Sport-Women's sport ready for take off, says Ruggiero

Retired U.S. gold medal ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero in Los Angeles

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - Those looking to invest in sport should bet on women's leagues, with post-pandemic interest presenting new opportunities, says Angela Ruggiero the former International Olympic Committee executive board member and co-founder of the Sports Innovation Lab.

While established men's leagues with their traditional revenue streams have nibbled at industry innovations, the newcomers have embraced technology and anything else that can help them gain a toe hold in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

"I liken women's sports to startups; they're here but their growth is exponential," explained Ruggiero, during Foley Sports and Entertainment Group's "The Comeback; Sports in a Worldwide Pandemic" seminar on Wednesday.

"The market has finally caught up, society in some ways is demanding it and technology is enabling it so I am super bullish on women's sports.

"Everyone is trying to figure it out (the women's sport market) but everyone can feel the timing is right upon us."

While men's professional leagues dominate the landscape with multi-billion dollar rights deals and sponsorships, women's sport has been making slow but steady progress with demands for better pay and working conditions.

That push has been supported by increased interest as reflected by the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), which gained a record breaking number of viewers when it became the first in North America to return from the COVID-19 shutdown.

Ruggiero says part of that growth comes from the willingness of women's leagues to embrace new technology and ideas to engage an ever-changing fan base.

"The new age consumer is demanding a new way to engage with sports," said Ruggiero. "Men's sport is trying to innovate in some way around the edges.

"Women's (sport) has a clean slate."

Both men's and women's sport face challenges from other forms of entertainment, such as streaming services like Netflix and video games, explained Ruggiero.

During the pandemic when many sports were shuttered or operated in bubbles, fans discovered other distractions and communities.

"These fans are different, we are operating in completely new ways," said Ruggiero, who represented the U.S. at four Olympics in ice hockey winning a gold medal, two silvers and a bronze.

"You think about how many people during the pandemic watched Netflix or turned to Fortnite or another form of entertainment and not sports. It is a little scary.

"These new consumers want more, expect more, they want more personalization and they are getting that with other forms of entertainment.

"We (sport) are losing that game to other forms of entertainment. Community is everything and before we were the only game in town and now we are not."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)