In 2019, women made up 44% of all sports participants, but received less than 5% of sports media coverage and less than 1% of total sports sponsorship dollars, according to media and commerce company Togethxr. Blockbuster ratings for recent events like the NCAA Women's Final Four tournament and the WNBA Draft show that when given the proper spotlight, sports fans – both men and women – will tune in. And the dollars will follow.

“If you had told me at 10 years old when I was keeping women and men’s NCAA tournament brackets each year, that in 2024 more people would watch the women’s final than the men’s final, I don’t think I would have believed you,” says Chief Member Jennifer Arnold, VP of Marketing and Communications at the U.S. Soccer Foundation.

According to Nielsen, this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship game garnered an estimated 18.9 million viewers, making it the most watched basketball game — at any level — since 2019. And while women’s basketball has exploded in popularity, with rookie WNBA stars like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese contributing to its rise, fans and corporations are also taking note of women athletes in other sports as well.

In February, the U.S. Women’s Open record-setting prize purse was increased to $12 million after the United States Golf Association finalized a corporate sponsorship with Ally Financial. Earlier this year the National Women’s Soccer League also expanded its reach with two new teams, bringing its total to 14 teams. In its inaugural season, the Women’s Professional Hockey League set domestic and global attendance records. And, for the first time ever, this year’s Olympics will have the same number of spots for men and women.

With this newfound attention, Deloitte estimates that women’s sports will generate more than $1 billion in revenue globally this year, a 300% increase from the past three years. And data shows that women’s sports now receive 15% of total sports media coverage. Chief spoke to four sports executives about what this means for business and career opportunities in the field — and how players, fans, and corporations can capitalize on this moment to ensure it has a lasting impact.

Shifts in Workforce Diversity and Viewership Opportunities

“When I started in the industry I was certainly an 'only',” says Chief Member Alycen McAuley, Chief Business Officer for the WNBA Washington Mystics. A veteran in the sports industry, McAuley has worked for more than 20 years at various sports marketing agencies, sports sponsors, and sporting goods manufactures. During that time, she’s seen the basketball world go from having Susan O’Malley of the Washington Wizards/Mystics be the only woman president/CEO in the NBA and WNBA in 2004, to women making up more than 18% of NBA team presidents or CEOs in 2023.

“And I'm proud to say that our team at the Washington Mystics is one of the most diverse groups in which I have ever worked. That diversity has been very intentional, reflecting our values as an organization.”

According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the WNBA has an A grade in racial hiring and an A+ grade in gender hiring for roles in the league’s headquarter offices. But there is still room for improvement in the C-Suite, with the league receiving a C- for racial hiring for team presidents and general managers, where people of color hold just 16.7% of those roles.

Chief Member Maureen Hanlon, President at Onexim Sports and Entertainment Holding USA, Inc., agrees that while the business side of sports has increased in diversity over the years, there is still a long way to go with achieving a culture that truly supports women. She points to sexual harassment allegations within the NBA Dallas Mavericks’ organization and the NFL’s Washington Commanders’ organization as examples of “the significant work that remains to be done to increase true gender diversity in the sports world, particularly off the court.”

In addition to more diversity in the back office, consumers now have more diverse avenues to view sports, Hanlon says, one of the biggest positive developments she’s seen in her 30-year career. “Take ESPN for example,” she says. “Several WNBA games are broadcast on ESPN3. Before streaming, the number of people that had access to ESPN3 was fairly limited because not all cable companies carried the full ESPN package. But with streaming, WNBA games can now be available to everyone who subscribes to the ESPN app (or has ESPN in their cable package). More broadcast opportunities means potential for more viewership which hopefully translates into more ticket sales and advertising and sponsorship dollars.”

Increase in Career Opportunities

Arnold, who has worked with the U.S. Soccer Foundation for eight years, says the rise of media attention has created more opportunities for women in several sectors of the sports world, as media commentators, analysts, front office support, or coaches.

“We are seeing an increase in women as on-air commentators and analysts, both in men’s and women’s leagues,” says Hanlon. “In 2017, Sarah Kustok became the first full-time female analyst for an NBA team’s local broadcast when she assumed this position with the Brooklyn Nets. Seeing her as an analyst for 80+ games a season, showing her vast knowledge and understanding of the game, opened a world of broadcast opportunities for women.”

This year, for the third-year in a row, ESPN had an all-women led NBA broadcast for International Women’s Day, with the network highlighting that the broadcast was also led by an all-women production staff.

Hanlon says that as more college programs and professional leagues teach athletes and students the business side of sports, she hopes that representation in the C-Suite will also become more diverse.

“It’s a commonly held belief that employees thrive when they see people like them in more senior positions,” she says. “If you see it, you can be it.”

Investments Needed to Reach Equal Pay

Women’s sports may be getting more eyeballs, but the dollars have yet to follow at an equivalent rate. When looking at the WNBA, Caitlin Clark’s $75,535 rookie year salary is more than 100 times less than rookie NBA player Victor Wembanyama’s $12 million salary for the 2023-2024 season. In 2023, women playing in the World Cup earned just $0.25 for every dollar paid to men, and in hockey, about half of the U.S. Women’s Hockey team hold second and third jobs to pay for bills.

High-profile players have been able to snag endorsement deals, but it’s not enough to even the scales. Chief Member Sofia B. Pertuz, Managing Director, Inclusion & Leadership Development at Billie Jean King Enterprises, says that “while it’s great to see individual players get endorsement deals, an increase in corporate sponsorships for teams will increase pay for all players.”

“Professional sports, whether men’s or women’s, are a business,” says Hanlon. “And as a business there has to be an economic business case to support the teams and leagues. The investment has to be beyond the team owners’ responsibility. The fans have to show their support for women’s sports, both in ticket purchases, viewership and sponsor support. Buy the Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlyn Clark sneakers. Buy the women’s team merch. Show there is a market for capitalism around women’s sports. Nothing speaks louder in this industry than money and profit, and we need to get major sponsors to realize they need to invest in these women’s leagues too.”

Creating Impact Beyond the “Moment”

Pertuz points out that men’s professional teams in the U.S. have had several decades of a head start on women’s professional leagues. Therefore, while there are a lot of things that can be done now to create a lasting impact — including an increase in corporate sponsorship deals, broadcasting opportunities, and ticket sales and merchandise purchases — Pertuz makes it clear that change will not happen overnight.

For the WNBA specifically, McAuley says they’ve been building for this moment for years, including closing a $75 million capital funding round in 2022 to grow the league.

“Here in D.C. we sold out nine of our games last season and we're on track to break that this season,” she says. “We know women's sports have a transformative effect — not just on individuals but in our society. We know that the more girls, and boys, who see female leadership in action on the court and in the front office, the more we're paving the way for the next generation of female leaders on the court, in the boardrooms, and in the halls of government.”