Anyone who is a fan of the WNBA (or any other non-male professional sports league) has seen the trolls. They flood the comments any time a highlight of a non-male athlete happens to get some major coverage.
“Nobody watches the WNBA!”
“Women’s sports suck!”
These comments just begin to demonstrate the type of mindset that many people, including brands and media companies, have held onto. The Fan Project is here to change that with their newly released report.
What Is The Fan Project?
The Fan Project is the newest data endeavor from Sports Innovation (SI) Lab, led by CEO, Co-Founder, and four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero. Ruggiero and her crew set out to prove that women’s sports and athletes deserve all the money, resources, endorsements, etc. that their male counterparts get because—in addition to being fair—it’s an incredible investment.
Over 27 different entities partnered with SI Lab to complete this research, including the WNBA, National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Athletes Unlimited, Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and more.
The study asked Fans of Women’s Sports (referred to as FoWS) to run a report of their Twitter and/or Facebook data and then share it with The Fan Project. Data was collected from across North America and was split about 50/50 between men and women. The Fan Project did not specify whether any respondents identified as non-binary or another gender expression beyond men or women. Overall, SI Lab collected over 10 million data points from FoWS, which they paired with over 10 billion television viewership and partner data points.
Viewership Is Rising
From the data collected, The Fan Project found that women’s sports across the board have seen growth in viewership numbers in recent years. Even though NBA viewership took a hit in 2020, the WNBA saw an increase in viewership during the 2020 Wubble season. Audiences have continued to tune in this year in record numbers.
The #WNBA is currently averaging 357,000 viewers across ABC, ESPN & ESPN2 through the first 5 games of the 2021 season
🏀 Up 74% vs 2020's season average
🏀 Up 45% vs 2019's season average pic.twitter.com/ltVzUUTA8T
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) May 26, 2021
Women’s professional leagues and associations have turned to emerging platforms to become more accessible to fans that may not have traditional viewing options. The WNBA has streaming deals with both Facebook and Twitter, while the NWSL and NWHL have turned to Twitch as a streaming platform.
In 2020, the NWSL expanded their distribution to ensure that every single game was broadcasted on either CBS Sports or Twitch, which led to a 476 percent increase in viewership. In total, over 60 million viewers tuned in on Twitch throughout the NWSL season.
Leagues and media companies creating more options for fans to tune in has exponentially grown the fan community for women’s sports.
Storytelling and Community Are Key
The Fan Project found that FoWS engage in more than just traditional game-time viewership. In reality, the highest fan engagement for FoWS extends beyond the pitch, court, field, etc. As Ruggiero puts it, “Storytelling is queen.” According to the report, 62 percent of spikes in viewership of WNBA games in the bubble were related to off-court content focused on storytelling and social justice narratives.
The leagues and athletes aren’t the only ones getting in on the commentary and social action though. Fans are clamoring for conversation with other fans. The Fan Project notes that about 90 percent of FoWS are engaging with a second screen while watching games/matches. Fans want to engage in live conversation about the action, access statistics and other data, and utilize social media all at once. Many FoWS are also creating their own content to share within their team fandoms. The community that FoWS have built is incredible—from the friendships to the rivalries, it’s all driven by passion for the game and the athletes.
Merchandise and Branding
The storytelling isn’t just relegated to social media—FoWS want even more. They want to support athletes in their endeavors outside of their sport by purchasing athlete merchandise, donating to athlete-led charities, and remaining loyal to brands that support the athletes and leagues.
The Fan Project reports that jersey sales skyrocketed by a 500 percent increase after the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) won the World Cup in 2019. In 2020, the WNBA saw a 185 percent increase in shopping behavior, which held steady even through the offseason.
This trend also stretched beyond player, team and league related merchandise. The Fan Project states that FoWS “reward brands who sponsor women’s sports with an immediate increase in brand engagement and higher levels of brand affinity.” Visa and Budweiser both announced their sponsorship for the USWNT in 2019, which led to a 2,700 percent increase in loyalty to Visa and a 1,075 percent increase in loyalty to Budweiser from FoWS. WNBA fans were also 3.4 times more loyal to Nike after the league partnership was announced.
The Bottom Line
Women’s sports are not going anywhere but up. Companies need to get on board and start running these athletes in their endorsements because the data proves that FoWS go hard for brands that support their favorite athletes and teams. The Fan Project states, “The time to invest in women’s sports is yesterday.”
Fans of the WNBA know that the league needs expansion. Extremely high caliber players—like Layshia Clarendon, Lexie Brown, Kalani Brown and more—were all released at some point in the 2021 season. The league needs more opportunity to showcase all of the incredible talent available, but expansion can’t happen without an influx of investment. The Fan Project exemplifies why companies and brands should be calling WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert about getting in on the league—the opportunities for growth and revenue are through the roof. Now is the time for the WNBA to capitalize on these data trends and expand, either through roster spot additions or adding more franchises.
Beyond just the WNBA, the data here shows that when women’s sports and non-male athletes are made accessible, people tune in. People care about athletes and their stories, not just their stats and game-day performances. These leagues and associations are giving kids around the world a chance to see someone who they can relate to and emulate, both on the pitch, court, field, etc. and off.
The bottom line? Women’s sports are here to stay.
You can access the full report at http://www.thefanproject.co
Follow @sportsilab and @thefanprojectco on Twitter for more information.