Commentary by LEARFIELD CMO Jennifer Davis, as appears in MediaPost on Dec. 10, 2021
The NCAA recently announced that the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship will use the “March Madness” branding beginning with the 2022 tournament. This change is not only a testament to the growth of women’s college basketball, but all women’s sports at a collegiate level.
Women’s sports have grown from both a ratings and sponsorship perspective. The Women’s College World Series final series averaged more than 1.8 million viewers on ESPN, more than that network’s Sunday Night Baseball show (1.6 million) or its most-watched men’s College World Series game (1.7 million). Team USA’s softball win over Australia in extra innings to clinch a spot in the gold-medal game drew 15.3 million viewers as part of NBC’s prime-time coverage—a larger audience than the 12.5 million who watched the last game of this year’s NBA Finals on ABC.
It’s not surprising that women’s sports are gaining momentum, considering the strength of the female audience across all college sports. According to our Intercollegiate Fan Report published in August, 42% of sports fans are women. In addition, the female fan is more likely to be engaged on social media, providing a great avenue to reach fans who wield $530 billion in economic spending power annually.
More than 31% of female known fans have incomes greater than $150K. There are also reasons to believe that the percentage of female college sports fans is understated, as many women’s sports at the college level are do not require tickets for entry — which leads to less fan data collection and fewer opportunities to cultivate sponsorships.
All this growth comes at a time when the country is reaching a critical milestone in 2022: the 50th anniversary of Title IX. This landmark gender equity law opened doors for girls and women to take to the fields, courts, diamonds, ice, and more. Before Title IX, one in 27 girls played sports. Today that number is two in five.
Even after decades, the need to continue to create a groundswell of support for women’s collegiate sport remains, both on and off the fields of play. It will take all of us to coming together — properties, leagues, media companies, and brands — to support further growth, not just for this moment in time, but for the foreseeable future.
I had a chance to catch up with LEARFIELD’s Chief Revenue Officer John Brody, who commented that “the growth of women’s collegiate sports across the country provides a tremendous opportunity for brands to support the continuing evolution of female athletics.” He is seeing growing interest among national and regional brands in women’s athletics. He continued, “it is the time for a self-sustaining movement that powers women’s collegiate athletics forward for the long term; the data supports the investment, and the opportunity is too important to simply ignore.”