Four keys to advancing women's pro sports leagues
Recently I had the privilege of attending espnW's highly informative summit on women and sports. The event brought together, in both formal and informal settings, athletes, executives and a handful of women's sports pioneers, all united by our desire to see sports assume a growing place in the lives of women and girls and to help women's sports rise to a more prominent place in our culture.
The conference brought differing perspectives to the fore. On one hand, many people who work in women's sports think of themselves as crusaders and the work they do as a cause. There's something to that. Women's sports would not be where they are today without the passionate exhortations to equalize opportunities and "do the right thing" that have rung out since the 1970s, and which still seem to surface whenever the state of women's sports is discussed. And there's no question many female athletes are still underdogs when compared to their male counterparts.
But on the flip side, women's sports post-Title IX now have a track record, with the ascent of tennis, 15 years of the WNBA, the fits and starts of two pro soccer leagues, the trials of softball and golf, the growth of lacrosse, progress at the NCAA and Olympic levels, and other outcomes all in the books. This history offers many lessons that are as instructive, if not more so, as the ideals and struggles that launched the women's sports movement 40 years ago. In my view, the women's sports community needs to begin moving beyond its crusade rhetoric, and undertake an honest and intelligent assessment of the business realities facing women's sports ventures today, especially pro team sports leagues, so that a coherent vision of where we go from here can follow.
For all the gains made by female athletes since the enactment of Title IX, the reality is women don't have a right to play sports at the professional level. They might have the opportunity if enough people are willing to spend dollars to support ticket sales or if the sport produces meaningful ratings on TV. It's not a gender-based concept; the same principle holds true for any men's sport trying to sustain itself at the pro level, be it lacrosse, volleyball, arena football, rugby, cricket or bowling.
Unlike girls' high school and women's college sports, women's pro sports are dependent largely on the whims of the market, in which fan, sponsor and investor appetites can make or break a league. Women's sports leagues today simply cannot advance unless their leaders have a complete mastery of how market forces work and how they can be used to maximum advantage.
Based on my experience, women's sports leaders today should keep the following in mind:
The product matters. Women's pro sports organizers need to think of themselves as "product people." They have to look at their sports or ventures critically, and make objective assessments about whether consumer interest and demand are there, just like in any other business. If a women's sport is compelling and relevant, it has a chance to catch on with fans. If fans respond, sponsors, networks, media outlets and licensed product companies will likely follow.
It's not enough for a women's sport simply to exist in order to attract fans. Fan support can be finicky, especially in a world now overrun with distractions and competing entertainment options. While women's sports offer a good show, many other factors have to come together in just the right way for a women's sport to be successful. In fact, what female athletes do on their playing surfaces might not be enough to sell their sports; in a world filled with celebrities, they face competition for attention, and they have to expect that paying customers might want more from them than simply athletic skill.
Understand the audience. Women's sports leagues are operating in a customer-service environment. This means their leaders have to be knowledgeable about the types of fans most likely to turn out for their sport and creative about the best ways to reach them. For example, one might assume women's sports events would naturally attract female fans. This happens, but adult women are often too busy with professional and family obligations to attend entertainment events, including sports events, on any kind of regular basis. They might not even be interested in sports at all. Sports leagues need to adapt to this reality (e.g., through creative promotional, scheduling and ticket sales strategies) or look elsewhere for support.
The same approach is needed to strengthen the connections with the other pockets of fans routinely seen in women's sports audiences: kids, senior citizens, lesbians, fathers with daughters, former female athletes, sports fans looking for good competition at a good price. These and other groups have been receptive to the WNBA, the WPS and other women's team sports events so far, but they can't be taken for granted, and turning their support into dollars year in and year out remains very hard work.
Marketing and promotion are critical. In our frenetic world, fans can't always be expected to ferret out a team's home schedule or know if or when a game will be shown on TV. Women's sports organizations and their partners need to get the word out about their "offerings," regularly if not continuously, so fans know where and when to show up or tune in. Without promotion, it's impossible for a women's sport to command the attention needed to attract fans and achieve the scale needed to break even or turn a profit.
Promotion is especially vital because mainstream media outlets, which tend to offer little or no regular coverage of women's sports, can't be counted on to provide free advertising. Technology and social media have created potentially effective new marketing avenues, which is good news for women's sports, but expertise and creativity are still needed to harness these outlets so they can produce results. In addition, because women's sports organizations work on tighter budgets, building cost-effectiveness into any marketing strategy is an imperative.
The capitalization base needs to grow. At the espnW summit, Richard Lapchick spoke powerfully about the importance of having more women assume executive leadership positions within sports organizations. But as women's pro sports look to the future, the role of women shouldn't end there. More women of means are also needed to take ownership positions and begin shouldering the capital requirements of women's sports operations, so that current and future pro outlets have additional investment wells to tap into. Female ownership has started to take hold in the WNBA, and this trend can hopefully swing to other team sports as well.
To be sure, for the foreseeable future, the support of male sports leaders and men's sports organizations remains wanted and needed, since no other existing infrastructures seem as well-suited to incubate women's sports leagues and initiatives and allow them to gain a footing in their early years. But it seems to me that if women believe sports are valuable and worth fighting for, as Billie Jean King did with women's tennis, we at some point need to begin weaning ourselves off the largess of the men's sports establishment and start putting more of our own skin in the game.
Persistence and principles got us to Title IX and the decades of growth that followed. Fan appeal, a business-like mindset and a little ingenuity can surely get us to the next stage.