Women’s Professional Sports Popularity Issues

     Last night, the Phoenix Mercury defeated the Chicago Sky in an enormous 97-68 rout, giving them a commanding 2-0 lead in the WNBA Best of 5 Finals.  But you didn’t know that.  You didn’t know the WNBA was in the playoffs, or that the season ever started.  You know maybe three team names if that, and if you’re lucky five players, all of which you only know because they played college ball at one of the top five schools.

     Alright.  I admit that I can’t be sure that you know next to nothing about the WNBA.  However, unless you are a female basketball player or a diehard fan of the WNBA (of which there are few), there’s a really good chance you fit into the group of people I mentioned in the first paragraph.  I would say at least a 95% chance, but probably up to a 99% chance.  The fact of the matter is this: even most sports fanatics don’t seem to know anything about the WNBA, or Women’s National Basketball Association if you’re even more clueless than the average clueless individual.
     Even I may qualify for this list, and as someone who prides himself in knowing tons of sports info, this is a big deal.  Okay, I just quizzed myself and I was able to name nine of the twelve teams in the league, missing the Liberty, Shock, and Storm.  That might be a lot better than average, but still it proves a point.  Even something as simple as the team names are unknown to the mass majority of people.  So as I watched game 2 last night I decided to try to decipher this question that’s been bugging me for a while.  Why are professional sports for women so obscure and unknown compared to men’s?
     When I began to think about this, however, I realized something.  The problem doesn’t lie in women’s sports in general, but more so in women’s team sports.  Tennis and golf in particular are popular women’s sports, while albeit less popular than their men’s counterpart, but not by too much.  There’s typically women’s tennis on whenever men’s tennis is on, and especially during grand slams.  The same thing goes for LPGA golf.  It’s not as talked about as the men’s, and it won’t get CBS coverage, but it’s on TV if you want to watch it.  While we’re at it, Danica Patrick is one of the biggest female athletes out there.  She has become so popular that Patrick has been given what I call the Tiger Woods effect, which means that regardless of how good or bad she races, she always makes it into the highlight reel.
     So then why aren’t women’s team sports as popular as women’s individual sports, or men’s team sports then?  I think a big part of it is simple.  The biggest sport in the United States by a fairly wide margin is football.  The NFL is the most popular sport, and college football ranks in the top five.  Just due to the nature of the sport, very few girls play football even at an elementary school level.  Hockey is very similar.  Already we have two of the “big 4” sports ruled out.  The main two sports for women are basketball and soccer.  Apparently there is a professional softball league, but that’s so obscure that I’ve never even heard of it before today, so for the remainder of this post I’ll be dealing specifically with the WNBA and the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League).
     I personally believe that the largest boundary to women’s sports gaining in popularity is, sadly, just the fact that it’s women participating.  The sporting market is aimed at men because most people that watch sports are men, and many of them just don’t feel like spending time to watch women’s sports.  And that’s a shame because there is a really talented group of players participating in these sports.  For example, the average NBA game televised is watched by 1.4 million people, while the average WNBA game is watched by only 413,000.  Taking into account that many more NBA games are shown in comparison to WNBA, it is clear the NBA has a bigger appeal.
     Many people also claim lower levels of competition and overall level of play when compared to men’s games.  This fact is undeniable, and severely harms women’s sports.  People want to see the best in the world when they watch, and in women’s sporting events they aren’t doing that.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t good women’s athletes, because nothing is farther from the truth.  Players such as Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, and Elena Delle Donne in the WNBA, and Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan from NWSL are incredibly athletic and fit people, but it’s hard for them to appeal when compared to the monsters playing men’s sports such as LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo.  This is simply a genetic issue, and that’s something that can’t really be changed.
     The entertainment factor in women’s sports just isn’t there.  One of the best examples of this comes from the WNBA, specifically the lack of dunks.  Only eleven dunks have ever happened in the seventeen year history of the WNBA, not even one per year.  Brittney Griner has the all-time record with five.  Dunks are some of the most exciting plays in basketball, and something that practically never happens in the WNBA.  In fact, every time there is a WNBA dunk, it shows up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
     Women’s sports don’t get near enough coverage.  Only up to 30 WNBA games are shown on TV per year, and probably at least half of those are playoff games.  I don’t even think NWSL games are on TV except for maybe the championship game.  With so few chances to be recognized by the media, it’s no wonder how few people realize that women’s sports are even out there.
     Another point worth mentioning is how women’s sports lacks the big names of the NFL, NBA, and other men’s sports.  Even most people who don’t watch sports at all know who Kobe, Peyton Manning, and Lionel Messi are.  Even more importantly, extremely few female athletes have sponsorship deals that help for marketing of both themselves and the leagues they play in.  Women’s soccer wouldn’t even be on the map if it weren’t for Mia Hamm.  It’s incredible all she did for her sport.  The problem is that great players aren’t necessarily big name players.  Maya Moore and Skyler Diggins, and Candace Parker are three of the best female basketball in the world, but the only player I really see that draws people to watch the WNBA is Brittney Griner.  Until the WNBA and NWSL get players like Mia Hamm, they won’t be as popular as they can be.
     A lack of stability has plagued the scene of women’s soccer.  Lack of revenue means teams are created just as quick as they fold, and a new league springs up every few years, just as the previous one folds.  Additionally, many of the problems facing the MLS’s popularity are only intensified in the NWSL.
     There are many issues that all contribute to the low popularity of women’s professional team sports, which all combine to create a difficult situation for the female sports market.  The answers aren’t going to be simple, or happen instantaneously, but given time things tend to get better.  The MLS was barely a thing at the turn of the 21st century, and while it stills has its fair share of problems, it has turned into a competitive league that can compete on a global scale.  Hopefully in the coming years women’s sports will see the rise in popularity it deserves.
     Thanks for reading,
     Connor
     

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