Olympian-turned-CEO Angela Ruggiero details the 'massive market for women’s sports'

·4-min read

As the sports world normalizes following the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, Olympian-turned-CEO Angela Ruggiero tells Yahoo Finance that there’s a huge untapped market for women’s sports.

Ruggiero is co-founder and CEO of the sports research company, Sports Innovation Lab, which released a report called the “The Fan Project,” on Monday. The report shows how women’s sports leagues and their sponsors can close the revenue gap between male and female sports.

“We believe there's a massive market for women's sports,” Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian with the U.S. women’s ice hockey team, told Yahoo Finance Live on Monday. “But you have to understand those fans are those consumers and actually build sports in a different way.”

The Sports Innovation Lab used social media and broadcast and streaming data to show that investing in women’s sports leagues pays off. With more exposure on ESPN, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) saw a 15% percent bump in viewership from 2019 to 2020, per the report, while the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) viewership increased 476% over that same time frame due in large part to a new media rights deal. Additionally, brands that invested as sponsors in those leagues saw brand affinity among WNBA and NWSL fans more than double in some instances, per the report.

Others have found potential for growth in women’s sports. In a December 2020 report, Deloitte acknowledged that revenue from women sports would be well under $1 billion in 2021 — a tiny fraction of the value of U.S. sports, which hit $481 billion in 2018.

25 February 2010: USA's Angela Ruggiero #4 sheds a small tear prior to the medal ceremony at the end of the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal Game between Canada and the United States held at Canada Hockey Place during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Final Score: Canada 2 USA 0. Canada wins Gold Medal and USA wins Silver Medal (Photo by Bob Frid/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
USA's Angela Ruggiero #4 sheds a small tear prior to the medal ceremony at the end of the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal Game between Canada and the United States. (Photo by Bob Frid/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“But in spite of that ... we predict that women’s sports will grow to be worth a great deal more than a billion dollars in the years ahead. Its ability to generate substantial TV audiences, deliver value to sponsors, and draw tens of thousands of fans per event has been demonstrated on multiple occasions over the past decade,” the Deloitte report found.

Ruggiero hopes the new study from Sports Innovation Lab will help sponsors realize women’s sports leagues are akin to startups with massive opportunities to grow and monetize early adoption fans, who SIL finds more likely to spend money than fans of long-established leagues.

While much of the men’s professional sports model has focused on selling tickets to games and major broadcast television deals, The Fan Project report finds that monetizing women’s sports leagues requires a different approach tailored to a new kind of fan. The Sports Innovation Lab calls the next generation of fans “fluid fans” because they’re emerging in an era when sports are streamed or consumed on social media.

These fans engage with the league and its athletes more on social platforms and watch games across non-traditional platforms including Twitch. They’re more inclined to follow storylines in athletes rather than simply rooting for the hometown team.

“This digitally savvy consumer, one that is fickle, you have to do more to keep their attention, but they're more likely to invest in the athlete, as opposed to the team or the league, they like to follow (the athlete’s) values, as an example,” Ruggiero said.

Storytelling is ‘queen’

Because fans of men’s and women’s sports behave differently, the Sports Innovation Lab finds they also respond to different marketing strategies. The report suggests a community-based model that focuses on storytelling, consistent access to content via social media and over-the-top advertising, which reaches directly to the consumer.

Ruggiero describes storytelling as “queen” in unlocking untapped revenue in women’s sports. Last year buzzy stories that spread on social media, such as game postponements due to COVID-19 or Instagram spotlighting the WNBA’s social activism amid the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, drove more fans to engage and watch the WNBA during their quarantined bubble season, per the report.

The Sports Innovation Lab’s studied 27 leagues during work on the fan project, some of which are already seeing growth from investing in female athletes. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), long known for driving excitement among fans via nuanced storylines, is already seeing a payoff from increasing its female WWE Superstars platform. The company’s YouTube channel (78.5 million subscribers), has seen 83% growth in women subscribers over the last two years, according to WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon.

WWE’s investment in female athletes has spurred new products and sponsorships, McMahon said, including Becky Lynch landing on the cover of video game WWE 2K20 and Golden Crisp’s cereal box cover.

“We've already seen the results of this,” McMahon told Yahoo Finance. “This study now, obviously, amplifies and takes this to a whole other level... In some of these organizations, there are stakeholders who don't necessarily believe and they say show me the data. Well, here it is.”

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Josh Schafer is a producer for Yahoo Finance.

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