The Popularity of Women’s Professional Sports

A few months ago, after finding out that I am an avid golfer, a man asked me who my favorite Ladies Professional Golf Association player is. I opened my mouth, but no name came out. I realized, as someone who loves to play golf and frequently watches men’s professional golf tournaments on TV and in person, I could not name one woman I currently follow on the LPGA Tour. Despite growing up around female golfers, and having some familiarity with women on the tour, I don’t know how these golfers are doing now or who the best players are. In fact, in general, I watch men’s sports far more frequently than I watch women’s sports. The disappointment I felt being unable to respond to the man’s question prompted me to think more deeply about why I am more inclined to watch men’s sports.

Why do men’s professional sporting events on average draw far more viewers than women’s do? Why is it that, while an increasing number of women are playing sports, the number of viewers of women’s sporting events has not grown relative to participation? Why are sports still thought of as primarily a “guy thing”? One oft-repeated response to this question is that female athletes generally have less physical ability and strength than male athletes, and as a result are less exciting to watch. I don’t buy that.

Take golf, for example. On average, men hit the ball farther than women. Does it then follow that men’s golf is more exciting to watch? The best and most popular golfers in the world are not necessarily the ones who hit the ball farthest. Jordan Spieth won both the Masters and the U.S. Open in 2015, and ranked as the top male golfer in the world in 2015, fourth in 2016 and second in 2017. In the last couple of years, I have seen Spieth consistently covered by the Golf Channel and other sports news, and featured in advertisements for big names such as Under Armour and Coca-Cola. Despite being one of the best, most popular, most covered golfers in the world, Spieth’s average driving distance put him tied for 78th among PGA Tour players in 2015, 51st in 2016, and 75th in 2017. His average driving distance in 2015, when he was ranked as the best golfer in the world, was 291.8, a mere 10 yards farther than the average driving distance of the longest driver on the LPGA Tour. So what am I really interested in when I watch golf? Personally, I want to see a player still make par after mistakenly hitting the ball into a deep sand bunker, or watch a three-way shootout in the final round of the Masters. Whether a player hits a drive a little bit farther than another player is an interesting bit of trivia for me as a spectator, but it doesn’t make for more compelling viewing.

What about a more “physical” sport? As a blogger in The Atlantic wrote, if people only cared about size and strength, “heavyweight” would be the only category in sports like boxing; and yet, while Floyd Mayweather is easily beaten by a heavyweight, he and 31 of the other of ESPN’s 50 “greatest boxers of all time” fought primarily as lightweights or in other non-heavyweight categories. In team sports such as soccer, men may be faster on average, but it is difficult to argue that watching the United States defeat Canada in the women’s semifinal of the 2012 Olympics—which some call one of the greatest soccer matches of all time—is less exciting than a men’s game. Some may disagree with respect to a particular sport, but certainly strength and speed cannot account for the vast difference in popularity across sports in general.

So where does the disparity in popularity come from? As I began to think more about it, I realized that I don’t actually prefer men’s sports or think that sports in general are a “guy thing,” I am just more accustomed to watching men’s sports because that is what I see when I turn on the TV and because men are the authors of the sports articles I read. I think the difference in popularity results from a variety of reasons, including:

  • Absence of women in leadership positions in sports-related jobs, including coaching and corporate positions. According to a 2017 study, while 96–98% of college male athletes are coached by men, only about 40% of female college athletes are coached by women. With respect to corporate roles, research done at the University of Technology Sydney showed that in 2016, women chaired only 7% of international sport federations and occupied 19% of chief executive positions. Notable examples—the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, are both well over one hundred years old and are widely regarded as two of the most prestigious and influential sports organizations. Neither has ever been led by a woman.
  • Better and more media coverage of men’s sports. Cheryl Cooky, co-author of a 2015 study about unequal coverage of women’s sports on TV news, has pointed out that “[men] have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary… When you watch women’s sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it’s going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it’s going to seem to be less exciting.”A 2016 study conducted by Jane Martinson of The Guardian showed that men write 98.2% of sports articles. The study also showed that less than 4% of newspaper sports photos during a week-long period featured women—65 of a total of 1,899 photos from the sample of newspapers surveyed. Another 2016 study found that women’s sports coverage comprises only 7% of the overall sports coverage and 0.4% of the total value of commercial sponsorships in the UK. In the U.S., Cooky’s study found that coverage of women’s sports has barely moved in 25 years, despite dramatic increases in the number of women playing (from youth level to professional). Case in point: ESPN’s SportsCenter has devoted a roughly flat 2% of airtime to women’s sports since 1999.
  • Weaker infrastructure and inferior facilities. Given that less money is spent on women’s sports coverage and that there are no promises of media, advertising and sizable audiences for female sporting events, it’s no wonder that women’s sports suffer from poor infrastructure and inferior facilities. Take the disparity between venue size and quality of two recent World Cup tournaments. Many of the matches that took place during the Men’s 2015 World Cup in Brazil were held in a brand new stadium that seated 40,000 people. By contrast, a number of the matches during the Women’s 2015 World Cup in Canada were held in a 32-year old stadium. Others took place in a venue with a mere 10,000 seats. Whether the men’s or women’s tournament was a better demonstration of skill becomes secondary to the atmosphere inspired by the roar of 37,000 plus people (ROAR!) versus the shouts of a paltry 10,000 (roar?).

Clearly, there’s no shortage of obstacles that women’s professional sports face in gaining popularity. So where do we go from here?

The best starting point for creating equality and improving popularity is to increase female leadership. The first push should focus on finding ways to place women in senior positions in the corporate sports world and in coaching roles. It is difficult to argue against a woman coaching women players and women leading sports organizations, when those roles arguably require the same non-sport-specific skills as leading other organizations (and, in fact, the push for female leadership has taken root across multiple industries and has widespread support). More women in leadership roles will result in a more inclusive sports community, where business, policy and media decisions will be influenced by a greater range of voices. Increased female leadership in sports will likely elevate interest in women’s sports. This, in turn, will make it easier to fight for equal compensation and equal media coverage, and to effectively address the other inequalities with which women’s sports are unfairly burdened.

The next time I am asked a question about women’s sports, I expect I will have a lot to say.