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Article: Earning Your Stars

by on July 9, 2015

The FIFA Women’s World Cup just wrapped up and while it was excellent to see the hard-working and talented US team win, it also brought up many discussions about the perception of women’s sports overall. As this is a technology site, I’ll leave that argument to much smarter people with a wider knowledge of the topic, but as a sports fan, I have some observations that I have made from a technology standpoint and found them bouncing around my head while on an evening run.

To provide some context, I enjoy watching a variety of sports, notably baseball (MLB: Chicago Cubs), basketball (NBA: Indiana Pacers & Chicago Bulls, WNBA: Indiana Fever & Seattle Storm), and a bit of college football (Ball State Cardinals). With each of these sports, it’s a bit of a known quantity how coverage and availability apply. Many still rely on a cable TV subscription for watching the games live or over some sort of Internet-based service.

Where to Watch

Most baseball teams have a deal with a regional cable network, so all the games are carried locally. The Cubs are in a transition right now, with some games airing on Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, some on WGN (CW in Chicago), some on WLS (ABC in Chicago), and some on another station in Chicago as overflow, but produced by WGN. In Indianapolis, almost all of these games air on CSN Chicago or WISH/WNDY (they air WGN’s feed down here). MLB’s outdated blackout structure has made it almost impossible to watch your home team on MLB.TV unless you live so far out of the market that there’s no way you can pick it up with any sort of pay TV provider. Still, their service works well and any baseball fan knows that it’s easy to find and use. Nationally televised games aren’t available, but they’re on apps like Fox Sports Go and WatchESPN. Either way, if you want baseball, you can easily find and follow your favorite team.

The NBA has a similar service, although I haven’t explored it or used it since I’m able to get a good chunk of Bulls games and all of the Pacers games where I live. Again, regional cable networks carry most of the games, be it Comcast Sportsnet Chicago or Fox Sports Indiana.

College sports are a mixed bag, depending on what conference, the regional TV deal, or if there is some sort of special network for the conference (SEC Network, Big Ten Network) or school (Longhorn Network). That being said, since the Cardinals are a smaller-big school and the Mid American Conference is somewhat second-tier (I mean that, lovingly), most games get the privilege of airing on ESPN3, which is readily accessible on most devices that allow access for WatchESPN.

The W

Which leads me to the WNBA. Long the easy punchline of many jokes, the women’s counterpart to the NBA is sort of a financial mixed bag in its 19th season. Some teams are much more profitable than others, the league has a TV deal with ESPN, individual teams have their own TV deals, but there is a lot of room for growth. In many ways, it’s like any other fledgling sports league where there are only a few teams, generally have loyal fans, but outside of those areas, it’s still somewhat ignored. I’ve gone to plenty of Indiana Fever games and have enjoyed the experience quite a bit, especially since the style of play is different, but not necessarily better or worse than what you’d see in the NBA.

An area that the WNBA can improve on is how it embraces technology. Sports like the NFL, NBA, and MLB use social media and embrace new platforms at their leisure, as there are established fanbases and the product is easily accessible. Something that is still seen as fringe needs to work to draw in new fans and grow. You could walk up to someone on the street who doesn’t even pay attention to sports and they might know something about the New York Yankees or Baltimore Ravens, but probably not the Tulsa Shock. With the exception of a few WNBA franchises, it seems that Twitter or Instagram are an afterthought. The league’s Center Court app allows users to stream games for a very reasonable $15/year (free in 2011, then $5 in 2012, $15 since), complete with AirPlay capability, but it has its share of being fussy, and there isn’t standalone support for the Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, or other streamers. Make it stupidly easy to watch the games and then you might pick up a few fans, especially those who think baseball is slow and boring and needing a summer hoops fix.

The silver lining is that the WNBA isn’t dying—the 2014 Draft had record ratings, arguably fueled by more promoted players at the collegiate level. Additionally, a deal with ESPN through 2022 should keep games on TV for the foreseeable future.

