One of the biggest questions surrounding the growth of women’s soccer is, how should women’s soccer be treated in relation to men’s soccer? From a marketing perspective, having the men’s soccer global fan base to piggy-back on for media coverage is an extremely valuable way to grow the sport. We saw this in class with the Fox Sports advertisement for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. In the video, Fox Sports portrays the USWNT as being a second source of hope and another chance to party after the men’s squad had a disappointing finish in Brazil the summer prior.
Another women’s sport facing a similar situation as soccer is basketball and, in particular, the relationship between the NBA and the WNBA. The NBA has established itself at the heart of the media cycle, regardless of the time of year, and this trend has been no different amidst COVID-19. Looking to build hype for its summer coverage of the WNBA, ESPN launched a pair of initiatives in the college basketball’s greatest of all-time bracket and NBA HORSE tournament.
This March, ESPN created a 64-player bracket which included 16 women scattered across four regions. The matchups were decided by fan voting across the network’s social media platforms. By pitting the women directly against their male counterparts, the stereotype that women are inferior was only exacerbated. Due to the WNBA’s lack of media attention, fan voting—likely based entirely on player popularity or fandom—was extremely biased towards male players. Seeding Sue Bird higher than Shaquille O’neal or Candace Parker above Kevin Durant did not prevent upsets and by the time the bracket was cut down to 16, all 16 women had been eliminated.
In my opinion, the most effective advertisements of sport promote the highest levels of competition and highlight the players’ personality and relatable figures. We saw the effectiveness of this strategy in class when the USWNT went around the country to meet children and build relationships prior to the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Providing people with career statistics, or even highlight-reels is not going to be enough to deter fans from choosing the NBA all-stars that to them are often “larger-than-life” figures. In this case, the histories of the WNBA and NBA should be treated as totally separate sports. The nature of the games is totally different, the seasons are different, and the key figures are different, and therefore it is not fair to compare the two histories directly.
On the flip side, I believe ESPN’s ongoing HORSE tournament is a much better example of how women’s sports should be marketed alongside men’s sports. HORSE is a casual shooting game and the tournament consists of eight players–two WNBA players–who are livestreamed shooting in their backyards while being mic’d up. Unlike the bracket, the HORSE tournament provides the WNBA players an opportunity to promote themselves. By actually playing, the athletes can display their skill and, thus, disprove stereotypes about inferiority. The tournament also provides an advantage over simply airing WNBA games because NBA fans interested in the NBA all-star are unlikely to turn off their screens during the WNBA all-star’s shot, forcing exposure to the sport.
If fans are more familiar with the players, they’ll be more receptive to the ads about the players’ games in July and will therefore be more likely to watch the actual games. In order to grow women’s sports, it is imperative that the leagues get proper media coverage and a fair opportunity to market their stars. There still is a long road ahead, but creating partnerships with already-popular male sports to gain exposure can go a long way if executed correctly.