LADIES NIGHT: The volleyball match between Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Omaha Mavericks, which took place at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in August of last year, set a world record for highest attended women’s sporting event at 92,003 people. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Female athletes are leading the charge for equality and social change on and off the field with a potent combination of athleticism and fan engagement that is gaining traction with audiences, brand partners and media platforms.

It’s been a game of long ball.

“The current state of women’s sports is that it is on the rise — and it’s an exciting time to be engaged with it, partnering in it, invested in it, watching it,” said Thayer Lavielle, executive vice president of The Collective, Wasserman’s women-focused practice to advance the power of women in sports, entertainment and music. “It is a cool moment in time to witness.”

The surge in popularity has been influenced by several factors.

“There’s been a really big groundswell over the past five years around the athleticism and ability of women athletes along with their ability to be cultural and social justice beacons,” Lavielle said. “So, sitting in the zeitgeist of competition and culture and fashion and music and all of those things together — that makes for interesting things to watch and engage in.”

Even though professional female athletes are more visible than ever, they still face large inequities in pay as well as financial opportunities off the field. Female athletes need to work harder and longer for a smaller percentage of what male athletes earn at the pro level.

CLARK BAR SET HIGH: Caitlin Clark poses with WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected as first overall pick by the Indiana Fever during the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York on April 15. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

On average, men earn 21 times more in playing salary than women, according to the New Economy of Sport study released by RBC Sports Professionals division and The Collective. Other considerations such as pregnancy, childbirth and aging also contribute to disproportionate earnings.

Despite a recent rise in salaries and prize money, inequities related to revenue, infrastructure and media coverage continue to drive major discrepancies between professional men’s and women’s player earnings.
That imbalance extends to partnerships.

The typical compensation model for sponsorships and endorsements is decided in large part by audience size, which maximizes revenue for men athletes, but fails to take into consideration the unique value of women athletes. Out of necessity, women athletes cultivate a deeply loyal fan base that is educated, financially empowered and willing to act, according to Lavielle.

With limits on what they earn playing, female athletes depend on sponsorships and endorsements twice as much as men. Making money off the field is critical to female player success and sustainability, yet 90% of partnership dollars are directed to male athletes, according to the study.

“A lot of brands and advertisers have pushed big media companies to ensure they are showing and showcasing women’s sports,” said Lavielle. “The more people are seeing it, the more people are convinced this is something they might want to attend, which is exciting.”

Lavielle points to Ally Financial, which has committed to splitting evenly the company’s media spend on men’s and women’s sports.

“A couple years ago, that was very hard,” explained Lavielle. “There just weren’t enough places to actually commit a media spend because there wasn’t enough to cover. They had to get creative in terms of supporting emerging media in the women’s sports space.”

An accepted statistic has been that women’s athletics only receive 3% to 5.5% of sports coverage. With the increased proliferation of digital media, streaming and social media, The Collective in partnership with ESPN Research set out to understand a more precise share of play with an examination of the women’s sports media environment in the U.S. from 2018 to 2023.

“We felt it was outdated in the methodology and what it was delivering,” explained Lavielle. “It turns out it is closer to 16%.”

The construction of venues specifically for women’s sports, as noted in this month’s cover story (see page 14), has been a game changer.

“How amazing is that, first of all,” Lavielle said. “Women’s teams for so long have had to be relegated to other types of facilities, or they would get the bad time slot, or they wouldn’t be thought of as a team worthy of filling a stadium. Little by little, women’s sports is proving that wrong.”

For example, the 2023 Women’s FA Cup final in soccer between Chelsea and Manchester United sold out 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium 11 days before the game. “Which proves they’re not just rabid about men’s football, they are rabid about football,” said Lavielle, referring to soccer. “These women competitors are incredible to watch.”

England’s Women’s Super League is aiming to become the world’s first “billion pound” ($1.24 billion) women’s soccer league by 2033 in terms of league and club revenue, the chair of the WSL said last year.

That enthusiasm extended to the recent NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which doubled its viewing audience. ESPN announced the full coverage of the tournament averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 121% increase from 2023. The streak continues.

After tournament standout and Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark was signed to the Indiana Fever of the WNBA, ticket sales for the league jumped 93%.

The growing clout of women’s sports has plenty of statistics to explain why. A recent Wasserman study found that fans of women’s sports are 67% more likely to earn more than $100,000 and 45% more willing to consider or purchase from sponsor brands.

Thayer Lavielle, executive vice president of The Collective, Wasserman agency’s women-focused practice.

The Professional Women’s Hockey League is on a growth curve and, as for volleyball, the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships final drew a record 19,598.

Separately, the largest crowd to watch a women’s sporting event occurred last Aug. 30, when 92,003 fans filled Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, to see Nebraska face the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The previous record was 91,648 fans in an UEFA Champions League match between Barcelona and Wolfsburg on April 22, 2022, at Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain. The previous record for an American women’s sporting event was 90,185 in the FIFA World Cup Final between the U.S. and China on July 10, 1999, at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California.

The fervor for women’s college athletics doesn’t automatically translate to professional teams. For example, 53% of all NCAA Division 1 competitions in 2022 were women’s competitions. But graduate that to the professional level and only 8% of competitions were women’s sports.

“What that means is that there’s just not enough sports elevated to the professional level, which is why they aren’t getting as much coverage,” explained Lavielle. “Because there just aren’t enough teams to cover. There are only so many times you are going to cover the New York Liberty.”

The solution may be to elevate more sports, such as volleyball and softball, into the professional ranks by investing in the youth sports ecosystem. According to the Sports Events and Tourism Association in 2021, the direct spending impact of amateur and youth sports tourism was $39.7 billion.

It’s a process already under way.

ASM Global has made a major investment in Boston-based Edge Sports Group, “to become the leading provider of advisory, development and venue management services to clients and partners in the rapidly expanding $52 billion domestic youth sports and sports tourism industry.”

The new company will operate under the banner of Edge Sports Global.

“The goal with all of this work is to continue to not only have this be a peak, but have a sustained peak in the sports ecosystem,” Lavielle said.

VenuesNow’s James Zoltak contributed to this story.