories on women’s sports.
The Female Quotient (FQ) and global sports streaming platform DAZN recently conducted a survey in eight countries. These findings were dissected and turned into a new global research report, The Coverage Gap: A Step Towards Leveling Visibility and Viewership Disparity in Women’s Sports. The survey’s bottom line: There is still a massive disparity in the amount of coverage women’s sports receive in broadcasted games and media, but the landscape is shifting and there are actions we can all take to remedy this.
FQ CEO Shelley Zalis, along with Haiwen Lu, DAZN’s VP of global communications and social impact, spoke during Advertising Week about the survey’s findings and what we can do to help close the coverage gap.
Focusing the lens on inequity
“When it comes to discussions about women’s sports it may seem that we have to prove interest—but it’s already there,” Lu said. “Think about the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Olympics, the U.S. Open.” Furthering that point, The Coverage Gap study found that 314 million people worldwide are interested in women’s soccer today—that’s 16% of the total population.
However there’s a significant divide between the number of people who say they’re interested in women’s sports and those who actually watch women’s sports. Nearly all sports fans (93%) watch men’s sports compared with 63% who watch women’s sports. Lu said there are several key reasons for this.
“Fans are not sure who to watch because they don’t know enough about the teams and the rivalries,” she said. “They also can’t figure out when and where to watch the games, perhaps due to an overall lack of promotion. It all ladders back to a coverage gap— social coverage, media coverage, broadcast coverage.”
The study also discovered revelatory data points about the percentage of sports news media coverage devoted to female athletics. France is highest with 15% of media coverage focused on women’s sports, followed by the U.K. at 7% and the U.S. at just 4%. Lu explained that France’s higher percentage was due to a concerted effort to improve.
“The government and advocacy groups introduced a special 24 hours of women’s sports in 2014 and 2015 on key broadcast channels,” she said. “This led to immediate visibility and a ripple effect because they brought in new experts who became part of the regular sports news teams.” She added that the French Ministry of Sport actively invested about a million euros to domestic broadcasters, earmarked specifically for women’s sports coverage.
Refereeing visibility for women’s sports
It’s imperative to invest in storytelling that expands the prominence of women’s sports and builds dedicated interest in matchups, rivalries, fan stories and the profiles of the athletes, Lu said. “The trend in men’s sports is that it’s also covered in the off-season—it’s nonstop. Broadcasters can do that for women’s sports too. They can commit to specials during the off season and benchmark and set goals, whether it’s 5% or 20% more coverage.”
DAZN, for one, has secured the global rights from 2021 through 2025 to broadcast the UEFA Women’s Champion League, the No. 1 club competition in women’s soccer. To help grow the audience for women’s soccer worldwide, DAZN has also teamed up with YouTube in a landmark partnership that will allow fans to watch matches for free all over the world for the next two years.
“The impact will be tremendous—more visibility leads to more eyeballs, more fans, more sponsorship dollars, more investment,” Lu said. “It’s critical for us to be part of the ecosystem.”
With the season already in full swing, DAZN has assembled the largest on-air commentator team for women’s sports, featuring experts from all over the world that will ensure every match will be covered in three languages. And it doesn’t stop with broadcasting the matches.
“We are committed to storytelling about the players and women’s soccer in general,” Lu said. “We’ve developed a new series going to major cities around the world to understand how women’s soccer is on the rise, from the youth leagues to the pros.”
It’s clear there’s a hunger for this coverage: DAZN’s rights kicked off on Oct. 6, and within two weeks viewership was up 33%.
We can all move the ball forward
“Women in sports are role models for young girls, and team sports are so important for learning about collaboration,” said FQ’s Zalis, noting that 94% of leaders in the corporate world have played team sports.
“That’s exactly what we’re talking about here today,” Lu added. “Seeing women play sports inspires little girls to play.” She pointed to Serena Williams and Simone Biles as globally recognized sports icons, “but compared to the number of male athletes who are household names, it doesn’t come close. And that boils down to coverage. We must prop up the hundreds of thousands of female athletes no one’s ever heard of.”
Professionals across a range of industries can play a role in this arena. Broadcasters can give women’s sporting events more prime-time slots and invest in on-air experts and more high-quality storytelling. Journalists should continually audit their content and intentionally expand their coverage. Brands and advertising creatives can tap female athletes as ambassadors.
“You need diverse voices at the table to ensure everything out there reflects the real world,” Lu said. “If you can see it, you can be it.”
As well, media buyers can support women’s athletics. “When ABI (Anheuser-Busch InBev) made a conscious decision to move media dollars into women’s sports, the ROI was exponentially remarkable,” Zalis pointed out.
And of course, fans—both female and male—are critical to the growth equation. As broadcasters step up and make the most popular sports such as women’s soccer more accessible, viewers can proactively seek out events and tune in. Following and engaging with teams, leagues and athletes on social media will also contribute to narrowing the coverage gap.
Female athletes represent 50% of the individuals who embody the mastery of the game and a centuries-long tradition of legendary sports achievements. These women deserve the opportunity to play before a much broader audience and to inspire the next generation of sports stars.