Market intelligence firm Sports Innovation Lab is starting The Fan Project, a women’s sports-centric research endeavor created to get a better understanding of the female sports fan, a fitting announcement on the 35th annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day. Women’s sports leagues have long struggled to obtain the same type of sponsor and broadcast interest as their male counterparts—a problem that is at least partly due to a lack of sufficient audience data to sell to potential partners, the Sports Innovation Lab contends.
Backed by the WNBA, NWSL, LPGA, UFC, WWE and the Women’s Sports Foundation, the new project sees audience information as the key to capturing the value of women’s sports. Using Sports Innovation Lab’s data-driven approach, the goal is to accelerate investment in, and media coverage of, women’s sports across the board.
“Historically, the sports industry has used linear [television] reach as a proxy for fandom,” Sports Innovation Lab CEO and four-time Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero said in a phone interview. “If all you’re measuring is who is watching, that’s just one fan behavior. There’s a lot of activity that doesn’t get captured in pure ratings, especially when it comes to women’s sports where you only get 4% of media attention. Fans today are fluid. They are betting, liking, sharing, co-creating, going to games—there are all these other behavioral traits that more accurately capture fandom.”
The project will ask fans to share their social media archives—all anonymized—with the Sports Innovation Lab, which will then analyze them to learn about what fans watch, do and buy, thus creating a more comprehensive assessment than what is currently available.
“If you can have a more complete picture of fans, particularly these fluid fans of women’s sports, and can capture that fan affinity, I believe the supply curve will go up to meet the increase in measured demand,” Ruggiero explained.
Several of the project’s partners, like the WNBA and NWSL, have already started to see tremendous growth over the last several years. The NWSL’s domestic television audiences last season, for example, were up nearly 500% over 2019, and a significant online audience tuned in during the first year of a distribution deal with CBS Sports and Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. New partnerships with Google, Verizon, and Procter & Gamble and its women’s deodorant brand Secret, complemented the support of existing partners like Nike and Budweiser.
More WNBA games were televised in 2020 than ever before. ESPN picked up a record 36 games, while CBS Sports broadcast 40 WNBA contests, including one on its main network.
Average viewership of the WNBA’s 2020 “wubble” regular season was up by 68% across the 48 nationally televised games rated by Nielsen, and the 2020 WNBA Finals series saw spikes of its own.
Social interactions are up across the board, and sponsors have benefited from tie-ins to many digital activations—but data supporting those patterns coming from a third-party like the Sports Innovation Lab, Ruggiero contends, will be far more valuable than internal facts and figures. The project hopes not only to provide insight into the demographics of the women’s sports audience, but also information about their consumer habits to entice sponsors.
“If fans are driving revenue across all sports, we need to understand them, we need to know who they are,” Ruggiero said. “This isn’t about female fans. This is about women’s sports fans, which includes men and women. I don’t want to assume that women’s sports fans are just women, though those who are can be very valuable. Whether it’s the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics—more women watch the Olympics in the U.S., at least, than men, and they write the biggest check to the [International Olympic Committee] every year. But we also hear a lot anecdotally that there’s actually more men watching women’s sports because female sports are more accessible.”
Female sports fans, however, are a particularly interesting audience to sell to, as women spend more than $10 trillion annually and control $43 trillion of global consumer spending, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan. The multiplier effect enhances female spending power: Women often buy for more than just themselves, roping immediate and extended family into their spheres of purchasing power. Global female income itself also continues to grow, jumping to $24 trillion in 2020.
Audience data is only one stepping-stone to solving gender inequities in sports, but it’s an important starting piece. The project hopes to take what is often looked at as opinion—that women’s sports are worth investing in—and prove the theory out.
“Dollars and cents and numbers and analytics, you can’t argue with that,” Ruggiero says. “I want this report to move the needle, but really be defensible proof that fans are hungry. Women’s sports are a business opportunity.”