Make Women’s Sports Easy To Watch and People Will Watch Them

The mystery of women’s sports ratings is not as tricky to resolve as those in charge would have you think.

It happened to me: I went to a sports bar and asked them to change the channel away from a women’s sporting event. I know! A betrayal of the movement and everything it stands for — but, I think, for a good cause. I was trying to watch the WNBA All Star Game at Pluckers (a mostly Texan wing chain, and when I walked in, the game wasn’t on anywhere) — which, unfortunately, I’ve come to expect. What surprised me instead was what blanketed the TVs instead on that Sunday afternoon: European women’s soccer (and Wimbledon). The Belgium v. Iceland matchup in the opening round of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 was on ESPN2, and so it was just on by default all over the restaurant (which was, it might be noted, near full).

Few people seemed to be watching it specifically, but it was on. Women playing at the highest levels of sport blanketed the walls of what most often serves as a shrine to heteromasculinity — having to ask them to change the channel to the WNBA All Star Game because it was on ABC (a network station, yes, but one easier to ignore for places that might both default to sports and not keep up with the W) felt like interrupting the best kind of evolution.

The longer we were there, the more women’s sports were broadcast. The biggest screens were switched from soccer to women’s American football (!) which I mistakenly tried to ignore after assuming it was one of the myriad wasteful new men’s leagues trying to compete with the NFL. But no, it was the Women’s Football Alliance championship — also on ESPN2 for the first time ever. Those broadcasts were joined by women’s tennis at Wimbledon, which has long had a leg up in the TV time hierarchy. 

The result was a room full of TVs — and people — tuned into women’s sports of all kinds, a glimpse of a future that we’ve been told for too long is utopian and unattainable. An awesome women’s sports bar even opened in Portland precisely because the party line for so long has been that women’s sports don’t belong in these kinds of settings. Yet there that utopia was, in a Pluckers, where no one paid it any mind because why would they?

A man took a seat at the bar next to us, and immediately started explaining the ins and outs of the WNBA to his companion — a new (and trust me, inoffensive) twist on a patronizing trope; a Little League team munched away in front of a screen showing Belgium and Iceland’s soccer standoff. Never mind that the midday game did modest numbers — it laid the groundwork for women’s sports as just another sport to watch, rather than some revolution. It was newsworthy precisely because it wasn’t. 

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The takeaway is twofold. One, with 734,000 viewers, the WNBA All Star game nearly matched its 2015 viewership — a year when it was simulcast on ABC and ESPN. Think about how many bars that (like Pluckers) keep all their TVs on ESPN/ESPN2 missed it, and how well it still did. Two, all it takes to get people to watch women’s sports is to make it unremarkable and easy. The best way to do that is to put them on ESPN or ESPN2, because those are the default for so many people and places — ESPN obviously more than ESPN2, but both to a degree. 

That afternoon, to me, was an argument for concentrating women’s professional sports in the gaps between men’s pro sports (and their championships, specifically). It is really hard to pull an audience away from an NFL Sunday or an NBA conference finals game — and to secure a prime programming spot beside them. But in what the Athletic’s sports business reporter called “the sports TV summer doldrums,” there could be a goldmine in exactly the same way WNBA officials imagined it all those years ago.

The problem is that even in a “doldrums” period, ESPN still cannot be relied upon to consistently prioritize women’s sports. The case in point for the weekend was that after what was already minimal promotion, the WNBA skills competition and three-point contest were bumped from ESPN to ESPNU (???) because a Wimbledon contest went long. No one who is not exceptionally tapped in could be expected to look for a WNBA broadcast on ESPNU; it was the kind of decision that those in charge at ESPN are perpetually making, a decision that betrays their true priorities and does a serious disservice to the growing league. WNBA fans already have to look up any regular season game they’d like to watch to see where it’s on, because they’re scattered between so many channels and streaming services; to have big events given the same treatment is an even further offense.

Make things easy to watch and people will. Who knows who might be watching in some random Pluckers or Buffalo Wild Wings or hotel lobby and getting hooked?

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