Primed for primetime – The case for women’s sports coverage

Story and cover art by Dathyl Larsen.

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of The Daily Universe Magazine and magazine show (embedded below).


Odicci Alexander, a pitcher for James Madison University’s softball team, was a key player during the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in 2021. JMU had never been to the college softball world series before, but the team was on an upward trajectory, going from a dismal record of 25-24 in 2002 to a stunning 41-4 run and an entrance to their first world series by the 2021 season.

After its dazzling run in the tournament, JMU was searched on Google more than Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Devin Booker combined. Their numbers went through the roof with an average viewership income of $1.2 million per game. This year’s WCWS raked in the two largest ESPN audiences since the 2021 April NFL draft with an average of two million viewers in the first two games.

To give a comparison of these impressive stats, the NCAA Men’s College World Series averaged just 755,000 last year—the women’s games received 60 percent more views than the men.

Odicci Alexander pitching for James Madison University. (James Madison Softball Twitter)

Despite the popularity of the WCWS, it wasn’t a priority for primetime television executives. So why weren’t the women given a better timeslot and channel, or at least given the same playing schedule as the men? They had one rest day for a week of play and some teams had to play doubleheaders while the men’s teams got six rest days and four more days to play.

Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences puts it bluntly. “Our analysis shows men’s sports are the appetizer, the main course and the dessert, and if there’s any mention of women’s sports it comes across as begrudging ‘eat your vegetables’ without the kind of bells and whistles and excitement with which they describe men’s sports and athletes.”

Jennifer Rockwood, head coach of the BYU women’s soccer team, believes, “the more exposure you get, the more people are familiar with your players and what they’re doing and how they’re trying to best represent…people are gonna be more invested in helping the athletics program and department in general. That’s huge too, just that the exposure. All that coverage benefits us and our program.”

Rockwood believes that soccer coaches in general, and likely other coaches of female sports are “disappointed in the lack of coverage” that is being shown to their athletes.

Coaches, sports programs and broadcasters know the power of primetime exposure. But that’s precisely why networks are stingy with their coverage.

Tegan Graham, a starter on the BYU women’s basketball team, whose master’s project explores the gender disparity in NCAA athletics, argues that men’s teams generate significantly more money than women, but that no one really goes beneath the assumption and asks why.

Tegan Graham drives against San Diego. Graham is a starter on the BYU women’s basketball and a master’s student looking at gender inequity in college athletics. (BYU Photo)

Graham believes a lot of it has to do with a system that incentivizes investment into men’s sports. The broadcasters over-emphasize male athletes and their athletic achievement, at the expense of female athletes, which has historically put women on the backburner. But now things are changing and female athletes are tired of waiting in the shadows. They’re ready for primetime.

During the height of COVID-19, sports fans turned to women’s sports in record numbers. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) experienced an increase in TV ratings during the 2020 pandemic and they were the only professional league to have that happen to them.

Not the NFL, the NBA or the MLB—it was two women’s sports leagues that received more viewership because consumers across the United States and Canada tuned in to watch women compete in primetime at higher rates than ever before.

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team made it to the Women’s World Cup in 2019, and the match was watched by an average of 15.6 million viewers in the U.S. That’s a 22% viewer increase from the 2018 Men’s World Cup Finals.

Women’s sports are gaining more and more people who want to see them contend and are willing to seek out these sports and spend time watching them. Even though they’re not on primetime, they are drawing higher numbers than male-dominated sports teams in some cases.

The women’s national team was in the World Cup—a moment that all sports teams are competing for in their own respective events (Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals, etc.). It’s a moment that showcases the best of the best and proves who the real champions are, for a country and the world. It’s a moment of pride for the winning country.

The USWNT outscored competitor after competitor and proved to be that champion team. Even though they became world champions and deserved their moment in the spotlight, it wasn’t given to them. Not only was the women’s team competing with the Netherlands soccer team on the field, but off the field, they were competing against the Men’s CONCACAF Gold Cup Final and the Men’s Copa America final for a spot on primetime TV. 

Megan Rapinoe plays for the USWNT. (Photo Courtesy of Ira L. Black- Corbis/Getty Images)

Despite facing competition from male sporting events, this year and in the past, the women’s games still raked in higher viewer numbers on Fox Sports and social media platforms and have reportedly brought in more revenue for the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) than the past three years of men’s games. Sounds like a team ready to hold onto a primetime television slot with no trouble.

Additionally, the U.S. women’s soccer jersey was the top-selling soccer jersey, men’s or women’s, ever sold in a single season on Nike.com.

As head coach of Georgia Tech’s women’s basketball team Nell Fortner said in a press conference, “Instead of treating her [women’s basketball] sport like a cost to minimize, the NCAA should see it the way so many others increasingly do: as an opportunity for growth.”

Not only could women’s basketball and soccer teams, at the professional and collegiate levels, grow the business for broadcasters, but for women’s Olympic athletes as well.

What’s the most viewed Olympic sport on television? Is it a male or female-dominated event? Would it be surprising to know that it’s actually all the women’s sports together? The USA Women’s teams “won 58.4% of the medals…they also set a record on television screens, taking up 59.1% of NBC’s primetime coverage.”

Interest in women’s athletics is soaring. Audiences are hungry for sports entertainment, specifically from women. Two associate professors at NYU, Bri Newland and Ted Haynuk, did a study on the female sport fandom and reported, “46% of women are ‘interested’ or ‘very interested in sport, with 41% interested in watching live sports events and 39% interested in watching sport on TV.”

Sports fans want to watch these female athletes compete and are creating a fan base for them that wasn’t there before. Since 2012, viewership numbers for female athletics have grown and continue to do so.

The growth of women’s sports and their increasing popularity begs the question: if female sports are consistently attracting large numbers of viewers, why aren’t they being given primetime slots along with, or instead of, men?

The NCAA claims that women’s teams lose more money than they bring in. But that’s not entirely true.

The Washington Post reports, “Between 2016 and 2019, the women’s championship game averaged almost four million viewers, nearly double that of the baseball and softball series, the next most-viewed championships in the package.”

And despite what the NCAA says, the women’s tournament could make almost 20 million dollars a year for ESPN and ESPN2, according to the Washington Post.

Networks have a treasure chest they haven’t opened yet in female athletics. Women’s sports represent an untapped revenue stream. The athletes get to showcase their skills and talents that they’ve developed over the years, just like their male peers. They’re able to perform on a primetime stage that’s often unavailable for them. For the fans, especially the female fanbase, they can cheer on and support females as athletes and powerful women.

The notoriety of Odicci Alexander and her fellow Dukes during the Women’s College World Series put them on stage, showcasing the power of femineity and sport. These athletes, along with countless other female athletes, have fought their way to the top of their own primetime without much help.

(James Madison University Athletics)

Although many women’s sporting teams still aren’t given the primetime coverage they deserve, they still attract a growing fanbase. They’ve competed for years to get to the top of their game and they deserve their shot as the main attraction: to be the future female athletes of primetime television everywhere.

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