Speaking Up: Women's Sport is (Finally) Finding its Voice 🗣
Tour de Femmes avec Zwift and March Madness provide the evidence that for women’s sport to truly break out on the world stage, personality and storytelling will be key, writes Kelsey Smith
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As Alex Abrams previously highlighted, the increased investment at the institutional level is helping move women’s sports into a League of Their Own.
Following on, Kelsey Smith, an MBA Candidate at USC Marshall School of Business, wanted to provide additional perspective, both as a former and current female athlete.
Naturally, when reading and discussing the current state of women’s sport, Smith found herself comparing the stark differences between today’s environment and that in which she operated in as a collegiate basketball player at DePaul University – in particular, the lack of voice she had only 9 years ago.
In addition to the explosion and accessibility that social media has afforded women’s sport, companies with a focus rooted in storytelling have gained incredible traction: Togethxr, A Touch More, Women’s Sports Media, Just Women’s Sports, HighlightHER, and ESPNw, to name a few.
Serena Williams has recently added her name to this list with the launch of 926 Productions just last week. Her aim for the multimedia company is to “elevate female and diverse voices through content that speaks to everyone.”
So, with that said, here is what Smith had to say…
By Kelsey Smith
Last summer saw the introduction of the Tour de Femmes (TDF) avec Zwift, the women’s edition of the iconic cycling race that initially launched in 1903. The men’s version, Tour de France, is the most watched annual sporting event in the world, standing alone in audience (~3.5 billion viewers), prestige, and value.
In the last 120 years, there have only been 3 short-lived women’s events, all of which lacked broadcast & media support and any sort of long-term vision.
After leading a wildly successful virtual version of Tour de Femme during the Pandemic, fitness metaverse company Zwift led the charge in bringing TDF to prime time as the title sponsor; the 8-day stage race launched in Paris July 2022 on the final day of the men’s race.
What resulted was history-making viewership (100 million hours watched over 190 countries) and media coverage (~550 pieces in outlets including CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Sports Illustrated).
Kate Veronneau, Director of Women’s Strategy at Zwift, attributes many of these positive results to the brand’s investment in marketing the event, and taking an approach which was athletic-centric in focusing on storytelling through the voices of individual athletes.
Success hinged on the same factors that played a role in propelling other women’s sports into record viewership: quality coverage, optimal timing, and a wider audience with captivating heroes.
Those competing in Tour de Femme are not just athletes – behind the helmets are dynamic, intelligent, and outspoken women. Zwift’s focus on capturing those traits undoubtedly contributed to the success of the inaugural event; 2023 Tour de Femmes avec Zwift kicks off in July.
More recently, we have witnessed the 2023 Women’s March Madness Tournament take place in front of record-breaking viewership.
One of the most-covered storylines that lead up to the National Championship was the rivalry between two of the most talented players with the largest social media followings: Caitlin Clark of Iowa (678k flowers on Instagram, 155k on Twitter) and Angel Reese of LSU (1.7 million followers on Instagram, ~345k on Twitter).
Much of the buzz was attributed to the “trash talking” that took place between these two, more specifically criticism that Reese received around her “you can’t see me” gesture to Clark in the final minutes of the Championship Game.
Clark’s similar gesture two days earlier during Iowa’s Final Four win over South Carolina received little-to-no criticism and was actually praised, posted, and re-shared across several social channels.
Was the criticism Reese received a massive double standard? Absolutely, both from a racial and gender perspective. However, the coverage that this series event received, on platforms like CNN, NPR, USA Today, Vox, and Glamour(!), extended way beyond typical “women’s sports coverage,” and ultimately is good for the game.
It is comforting that unlike years past, Reese not only had a platform to speak up for herself, but that she was brave enough to do so - And that the world is finally primed to listen.
The historic lack of voice in women’s sport is not due to a lack of trying.
“You don't think we asked for more money? I mean, what are we screaming about? Nonstop!”
“We are getting obnoxious to ourselves, to be honest. We know all this, about all social movements and all people who are marginalized, whether it's by race or gender, religion, sexuality, whatever it is, it is not just their job to be the ones fighting oppression. We need all of the other people as well.”
This quote came in response to Draymond Green, who in 2021, criticized several professional female athletes advocating for equal pay.
"The NBA wasn't always the global game that it is today. It wasn't always driving as much revenue as it does today. But there were people behind it, building the platform, and more importantly telling individual ... stories and building up the interest in the players. That's how the game took off.”
“Who's building up y'all platform? Who's telling the individual stories of how great y'all are? Building interest and transforming women's basketball into a global game?"
- Draymond Green
Critics would argue that was by no means a fair comparison for Green to make, especially 2 years ago.
There should, however, be optimism that now, in 2023, there are significantly more platforms in place for women to “tell individual stories” and “build the interest” he spoke about.
Credit is also due to Green for, the first time since its 2021 launch, featuring a female athlete on his podcast, The Draymond Green Show.
During that interview, Candace Parker revealed that despite touting one of the most successful WNBA careers of all time, in 16 years, she never had a private locker or consistent access to a practice facility for purposes of getting shots up in off-hours –clearly a sharp contrast to Green’s experience in the NBA.
Continued exposure through platforms like this is vital as we women continue moving into a League of our Own. More specifically, we need consistent access to platforms that embrace the emotional side of sport; and celebrate traits that differentiate female athletes from male athletes.
Gone are the days when “being too emotional” constricts women from elevating and leading: our time is now.
For women’s sport to truly break out on the world stage, personality and storytelling will be key.
This was echoed by Green again in a more recent podcast. In response to the backlash Reese received during March Madness, he said “keep talking your shit; and keep letting them (the world) hear about it.” - a sentiment I’d like to echo to all of my fellow female athletes.
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