ESPN And College Softball: How Time And Consistent Coverage Can Dramatically Change a Fan Base
It is generally believed that men's sports are always more popular than women's sports. One only has to look at attendance data to see that men's sports leagues like Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL draw better than the National Pro Fastpitch League, the WNBA, and NWHL. But there is one clear exception to this general trend.
In 2015 the Women's College World Series (WCWS) -- between the University of Michigan and the University of Florida -- averaged 1.85 million viewers per game. In contrast, the Men's College World Series (CWS) -- averaged only 1.41 million viewers that same year. Yes, the rating for the CWS in 2015 was 31 percent lower than the WCWS!
The 2015 WCWS was the 15th year ESPN televised the entire event. According to ESPN, though, ESPN has held the rights to broadcast softball since 1979-80. In other words, college softball has been part of ESPN for about 40 years.
Today, ESPN says that its affiliated networks cover more than 1,200 regular season games and -- for the fourth year in a row -- every game of the post-season. Back in 2000, ESPN says its ratings for the WCWS championship averaged one million viewers. In 2018, the two games of the WCWS averaged nearly 1.4 million viewers. So, ratings are nearly 40 percent higher for the WCWS today than they were at the beginning of the century.
The growth in ESPN ratings corresponds to the growth in revenues for softball programs. As reported a few weeks ago, since 2003-04 revenues for Division-1 college softball teams have grown over 200 percent. It is not unreasonable to argue that ESPN's coverage has played a role in this remarkable revenue growth.
ESPN's coverage of college softball and the corresponding growth in the sport gives us some insight into why the aforementioned women's professional sports leagues have not quite found the same success yet. First, college softball has clearly benefited from consistent coverage from ESPN.
Thus far, women's professional sports leagues have not received the same level of attention. For example, whereas ESPN will broadcast 1,200 college softball games this year, most WNBA games are broadcasted on only regional networks (ESPN only broadcasted 13 regular season games for the WNBA last year). Meanwhile games for the NPF and NWHL were even less likely to be broadcasted nationwide by anyone.
In addition, college softball has also benefited from time. Again, ESPN has held the rights to college softball for forty years. The WNBA has only been around since 1997 and the other leagues are much younger. Back in the 1960s -- when the NBA was about as old as the WNBA today -- attendance in the NBA was similar to the WNBA today. And the NPF's attendance today is similar to what Major League Baseball drew after its first 15 years of existence.
With time both Major League Baseball and the NBA's fan base grew dramatically. Again, a similar story is seen in college softball. That suggests that it is possible women's professional sports leagues might be much more popular in the future.
Of course college softball does have one advantage over women professional sports leagues. Colleges come with a fan base that is already emotionally attached to their teams. A fan of the University of Michigan doesn't just get excited when their football or men's basketball teams win. They also are likely to get excited when any of their sports teams do well. That is because any team that represents the Wolverines also inspires an emotional reaction from Michigan fans.
A professional league doesn't immediately come with that emotional attachment. Although Wolverine fans cheered for Sierra Romero when she starred in college, fewer fans get excited to see her star for the USSSA Pride. Again, the NPF is only about 15 years old.
Although the NPF employs many of the greatest softball players, it is hard for fans to form emotional attachments for a collection of teams with so little history. But the story of college softball (and the aforementioned men's leagues) suggests that with time -- and consistent coverage -- a fan base can grow dramatically.
So yes, women's professional sports can become as popular as men's sports. But it will take quite a bit of time. And a bit more attention from sports broadcasters.