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2023: The Year Women’s Sports Move into a League of Their Own 🏀
Though momentum has been building and objective data provided in past years, we are now in a paradigm shift for women's sport - as evidenced by the NWSL and March Madness, argues Alex Abrams.
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Introducing Sports Pundit MBA; a fortnightly series of content in partnership with the MBA Sport Business Alliance.
MBA SBA is comprised of current MBA students and alumni from 10 premier business schools across the United States.
Through this content partnership, I’m working directly with them to provide you with high-quality sports business content from a variety of sharp, next-gen perspectives.
The first member to contribute is Alex Abrams, co-founder and former President of MBA SBA who now serves as Director of Customer Success at Web3 Pro. Alex is a recent Michigan Ross MBA graduate who has worked in the sports business for nearly a decade - having held positions at SSB (now Affinaquest), FanDuel, and KB Partners.
By Alex Abrams
It can be challenging in the moment to take a step back and realize you’re witnessing a seminal event in history.
Let me help you.
Just a few months into 2023, this year is already shaping up to be the time that will be remembered by the masses for what many have been saying for years: women’s sports are here, and they have stepped out of the shadow of their male counterparts as viable, standalone enterprises.
There has been momentum building the past several years and objective data on this topic has been provided before, but right now we are in a paradigm shift backed by both a palpable groundswell of support/excitement and a set of business metrics that lay out a sterling case for women’s sports.
When illustrating this current moment that we’re in, two specific cases are top of mind; the NWSL and the NCAA Women’s March Madness tournament.
Regarding the metrics that will be discussed, a quick framework: all leagues need stability to grow, and that stability comes from a set of interconnected revenue streams: ticket sales/attendance, sponsorships, and media rights. Drawing more eyeballs (viewership) and putting more butts-in-seats (ticket sales/attendance) means larger sponsorship opportunities, bigger TV deals, and a flywheel that raises all areas of the sport.
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) kicked off its 11th season with a bang, breaking its opening week attendance record by drawing nearly 100,000 people to its matches and announcing that season ticket sales were up 20% year-over-year across the league.
Viewership also continues to grow, as last November’s championship game drew 915k, and the league expects to easily surpass 1m viewers this year. The current TV deal with CBS expires at the end of 2023, and the league is perfectly positioned for a lucrative new deal that is indicative of its success domestically but also will be bolstered by one of the biggest global events of the year - the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
To cap off the record week, the NWSL announced it was expanding from 12 to 14 teams, with the new teams’ ownership groups counting investment giant Sixth Street Partners and tech executive Sheryl Sandberg among its ranks - Sixth Street’s CEO laid out the business case for why they’re investing in a recent LinkedIn post, and the potential value of these clubs jumps off the page. The expansion fee for these two clubs was $53m each, and it’s expected that the next round of new clubs will pay at least 2x that.
For a league that just a few years ago was struggling financially and reeling from damning reports of league-wide abuse and misconduct, this big opening weekend is confirmation that it’s firmly in a new era of redemption, healing, and exponential growth.
Women’s March Madness
This year’s Women’s NCAA Basketball tournament, and more specifically the Final Four, showed that when given the proper branding and platform (games on ESPN main channel and ABC), women deliver.
All three Final Four games at the 20,000-seat American Airlines Arena were sold out, ticket demand was through the roof, and the crown jewel of them all - viewership. First, the games themselves turned in massive numbers - the South Carolina and Iowa semifinal had 5.5m viewers and the national championship between Iowa and LSU shattered the prior viewership record with almost 10m people tuning in - a figure on par with most NBA Finals games.
Looking forward, women’s college basketball will be one of the bigger media rights deals to hit the market next year. Currently, it is part of a package deal with other sports like lacrosse and hockey that is worth about $34m annually. It is expected that women’s basketball will fetch 3-4x that, as some media consultants suggest it is worth ~$100m annually.
What feels different this time, though, is that in addition to the strong business metrics, the Women’s Final Four dominated the media and public zeitgeist before, during, and after the event.
In today’s sports world, capturing attention via compelling storylines is king (or I should say “queen”) in the current environment. For the first week of April, you could not turn on ESPN or go on Twitter without seeing something related to the Women’s Final Four. These women, particularly Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, have entrenched themselves in the broader cultural conversation, and they’re here to stay.
What’s fuelling this growth?
Great products. These women are the best in the world at what they do and the US traditionally has had the best women’s sports leagues and training infrastructure, so the quality of play is exceptional.
Marketable star power. Female athletes generally have more engaged social media followings than their male colleagues and when this is coupled with increased exposure, it means more business opportunities. Reese and Clark, March Madness’ two top stars, gained 400k new Instagram followers over the course of the three-week tournament. This helps them individually via NIL, but it also raises the profile of the sport.
Expanded business infrastructure. As women’s sports grow in popularity, the business sides of the leagues have grown with them and are capitalizing on the monetization of some of the hottest sports assets in the world, leading to additional institutional investment. This increased revenue and investment has a compounding effect and drives the stability the leagues need to grow.
In closing, we must pay tribute to those who came before and laid the foundation for women’s sports to ascend to where it is today. While many of these contributions went unrecognized and underappreciated, they have forged the path which is now turning upwards.
That said, the work is not finished…
There is a long road ahead to address the numerous inequities that still exist, and it is imperative to continue to elevate women’s sports with both passion and objective data which can prove the business case for why these sports and these athletes deserve the same opportunity as their male peers.
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Members Director - Snowsport England (England, UK)
Senior Marketing Manager - Women's Leagues (9 Months FTC) - The FA (London, UK)
Global Sports Marketing Manager, Global Football (Sponsorships) - New Balance (London, UK)
Senior Manager, Partnerships Insight and Performance - Liverpool FC (Liverpool, UK)
Coordinator, Digital Marketing - National Women's Soccer League (New York, US)
Manager, Strategy - Major League Baseball (New York, US)
Manager, Licensing - Major League Soccer (New York, US)
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