Throw in Soccer

The whole catalyst for this article is mostly the juggernaut that was the US Women’s National Team. I’m not talking about Carli Lloyd’s hat-trick against Japan in the final or just the solid defense overall, but the fact that from a marketing standpoint, everything just feels on-point. While some might argue that the Twitter and Instagram accounts almost inundate your feed, most either provide good information or have some sort of fun component that makes you feel a bit more connected with the team or individual players. It’s fun, engaging, and well-done. From an accessibility standpoint, the US Soccer Federation had a TV deal in place with Fox Sports, so all the games (or matches, depending on your vernacular) were aired on their networks and carried on the Fox Sports Go app. There isn’t even an app for the USWNT or US Soccer Federation—everything is social media or broadcast and still Sunday night’s broadcast broke many records for both soccer and women’s sports in America. The organization also utilizes the social media accounts of players to further promote and make their marketing a bit more personal—Darren Rovell reports for ESPNW:

After Carli Lloyd scored her second goal in the first five minutes of Sunday’s World Cup final, so many people were going to her official website that it crashed.

Everything else associated with Lloyd was on the rise.

While on the field during Sunday’s 5–2 Cup-winning triumph, Lloyd, who added a third goal in the 16th minute to complete a hat trick, picked up roughly 50,000 Twitter followers.

50,000 new followers may not seem like a lot, even when drawfed by some popular male athletes (22 million for Lebron James, 1.4 million for Aaron Rodgers), but most WNBA teams are lucky to break 25,000 followers, or about eight minutes of work from Carli Lloyd. For the sake of comparison, popular WNBA players seem to mostly top out at 100,000 followers, while many more are still in the <50,000 or less range.

That being said, it’s not a who-has-more-followers-wins contest, but does show the engagement of fans and that women’s sports are popular in quite a few circles. I suspect the USWNT and its players will gain even more momentum in the coming weeks and months, and eventually leading to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Even people who aren’t fully interested in soccer as a whole have gotten into following this team and its players, which is a win for any growing sport. That being said, there’s more room for growth soon.

A New(ish) League

Most of the players from the USWNT are also members of local teams, based in a handful of US cities. The league, the National Women’s Soccer League is only in its third season, taking the place of two failed attempts to create a professional-level soccer organization for women. Interestingly enough, in soccer-friendly pockets of the country, stadiums are packed and teams draw NBA levels. The league itself feels very patched together, with some teams playing on college campuses and other “local” venues. Still, there are passionate fans following players and teams, as the league continues to grow (overall, NWSL teams seem to have slightly more followers than WNBA teams). Like the USWNT, there is no app, but good social media presence by the individual teams. The kicker though is the league’s lack of a large-scale TV deal—until last week, the NWSL aired games on YouTube. Similar to ESPN last year, Fox Sports is picking up six games, including two semifinals and the final. Four more will be aired on the Fox Sports Go app, arguably with quite a bit of promotion, too.

This is important, for both Fox Sports, who is looking to grow their Fox Sports 1 network and for the NWSL, which had previously felt like you were watching something pirated or illegal if you tuned into the YouTube streams—they were often lower-resolution, a bit amateurish, and fussy. Despite these issues, they were free, worked on just about any device, and still allowed you to see the players and teams that you cared about. The share-ability was also perfect. As the NWSL grows and develops, they should continue to take a page from the USWNT and smack fans over the head with content to get excited about the players, the teams, and the sport itself.

Where to Grow

I’m sure there’s quite a few more people interested in women’s soccer in the US than this time Sunday, and it will be interesting to see if the NWSL continues to grow or meets the fate of its predecessors. In the meantime, it’s fascinating to see how this relatively new league embraces technology and its fans compared to much more established male sports or the WNBA.

Until the last year or so, I wouldn’t consider myself a soccer fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have grown to really enjoy watching the USWNT and the occasional NWSL broadcast. Although there will still be the “Ugh…soccer…ugh…women’s soccer” crowd, there are plenty more, often younger, more tech savvy people who are embracing both. I’d recommend checking things out even now, especially the various technology properties of the USWNT and NWSL, since the feel is almost like a trendy geeky startup that your friends are just hearing about, rather than a monolithic sports league (think 2008 Twitter vs. 2008 Facebook). That leaves room for fun and embracing change to connect with fans, rather than it being a one-way relationship.

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