The growth of women's sports in 2023
🏐 Everything on the pipeline: Athletes Unlimited paves path to pros
The 2020s have been defined by an urgency to capitalize on popular sports dominated by young women athletes. Volleyball, softball, and lacrosse are three examples of sports with surging participation among women and girls that have historically lacked successful professional leagues.
The problem? A lack of youth-to-pro pipeline in North America. For years, the NCAA has cultivated the world’s best volleyball players, but, until recently, upon graduation, they had to travel to Europe to go pro.
In 2021, Athletes Unlimited (AU) entered the chat. At that time, there were no active women’s indoor pro volleyball leagues in the United States. AU models its business around creating profitable, athlete-centered leagues that give elite athletes the chance to go pro in the States in sports including volleyball, softball, lacrosse, and basketball.
And it didn’t take long for others to recognize the opportunity in women’s volleyball. There will be three U.S. pro volleyball leagues created within a four-year span: Pro Volleyball Federation will debut its pro league this winter, and League One Volleyball will be ready to serve in 2025.
AU got into the game at the perfect time. Nebraska’s record-setting crowd of 92K fans proves there’s serious demand for women’s volleyball. It’s America’s fastest-growing high school sport, it ranks third in viewership on the Big Ten Network, and one of its stars, SMU’s Alex Glover, signed over 40 name, image and likeness (NIL) deals in 2023.
- Those smart enough to invest early can expect a major bump in return on investment.
📺 How to network: The NWSL inks landmark deal
The widely-touted 5% figure representing media’s coverage of women’s sports spurred companies, sponsors, and networks to be better. Now, in large part thanks to the democratization of social media and digital technology, we’re at 15%.
And while there’s still a long way to go in traditional sports media, networks are beginning to realize that putting women’s sports on TV is good business that attracts new fans. However, in the (very recent) past, media rights for tournaments like the FIFA Women’s World Cup (WWC) were lumped in with the men’s and considered a “freebie” or “two for one” for buying World Cup rights.
- Though FIFA bungled their first-time selling WWC rights worldwide this past summer, their decision to separate the women’s game from the men’s should bring big returns come 2027.
The year was also defined by domestic women’s soccer wins, and some of the biggest ones happened off the pitch. The NWSL was virtually paid pennies in its previous three-year, $4.5M deal with CBS, but record attendance and viewership affirmed the product was worth so much more.
- Last month, the NWSL signed a four-year, $240M deal — the most expensive media rights deal in women’s sports history.
The rest of the women’s sports world is taking note, too. England’s Women’s Super League is making strides to become the world’s first billion-dollar women’s sports league — if they can beat the NWSL to it.
- Women’s March Madness will fight for its own (potentially $100M) media rights in 2024, and the WNBA will follow suit in 2025. The sky’s the limit.
🏟️ Do it with purpose: KC Current builds CPKC Stadium
Infrastructure has always lagged behind in the women’s game. From sub-par transportation to low-quality production to a lack of investment in where female athletes play, women’s teams were not properly set up for success by their (usually male) owners.
Today’s landscape is fortunately starting to look a bit different. After hiring experienced executives and recruiting savvy investors, the biggest women’s pro leagues in the U.S. have leveled up their business model. This year, the WNBA announced a WNBA Golden State property, and the NWSL revealed the return of women’s pro soccer to Boston.
But the biggest infrastructure win comes from the self-proclaimed U.S. soccer capital: Kansas City, Missouri. Behind Brittany Mahomes, a former NCAA soccer player and Kansas City Chiefs Patrick Mahomes’ wife, the NWSL’s Current relaunched in 2022 behind her forward-thinking.
- Case in point? The Current are busy building CPKC Stadium, the world’s first privately financed arena purpose-built for a pro women's soccer team.
Consequently, the phone is ringing off the hook at the city’s local government office. Apparently, Kansas City leadership has inspired cities all over the world to invest in their own purpose-built infrastructure for women athletes. Fulfilling their wildest dreams.
💰 Getting the bag: Women lead college NIL deals
With improved opportunity, exposure, and infrastructure, women athletes are increasingly able to leverage their athletic wins for financial ones. In an age of personal brand-building, women are taking it all the way to the bank.
The biggest gains have occurred at the college level, where Gen Z superstars have been able to apply social media finesse to a burgeoning NIL industry. In 2023, over 500 companies entered the NIL space, and they’re tapping women to rep the brand. The top seven athletes to ink new NIL deals in 2023 were all women — and they all ranked ahead of USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
- After an iconic Iowa–LSU championship showdown, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese have emerged as pioneers in the NIL space.
- Clark became State Farm’s first collegiate ambassador and the first college athlete to appear on the ManningCast, while Reese became a relaunched Reebok Basketball’s first athlete signing.
While women college athletes have fewer NIL deals overall, that soon may change as it’s proven that female athletes have stronger engagement across social. In 2022, women with NIL deals saw four times the total audience engagement and seven times more engagement per deal than their male counterparts.
- Despite having only half the deals and social posts of male athletes, women logged a 27M engagement score compared to 6.5M for men. Slay.
Beyond NIL success, these college athletes have so much to look forward to in 2024 as their big sisters in the pros keep carving space for women athletes at the next level. C'mon, we got important things to do.