In July of 2019, the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup yet again in captivating fashion, shattering viewership and merchandise records, and turning multiple athletes who were already stars into global icons.
Just a few months later, armed with reams of data demonstrating the demand for more women’s sports content and media coverage, I had the first of many meetings with potential investors in what would become Just Women’s Sports.
Despite all the progress that had been made in recent years, I heard the same tired old cliches.
“The audience isn’t big enough.”
“The athletes aren’t as big and strong, the action isn’t as compelling.”
“People only care about women’s sports through a lifestyle lens. Focus off the field.”
“People have already tried this and it didn’t work. The revenue potential just isn’t there.”
Frustrated but not dismayed, my small team and I set about proving the naysayers wrong, launching a website, social media feeds and a podcast that quickly built up an audience just as the pandemic ground the entire sports world to a halt.
Even after the WNBA and NWSL both saw major viewership increases during their pandemic-shortened 2020 seasons while the same metrics for nearly all men’s sports plummeted, potential investors twisted themselves into knots trying to justify the strong numbers.
“It’s just a COVID peak.”
“People are stuck at home, it’s the only thing on.”
“Once this is over, they’ll struggle to keep this audience.”
Fast forward another year, and those conversations are slowly but surely starting to change. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific inflection point. Perhaps it was Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT taking a stand for pay equity. Perhaps it was the A-list ownership group behind Angel City FC. Perhaps it was the outrage during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament at the disparity between the men’s and women’s weight rooms. Perhaps it was the WNBA’s deal with Google and the NWSL’s with Mastercard. Most likely it was the combination of all of them and more.
The NWSL has played a role in how we prioritize and consume women’s sports.getty images
Another undeniable piece of evidence came in the form of social media, the great equalizer. Women’s sports have always been caught in a chicken/egg dilemma. The gatekeepers would devote a fraction of the time, energy and investment given to men’s sports, then use the resulting lag in interest to justify continued tiny investment. While in the past, gatekeepers decided which games to put on TV and which athletes to put on magazine covers, fans now get to decide for themselves which athletes they want to follow on social media. And the results are impossible to deny.
Amid this year’s NCAA basketball controversy and with NIL legislation on the horizon, we learned that eight of the top 10 most followed NCAA basketball athletes on social media were women.
Ultimately, as with most things, money talks. While many allow their own inherent biases to cloud their judgment, venture capital firms are in the business of making money. And in Just Women’s Sports, multiple firms see an opportunity to serve an audience that is being perpetually underserved by the major players in sports media.
The next step is for the conversation to change among those controlling where advertising dollars are spent. People are seeing the numbers, the growth and the momentum building around women’s sports, and it’s becoming harder and harder to deny.
What these investors know, others will soon realize: that women’s sports aren’t a charity, but a once-in-a-generation business opportunity that just needs its proper attention. To push the space forward, we have to move beyond both the condescension and the lip service. We need people to see the potential and to ask the tough questions. They’re the ones who will drive the space forward, and they’re the ones who will reap the rewards.
Haley Rosen is the founder and CEO of Just Women’s Sports, which in May 2021 secured $3.5 million in seed funding. She is also a member of SBJ’s 2020 class of New Voices Under 30.
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