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Tara Sullivan

Women’s sports are proving they’re worth the investment

LSU celebrated after beating Iowa to win the NCAA women's basketball championship.Tom Pennington/Getty

The women’s Final Four concluded with boffo ratings and a water cooler moment for the ages. The NWSL opened to record crowds, added lucrative championship money, and set record-setting expansion fees. The WNBA announced it will finally foot the bill for long-overdue charter travel for back-to-back regular-season games and the entire playoffs.

And that’s only the last few weeks.

The bottom line?

Investment in women’s sports is paying off, and paying off in a big way. In case you hadn’t noticed, we are in the midst of a moment, going back across the 2022 calendar year that saw major women’s sports stories dominate the headlines, from Simone Biles’s Olympic journey to Serena Williams’s tennis retirement, from Brittney Griner’s imprisonment to the NWSL players who exposed abusive coaches before negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

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The conversation, and the facts, are changing. Say goodbye to the fading, tired argument that says women’s sports are not as popular as men’s sports simply due to supply and demand. The lazy defense, peddled for so long and repeated so often that it was all too easy to swallow it whole, rests on the simple notion that interest alone drives traffic and eyeballs, insisting (usually with sarcasm) that if only there were more interest, then the ratings, the salaries, and the media coverage would follow.

But that fails to recognize the egg to that chicken, or the chicken to that egg. Investment also drives interest, and with decades and decades of deeper investment in men’s sports versus penurious treatment of women’s sports, it’s only fair to allow women’s sports the time to build the same foundation.

With more investment comes higher stakes, and with higher stakes comes more motivation to get a big return on the initial investment. And the more effort that goes into making a product marketable — media coverage, pregame hype, announcing crews, broadcast location — the more likely it is to draw the fans’ interest.

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As those decades-old structural inequalities continue to be dismantled, the more opportunity there will be for women’s sports to make a legitimate dent in the conversation, to turn the nation’s attention to an event such as that women’s NCAA championship basketball game between LSU and Iowa, or the semifinal between Iowa and South Carolina. Whether people loved or hated Angel Reese’s championship celebration at the expense of Caitlin Clark, whether you rooted for or against Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks to complete an undefeated national title defense, you were talking.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark had plenty of eyes on women's basketball throughout the NCAA Tournament.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

And you were watching — 9.9 million average viewers on ABC for the title game, which followed a record-setting semifinal audience of 5.5 million average viewers on ESPN.

Both games were outdone by the UConn men, but their championship win, which averaged 14.69 million viewers on CBS, is the least-watched title game on record. Simple math says one game is climbing while the other is falling, which is why investors are recognizing the potential in women’s sports. None of this is new around UConn, where the powerhouse women’s team long ago proved investment draws interest. With plenty of colleagues who have worked in Connecticut over the years, the women’s beat has always been one of the most prized, and games at Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center have long been front-page news.

If it feels like the rest of the world is catching up, it’s because it is.

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A 2022 study by the National Research Group showed 30 percent of US sports fans say they watch more women’s sports than five years ago, with the top reason being that more women’s sports are being broadcast. Other reasons cite the entertainment and competitive value, the draw of individual stars, and the growing social media and sports talk conversation around women’s games. The conversation is changing — literally. Until last year, the women’s tournament couldn’t use the term “March Madness,” which was licensed only for the men.

As the report asked, “So, what’s changed?” Here is its answer: “According to fans, it isn’t their own tastes that have evolved; it’s the landscape of sports and sports broadcasting itself. Among viewers who are watching more women’s sports than they used to, the most common explanation they cited for this trend was that it’s simply easier now to find games broadcast on TV.”

Which is why it’s a smart investment. The NWSL announced Thursday that it will have a $1 million prize pool for the 2023 Challenge Cup. South Carolina and Notre Dame will play a women’s basketball game in Paris next season. Reese’s NIL valuation soared past $1.3 million after her MVP run to a title, up from the $300,000 range before the tournament. The NWSL’s expansion Bay Area club went for a record $53 million, compared with the $5 million it cost Kansas City to join two years ago. Bay Area is led by majority investor Sixth Street, which also has stakes in Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, and the San Antonio Spurs, as well as a partnership with the Yankees and Cowboys through Legends, the venue operations giant.

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Need I go on? The women’s NCAA basketball tournament is finally going to get its TV rights’ due, freed from being lumped in with all other NCAA championship sports while the men were spun off on their own, a distinction that directly affected how much money is paid back to schools and programs. The upcoming Women’s World Cup in New Zealand will once again highlight the global growth of soccer.

The National Research Group put it best: “2022 will almost certainly be looked back on as a pivotal moment in the trajectory of women’s sports. Fans have started to pay more attention to the phenomenal successes of top female athletes, and broadcasters are finally starting — albeit slowly — to invest more into women’s sports and to give their games a fighting chance of finding an audience.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.