Momentum behind women’s pro sports has fans — and investors — cheering

Chicago News

There’s new support for professional women’s sports. Big names are committing big dollars — and it is finally paying off.

In California, celebrity names like Jennifer Garner and Natalie Portman are backing Angel City FC of the National women’s soccer league.

In Washington, it’s the daughters of former presidents supporting female soccer club Washington Spirit.

And in Chicago, an investment group cashed in last month when the Chicago Sky scored the championship title after more than 15 years in the WNBA.

So what’s behind the momentum from these A-list investors? And why now?

Michael Alter owns the Sky. He said since the win on October 17, disinterested sponsors are suddenly calling him and ticket sales for next season have already doubled.

Why? His players, he says, are available at games and through social media directly. He says, they represent important social issues of today and they play in a league of 80% black women. Sue Bird is playing at 41. And Candace Parker, arguably one of the greatest players in the league, is a mother.

All of those were solid reasons for Alter to get the team off the ground originally. Players are accessible, relatable, diverse and more than capable of competing as well as the men do.

 “Women are powerful, smart, inspiring, not afraid to speak their mind and to be out front on issues,” Alter said.

Sarah Spain is a powerful women’s voice in sports as an ESPN sports reporter, radio host and writer. She invested in the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars a year ago and says the valuation of the team has doubled since she got in the game.

 “When I had an opportunity not just to cover it, but to talk about it and bring awareness and to say that I believe in it enough to put my money into it, it felt like a no-brainer to me,” she said.

Spain says the league is still so young.

The NBA was established 75 years ago. The WNBA was established 25 years ago. And the women’s soccer league in the U.S. is less than 10 years old.

It takes time. And yet during the pandemic, professional women’s team sports shined. Fan’s viewing habits changed, too. So Spain wanted to invest early.

 “During Covid, almost every single men’s sports ratings went down,” she said. “WNBA and NWSL ratings went way up.”

But Haley Rosen, the founder of sports media platform Just Women’s Sports, isn’t surprised.

 “I do think in the pandemic, if we can find a silver lining here, sports went on pause and for the first time it was quiet,” she said. “The NWSL was the first league back. The WNBA was one of the first leagues back and all of a sudden people missing sports were giving it a chance, seeking it out and saying, ‘Hey this is pretty good. These women can ball.’”

As a result, ratings and branding all got a bump.

 “They are finding that across the board, especially the younger generations …they care very much about where they spend their dollars and which brands they align with,” Spain said. “So women’s sports and the ideals and social issues that it aligns with is a massive opportunity for those brands.”

They all agree traditional American sports media is still struggling to make the transition when it comes to covering women’s sports.

To that end, the Sky’s owner is willing to make a prediction for a decade from now.

 “What you’re going to see in 10 years is that it’s all pro sports,” he said. “People (will) talk about the WNBA the same way as the NBA, not some sort of niche category.”

 “This is really just the beginning,” Rosen said. “It is continuing to build. Numbers are getting bigger every year. Just imagine with real investment, real media coverage, real attention, how big this space could get. I just think it’s going be massive.”

There was a recent study called the “fan project”. It said fans of women’s sports are “fluid” making them the fan of today. It also said women’s sports are the path to growth for the entire sports industry with nowhere to go but up.

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