This week, Sportico is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX with columns from top women’s sports leaders. Today’s guest columnist is Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East Conference and founding president of the WNBA. JohnWallStreet will be back June 27.
The 50th anniversary of Title IX represents a chance to reflect on the myriad ways this groundbreaking law has transformed the relationship between women and sports in our country. During my high school and collegiate playing career and my 30-plus years working in the sports business, I’ve witnessed first-hand not only growth in the number of women and girls who play sports, either as part of teams or through individual fitness routines, but also how our industry has responded to the emergence of women’s sports as “properties.”
Like most things in life, the glass on this one is both half empty and half full. On one hand, the notion 50 years ago that the NBA would someday sponsor a women’s professional basketball league lasting 26 seasons, or that women’s pro soccer franchises would be trading for $35 million, or that a $100 million valuation would be ascribed to the NCAA women’s basketball championship, would have been unimaginable. The resounding commercial success since 1972 of women’s tennis, buoyed by the star power of the top players and a collaboration with men’s tennis to stage combined Grand Slams, was likely forecast only by a forward thinking few, led by the indomitable Billie Jean King and her courageous compatriots.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the differences that persist in the way fans think about and consume women’s sports when compared with the men’s side. These variances have led to wide revenue gaps, which in turn affect the mindsets, priorities and strategies of companies deciding whether to invest in women’s sports leagues as business ventures.
Although the battles for acceptance that defined the women’s sports crusade in the 1970s and ’80s have been largely won, they’ve been replaced by another challenge: how to convert the feel-good vibe of “with you in spirit” into cold, hard revenue, so that elite women’s leagues can endure as sustainable commercial enterprises. The protections of Title IX, which helped set the stage for today’s elite outlets, do not reach beyond federally funded educational institutions, so the fates of current and future women’s leagues will be left to the realities of the marketplace and the make-or-break whims of an important group of people: fans.
The question is simple: Will fans come out and support the best female athletes in significant and growing ways with their eyeballs, clicks, discretionary time and wallets? And if they do, will surges in owner investment, corporate support and media rights revenues follow?
In my experience, and if the history of men’s sports is any guide, the answer will come down to at least these factors:
- Capitalization. Pro sports teams aren’t charities. At the end of the day, someone has to foot the bill for the extraordinary expense and infrastructure required to run even the most modest of women’s sports league operations. While deep-pocketed investors with long-term asset play aspirations may be attainable, the incentive to invest will depend at least in part on whether near-term returns can be generated from ticket sales, sponsorship and media rights fees, merchandising and other revenue streams. A realistic business model that shows how costs will be defrayed and a willingness to be patient when it comes to profits are musts.
- Product. Fans in our cluttered sports and entertainment environment are discriminating and have a lot of offerings to choose from. Women’s sports leagues need to prove their worth by doing what the best men’s sports properties do: Wow us with some combination of riveting competition, compelling rivalries, star power, inviting venues, favorable television windows and creative ways to connect with fans. A touch of cool factor wouldn’t hurt, either.
- Promotion. With so many options in front of fans, elite women’s sports outlets need to aggressively advertise when and where their games will take place so people know where to find them. Mainstream media coverage, never easy to secure, remains vital because it serves as unpaid advertising for upcoming contests. Core fans are likely to materialize no matter what, but casual fans will need coaxing and a reason to come back if they give any league a first-time try.
- Scheduling. The annual U.S. and global sports calendar is like the island of Manhattan: Nearly every bit of real estate is accounted for. Women’s sports operators need to be strategic about scheduling events to minimize conflicts with other major sports properties. The WNBA was set up as a summer league to avoid head-to-head competition with the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and college sports of all kinds. The NCAA Women’s Frozen Four, in contrast, is played on the opening weekend of March Madness and is largely invisible to casual fans. If the goal is to start with a bang, end with a bang and have a shot at steady attendance and viewership in between, the ability to stake out and lock in a sensible calendar niche is imperative.
- Leadership. The skills needed to build a women’s sports property include all of those needed on the men’s side, but I’ll add to the list a tough shell and the perseverance to push through and keep at it when prospective business partners and fans don’t bite the first time around.
If these pillars are put into place, another process follows: building an appealing brand that marries what’s worked on the men’s side with qualities that can allow women’s leagues to stand apart and shine. That means selling properties that are at once athletic and feminine; edgy and wholesome; unapologetic and restrained; a sport and a cause.
With the gains and focus of the past few years as tailwinds, women’s sports properties are well positioned to become sought-after and enduring entertainment options, the kind that busy fans (women and girls among them) will make time for and pay real money to see. As Title IX’s next 50 years gets underway, I’m sure its authors would be cheering from the stands.
Ackerman, the Big East commissioner since 2013, previously served as an attorney and executive at the NBA, was the founding president of the WNBA, and is a past president of USA Basketball. She has been inducted as a contributor into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.