Women’s sports media share has grown from 4% to 15%, thanks to new & social media.
Sha'Carri Richardson outran Shericka Jackson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to take home her first major world championship title this year, after which the three celebrated together with an iconic selfie moment. (Image: REUTERS/Alina Smutko)
For decades, women’s sports have received just 4% of total sports media coverage. You read that right. Dr. Cheryl Cooky, a sports sociologist and an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Purdue University, has focused her research on studying the sports media landscape - and specifically how much coverage women’s sports receive as opposed to men’s. Over the last few decades, Cooky’s research has revealed that women’s sports receive just a tiny sliver of sports media coverage - fluctuating between 4-5%.
What’s important to note here about the 4-5% number (as pointed out by sports media expert, Jane McManus) is that Cooky’s research has always tracked coverage from traditional sports media shows and outlets - for example, ESPN & SportsCenter. Social media and streaming platforms, however, are not accounted for in Cooky’s number because when this research was conducted, social media and streaming simply didn’t exist - or if they did, it wasn’t nearly to the extent that they do today.
A graphic from an X Business article titled The Conversation: Women in sports are winning on Twitter, which calls out how their app amplifies fans' ease of connecting over sports — men's AND women's.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this means for the last few decades, men’s sports have received 96% of total media coverage from traditional sports media outlets. And frankly, I think that’s alarmingly irresponsible. The reality is that the lack of coverage that has been perpetuated by these systems of traditional sports media outlets have been suppressing the growth of women’s sports by keeping the industry stuck in a vicious cycle:
- The lack of media coverage means fans don’t have access to women’s sports.
- A lack of access means fandom can’t grow.
- If fandom is small, networks & sponsors don’t see any business opportunity.
- If networks and sponsors don’t think it’s good business to invest in women’s sports, they won’t invest in the media.
- If there’s no investment in women’s sports media, they won’t grow in popularity or fandom.
Visibility is the number one thing that women’s sports need in order to keep growing, and we now have countless proof points that show that when women’s sports are accessible, fans show up. (For example: Nebraska Volleyball World Record, 2024 U.S. Open Finals, 2022 Women’s March Madness Finals, 2022 NWSL Championship, 2023 WNBA Finals - to name a few.)
This week, a new study conducted by The Collective at Wasserman (developed in partnership with ESPN Research) revealed that the percentage of total women’s sports media coverage is now clocking in at 15%.
Wasserman’s study is slightly different from Cooky’s original study though, in that it accounts for consumer behavior on social media and streaming platforms. And what Wasserman found is that this newly measured growth of women’s sports coverage has been driven almost exclusively by streaming and social media, as coverage from linear broadcast and digital publications from traditional outlets still lingers right around 5%.
When I first read this, candidly, I was pretty angry. Angry about how little traditional media outlets have done to champion women’s sports. Angry about how they continue to fail to give women athletes the coverage they deserve. Angry that these massive institutions (with significant resources) have failed to give fans of women’s sports the coverage they want.
My anger only lasted for a moment though, because upon a bit more reflection, my attitude quickly shifted from anger to gratitude. Almost immediately, I began to feel grateful for emerging women’s sports platforms that took it upon themselves in 2019-2020 to start covering women’s sports through social media. Grateful for platforms like Just Women’s Sports, The GIST, On Her Turf, HighlightHER, GOALS (yeah, we’ll pat ourselves on the back!), SHOT:CLOCK, Parity, TOGETHXR, and more who decided they weren’t going to wait for traditional sports media outlets to step-up and cover women’s sports. Grateful for women athletes who have used their own social media platforms to create their own coverage. Grateful for women’s sports fans who constantly reshare and engage with content from their favorite athletes & creators. And most of all, incredibly grateful that social media exists, and now, we can finally start to serve the women’s sports community the content it craves.
Social media has allowed (primarily female) founders and creators to galvanize the women’s sports community and spark significant social media conversation around women’s sports. It has democratized the creation and dissemination of sports media coverage and therefore, as Wasserman’s report reveals, helped bridge the sports media coverage gap. Thanks to social media (and those who have harnessed it as a tool), women's sports are no longer an afterthought, but are slowly becoming a central component of the sports media landscape.
In an interview with Ensemble, pro Rugby player and TikTok superstar Ilona Maher said, "Myself and others, like the Black Ferns, we're using these big moments like the Olympics and this Rugby World Cup, to push ourselves and our brands forward which is not selfish in any way – it's smart and it's business wise because we're in a sport that doesn't make a lot of money, especially for females, so it takes that social media, it takes putting ourselves out there to make an impact for your life and to make money."
What I’m taking away from all of this is that while it’s wonderful that total media coverage of women’s sports has grown from 4% to 15%, we still have a long way to go until equity is achieved. And while candidly, I’m a bit disheartened by the nominal contributions that traditional sports media outlets have made to this growth, I am more optimistic than ever that it is possible to close the gender media gap in sports. The work that the non-institutionalized women’s sports media community is doing is working. Women’s sports coverage provided by athletes, creators, emerging media companies and fans are pushing the women’s sports industry forward, and I promise you, we won’t stop until there is parity.
About Caroline Fitzgerald
Caroline Fitzgerald (she/her) is a contributing writer for Parity and the CEO & Founder of GOALS - a women's sports marketing consultancy & media platform. Caroline launched GOALS in 2020 after recognizing that there was an opportunity to help women's sports teams sign more sponsorship deals - and help brands see the business value around investing in women's sports. GOALS also produces the leading women's sports business podcast - The Business Case for Women's Sports, which is presented by Ally. For more information on GOALS, visit https://goals-sports.com or follow on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Threads.
Minority-founded in 2020, Parity's mission is to close the gender income and opportunity gap in professional sports. By developing high-impact collaborations between brands, professional women athletes and their fans, Parity has proudly put more than $2 million in the pockets of women athletes, attracting dozens of brands to the movement in the process. The platform offers connections to more than 850 women athletes from 70+ sports, including well over 200 Olympians and Paralympians. For more information on how to tap into the rapidly rising influence and popularity of women athletes, visit https://paritynow.co or follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Threads.