People are tuning in more than ever to watch women's sports — when will investors catch up?

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·3 min read

Hear me out: what if the issue isn't, and hasn't ever been, women's sports, but rather the male gatekeepers in college athletic departments, at the NCAA and in sports media meeting rooms who have treated women athletes as a group to be tolerated instead of celebrated?

With each passing month, especially over the past year, that appears more and more to be the case.

The latest example: on Saturday night, ESPN2 aired the NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship match between Texas and Kentucky during prime time. Since volleyball is a fall sport and some conferences elected to push back the season due to COVID-19, it was technically the 2020 championship, but that's not germane.

What is, however, is that according to sideline reporter Holly Rowe, the title match, won by Kentucky, drew 696,000 viewers. With just a couple of days left in April, it was the most-viewed show on ESPN2 this month, and was a significant increase in viewers — 28 percent — over the 2019 women's volleyball championship, shown on the same network.

(In the interest of transparency, the 2017 and 2018 title matches drew more viewers than this year, but sports ratings have been down in general since the pandemic began, and the number watching Saturday night did not appear to include digital streams.)

OMAHA, NE - APRIL 24: Kentucky celebrates winning against Texas during the Division I Womens Volleyball Championship held at the Chi Health Center on April 24, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Kentucky celebrates winning against Texas during the Division I Women's Volleyball Championship. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The increase in volleyball viewers comes on the heels of a significant rise in ratings for the women's basketball semifinals earlier this month. 

Over 4 million watched Stanford beat Arizona on April 4 in the title game, a 10.5 percent increase over 2019, and the two semifinal games averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 22 percent increase over '19.

Last year, the WNBA's compressed "Wubble" season and the National Women's Soccer League also saw impressive gains in their television audiences.

And all the while, these women are fighting for equity when it comes to basics like travel accommodations and meals, top-notch COVID testing, and as now-infamously noted by Oregon's Sedona Prince, weight rooms.

Which brings us back to the original point: what if women's sports and women's teams were given the same level of money and media attention as men's teams? Stop fighting and using the same tired arguments about women not being as exciting as the men or not worthy of getting the same attention.

When you air the games, people watch. If you promote them, people will show interest. If you invest in them, it will pay off. 

Or as U.S. Women's National Soccer Team standout Midge Purce so brilliantly said at the White House last month, "You would never expect a flower to bloom without water. But women in sport who have been denied water, sunlight and soil are somehow expected to blossom."

So try it, execs. Spend more money and resources supporting and promoting and celebrating women's leagues and teams and see what happens.

Even if it's not because it's clearly smart, do it because it's good business. One survey during the men's and women's Elite Eight showed that eight of the 10 players with the biggest followings on Twitter and Instagram were women. UConn super-freshman Paige Bueckers is up to over 800,000 Instagram followers after her team's tournament run; UCLA gymnast and viral video sensation Nia Dennis has over 600,000; USWNT star Megan Rapinoe is at 2.2 million.

In the United States, 56.6 percent of all Instagram users are female. 

The market is there. The opportunity for growth is there.

Water them, enrich the soil, give them sunlight. Women's sports will blossom and everyone will benefit.

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