Scott Lachut | April 25, 2024

The Women’s Sports Boom Edition

On Caitlin Clark, AI, and pastures new.

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Scott Lachut (SL) is a Brooklyn-based consultant who specializes in research, strategy, and innovation. He takes great joy in developing grand organizing theories about almost everything.

Scott here. 18.87 million people tuned in to watch the NCAA Women’s National Basketball championship on April 5th, the largest audience for any basketball game—men’s or women’s, college or pro—since 2019. Viewership for the 2024 Women's NCAA Tournament increased 127% year-over-year, according to ESPN parent Disney. These are just the latest in a series of record-breaking performances for women’s sports, which continue to experience outsize growth in interest, investment, and fandom. 2024 will see the first Olympic Games with complete gender parity, and Deloitte predicts that in 2024, women’s professional sports will generate revenues that surpass $1 billion for the first time—a 300% increase on the industry’s evaluation in 2021. The audience, a near-even split of women and men, appears eager to help them get there, with 84% of sports fans across eight global markets expressing interest in the women’s game.

Why is this interesting? 

Despite a legacy of trailblazing athletes and incredible milestones (the US Women’s soccer team's 1999 World Cup-winning celebrations are etched in my memory) it feels like women’s team sports are only now finally starting to achieve mainstream acceptance. Just ask Caitlin Clark, who after a record-breaking season and 2nd place finish in the NCAA women’s championship saw her jersey retired, made a cameo on SNL’s Weekend Update, and showed up to the WNBA draft (where she was selected with the number 1 pick) clad in Prada. And while she may be the face of the current moment, so much more is happening behind the scenes. 

As a brand marketer, I’ve noticed the entire sports marketplace— from media to investors and sponsors—catching on to the quality of the women’s games and the significance of the opportunity. Media coverage of women’s sports nearly tripled in 2022, accounting for 15% of the total share across broadcasts, streaming, social media, and digital publications, making it easier for dedicated and casual fans alike to follow their favorite teams. Name, image, and likeness deals (as well as their own social media) have opened up opportunities for female college athletes to market themselves and build a following long before they turn pro. In fact,— three of the top ten athletes and six of the top ten sports, in terms of NIL compensation, are female. (Sadly, this remains essential to female athletes’ long-term financial success, given the disparities in pay that still exist between most women's and men's sports.)

While the men’s side still holds a comfortable lead in dollars and eyeballs, that’s just because for most of its existence it's been the only game in town. At this point, it’s a well-trodden market with a high cost of entry that makes it inaccessible for many brands and fans. By contrast, women’s sports are in full-on challenger mode, putting in the work to prove they belong. What’s more, they have the bona fides to back up their claims—a growing number of marquee athletes, a loyal fanbase, and a high caliber of competition and play that is on par with (or arguably even better than) the men’s game.  

As they grow, women’s teams and leagues are doing so much more than simply copying the traditional sports playbook. Instead, they're embracing innovation in all areas, from athlete support and fan engagement to ownership structures and brand partnerships. (Two examples: The WNBA’s Changemakers platform and the NWSL’s Angel City have pioneered thoughtful  sponsorship models that look to generate value and impact both in and outside the game.) A recent spate of marketing agencies dedicated to women's sports have entered the market to help brands get on the bandwagon, while on the fan service side, women’s sports bars that almost exclusively broadcast women’s games are finding success by catering to the desires of the growing audience.

Sports fandom generates a potent mix of emotions and sensations. Following a team can be uplifting and heartbreaking, often within the same hour. In a fractured media landscape, where both broadcasters and brands are hunting for an audience, the appointment nature and inherently social aspect of tuning into live sports become a huge differentiator. They’re even more valuable when you consider the impending onslaught of AI-generated content poised to take over our channels and feeds. The way I see it, the rise of the women’s game creates more opportunities to go around. 

While the brand marketer in me is thrilled by the renewed energy and attention being directed toward women’s sports, I’ve realized that this is only one part of my excitement. As the father of a two-year-old daughter, it’s amazing to anticipate the exponential effect this is going to have on her. Whether or not she becomes a fan, knowing that my daughter will grow up seeing more aspirational versions of herself in more places is incredible. That’s something worth rooting for.

Quick Links:

  • TCL, the second largest TV manufacturer in the world, provides an early glimpse of our AI-generated media hellscape with its Next Stop Paris trailer. (SJL)

  • On that note, Ezra Klein and the Verge’s Nilay Patel recently discussed the consequences of an internet overrun with AI-generated media. (SJL)

  • Because humans still matter, Hard Art is a multidisciplinary artists’ collective helmed by Brian Eno, taking on the small task of saving the planet. (SJL)

  • And for all the left-brainers out there, this explores engineering’s role in degrowth and steady-state economics for a more sustainable future. (SJL)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Scott (SL)

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