Fall may be the most exciting season in American sports. The Texas Rangers won their first World Series in franchise history, and the NFL, college football, NBA, and NHL are back in full swing. But did you know that the Las Vegas Aces became the first WNBA team in 21 years to win back-to-back titles last month, or that this year’s thrilling National Women’s Soccer League Championship capped off the careers of all-time greats Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger?
As an avid sports fan, I think it’s unfortunate that more people don’t fully appreciate the excitement now surrounding women’s sports. And this is not just because I think female athletes deserve more coverage, but also because women’s sports have never been more exhilarating, more groundbreaking, and more culturally defining. And many fans, and would-be fans, are missing out.
One explanation cited for why these gifted female athletes aren’t receiving greater exposure and more airtime on national sports talk shows is that women’s sports draw lower television ratings overall than men’s sports.
But it’s hard for the women’s leagues to build a bigger audience without greater investment in showcasing their games and athletes.
“The big sports networks and shows are all run by similar minds and models that don’t necessarily look like the population of the WNBA, or like women basketball players in general,” says filmmaker Melanie Page. She’s the architect of the documentary series ”Can’t Retire From This,” which was recently screened at Morgan State University and highlights the rich history of gifted female players in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.
“If the most powerful decision-makers can’t relate … it’s not as easy for them to make the decision to advocate and promote” women’s sports, she adds.
This is especially frustrating at a moment when women’s sports are demonstrating the ability to attract larger audiences. Examples include the championship final of this year’s NCAA Women’s Final Four, which more than doubled its viewership from last year. Then there’s the record-smashing attendance of the 2022 Women’s EURO soccer championship and the University of Nebraska volleyball team’s August contest against the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which broke the world attendance record for a women’s sporting event with 92,003 fans.
Female athletes have consistently proven that if they receive the spotlight, they most often deliver. Exciting young stars such as tennis phenom Coco Gauff (whose US Open final grabbed higher ratings in the US than the men’s final featuring legend Novak Djokovic), college hoops sensation Caitlin Clark, and 20-year-old golfing virtuoso Rose Zhang are capturing fans across the globe.
Women are also making a bigger impact off the court, with college athletes such as basketball star Angel Reese (2.6. million Instagram followers) and gymnast Olivia Dunne (4.4 million Instagram followers) being in the top 10 in the name, image and likeness endorsement rankings.
LSU’s NCAA champion Reese, who was born in Randallstown and was a high school All-American at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, has garnered attention rivaling that of the top competitors in men’s college basketball or football. Carrying the nickname “Bayou Barbie,” she boasts endorsement deals with Outback Steakhouse, Amazon and Reebok, among others. She is one of the best interview subjects in sports.
“I trash talk,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” after her Tigers won the NCAA tournament. “So that’s just who I am, and that’s very passionate of me. I’m from Baltimore, so that’s kind of what we do.”
Her absences from recent games has sparked media speculation about her status with the team. But generally, sports shows spend less time talking about the stars in women’s sports than they do reporting on their male counterparts. Women’s games don’t get the level of attention and analysis, and sexism plays a part. Some of the men who work as network analysts and executives believe women’s leagues and skills are automatically inferior. But the more exposure those who doubt women’s skills get to actual athletes and games, the less likely they are to believe that.
“For me, it’s about access and education to create a conversation that leads to a shift in these sports networks and talk shows to add women’s basketball into their cycle of topics and coverage” Page says. “We’ve seen the growth of viewership exponentially shift in a positive direction with women’s basketball in the past couple years, and it will only grow larger if these networks create a consistent space for these women’s stories to be told.”
Page’s docuseries includes such DMV stars as former WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, ESPN basketball analyst Monica McNutt and Baltimore’s Briana Hutchen, a former St. Frances Academy standout.
Female athletes have earned the right to more national coverage and exposure, and their contributions could bring a profitable new demographic to national networks. What do networks have to lose by inserting more women’s action into their commentary? They can still extensively cover the NBA, NFL and MLB — and as a fan, I’ll be right there watching. But that doesn’t mean they can’t simultaneously give women’s sports more screen time on talk shows than a post-credit scene in a Marvel movie.
Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Famer Carol Stiff is a leading voice on these issues. She founded the Women’s Sports Network to help shine a light on female athletes.
“These stories about these athletes and these leagues need to be told,” she says. “We’re not going to get to afford the NCAA or WNBA rights. … but what we can do is tell the stories of the athletes who are going to be in those games.”
Women’s sports coverage has come a long way since the days when I could watch months of broadcasts in which the only female athletes meriting a mention were Serena and Venus Williams. I couldn’t be happier about that. But with female stars offering so much thrilling action in every sport that women play, it’s time for commentators and executives to understand what’s obvious to fans like me:
Women’s sports aren’t just having a moment. They’re having a movement. I was reminded of this when I tried buying New York Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu’s signature shoe on the day it debuted in September.
They’d already sold out in my size.
Skye Merida is the social media manager for the upcoming women’s basketball docuseries, “Can’t Retire From This.”