North Carolina coach Dawn Staley has been around women’s basketball long enough to see the woes of the WNBA, a youth league that is slowly gaining interest within the sport as a whole.
“It probably looks full of potential for the decision-makers in our sport to allow us to do this,” said Staley, who led the Gamecocks to their second college basketball title this year.
The popularity of the women’s game has grown steadily in recent years, but 2022 proved to be a turning point. Many of the sports in its women’s branches garnered television viewers, advertising deals, and major coverage.
This latest WNBA regular season was the most watched since 2006. And various women’s basketball stories have made headlines, from the sacking of two-time Olympian Brittany Griner of the Phoenix Mercury to the retirement of Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm and one of the most popular players.
According to ESPN, which broadcast 25 regular season games and all of the playoffs, the latter averaged 456,000 viewers, up 22% from 2021. Thus it was the most watched WNBA postseason since 2007.
The WNBA draft averaged 403,000 viewers, the most since 2004, when Diana Taurasi was the first overall pick.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbart said the league and women’s college basketball have supported each other in their growth.
She noted that the NCAA Women’s Tournament, which had the most watched finals in nearly two decades, fueled the momentum for women’s basketball ahead of the WNBA season. Now, Engelbart wants to see how far this growth can go.
“I’m never satisfied,” Engelbart said. “My team always asks for more. When you’re in hypergrowth mode, that’s what you have to do. We don’t rest. We have to take advantage of the momentum when it’s there…we also have to keep pushing. More investment and evaluation is needed.”
The league has an agreement with ESPN/ABC through 2025. The agreement paid the WNBA $27 million in 2021 and $28.5 million last season.
That figure rises to 33 million in 2025, at $1.5 million per campaign.
Also in 2022 women’s football has developed.
According to a FIFA study, it generated high global revenue from sponsorships and broadcasting rights. Through a report released in October, world football’s governing body indicated that clubs reported a 33% increase in business income from one year to the next.
77% of leagues get a sponsor name, up from 66% seen in the previous year.
Along with that structural development was an unprecedented general interest in women’s football.
A January friendly match between the United States and England at Wembley sold out in one day and attracted approximately 78,000 spectators. Earlier, England’s 2-1 victory over Germany in the Women’s Euro Cup final was watched by 87,192 people.
That last one was the biggest influx of fans for a Euro match, for men or women.
“The number and type of different platforms that are bringing attention to women’s sports, not just soccer, shows that there’s interest,” said Kate Markgraf, general manager of the U.S. women’s team.
In the United States, the popularity of the NWSL, the women’s soccer league, also grew amid abuse scandals in it.
An independent investigation commissioned by the US Soccer Federation revealed in August that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the league was a systemic problem, affecting many teams, coaches and players.
However, the NWSL Final, held on October 29, attracted 915,000 viewers who watched on CBS in primetime, a league record.
As women’s football gains momentum ahead of the upcoming World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, McGraff expects this year’s trend to continue into the near future. You want the success and popularity of women’s soccer to have a personal impact on fans.
“When you go to a game and see it, you’re amazed and you’re transformed,” he said. “And if that happens over and over again, it will have a huge resonance … That’s the goal of soccer in America, to be one of the premier sports in our country.”