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“Caitlin-mania” has elevated women’s sports in the US, and interest is growing worldwide—but the road to equality remains long

by | May 22, 2024 | Public Relations

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to be aware of Caitlin Clark, the phenom Iowa graduate who is already making plenty of noise in the WNBA—and a lot of that noise is coming from cash registers across the country, where ticket sales are exploding, both at her new team’s Indiana home court and any venue where they’re headed. Although there is plenty of talent in the WNBA, Clark has single-handedly transformed women’s pro basketball into one of the nation’s most popular draws, just as she did for college basketball, where her superhero talent turned her into (I’d say) the most exciting athlete—whether women’s or men’s sports—in the post-pandemic era. 

Although Indiana has yet to win a game in this young season (as of this writing), there are plenty of winners in Caitlin’s rookie year because of her—first and foremost, of course, the WNBA, now more popular than it’s ever been. But that extends to cable sports TV, merchandisers, event venues, sports retailers, Clark’s sponsors and other entities further down the line. Most importantly, she’s an awe-inspiring role model for girls worldwide for capturing the main spotlight in the world of professional team sports—the most gender-disparate industry of them all.

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But while all this girl-powered excitement is taking America by storm, women’s sports are gaining popularity all over the world in lockstep with—but not necessarily because of—Clark’s evolving story. New large-scale research from online surveys and forms brand SurveyMonkey and sports marketing and sponsorship platform Parity, which is dedicated to closing the gender income and opportunity gap in professional sports, finds that women’s sports are becoming significantly more popular worldwide, or at the very least in all seven countries surveyed for the research.

The survey sought to gain insights about fan engagement and equity in women’s sports. Leveraging extensive anonymized and aggregated data from more than 14,000 adults over 18 in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and the UK, researchers identified key trends in how people view, consume, and engage with women’s sports today, finding a large majority of respondents saying it’s about time for women’s sports to get a parity upgrade—and brands can lead that charge with more investment in women’s sports and in female athletes.

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Key findings of the study, From Moment to Mainstream: What Consumers in 7 Countries Really Think About Women’s Sports, include:

Women’s sports are gaining momentum among fans and more men watch women’s sports frequently

  • A quarter to a third of women’s sports fans are watching more women’s sports this year compared with last year. In the UK (36 percent), Australia (34 percent), and Spain (32 percent), one in three women’s sports fans are watching more women’s sports this year, higher than in the US (27 percent), Canada (29 percent), Germany (23 percent), and France (24 percent).
  • 23 percent of men watch women’s sports daily or weekly, compared to 15 percent of women, silencing assumptions that women’s sports fans are primarily women. Added to this, 30 percent of men around the world are watching more women’s sports in 2024 compared to 2023.

Women athletes hold significantly more sway than other types of influencers

  • The vast majority of respondents (88 percent) agree that professional women athletes are “somewhat” or “highly” impactful role models for young women.
  • Respondents who watch women’s sports daily or weekly are 3.5x more likely to buy a product promoted by a woman athlete than another type of influencer. Respondents overall are more than twice as likely to buy a product promoted by a woman athlete over another influencer.

The global majority agree that women athletes are being shortchanged and want more brand investment in women athletes

  • Equity in women’s sports still has a long way to go. Half or more in each country believe that brands are not investing enough in women’s sports compared with men’s sports: 50 percent in the US, 50 percent in the UK, 51 percent in Australia, 56 percent in Canada, 53 percent in Germany, 59 percent in Spain, and 66 percent in France.
  • Instagram is the top platform for following individual women athletes across all countries, followed by Facebook and YouTube. Australians (42 percent) are the most likely to follow women’s sports accounts on social media, followed by the US (38 percent), UK (36 percent), Canada (39 percent), Germany (30 percent), Spain (34 percent), and France (26 percent).

Women’s soccer and tennis are the most popular worldwide except in the US, where basketball dominates

  • Soccer and tennis are the most-watched women’s sports internationally in all countries surveyed.
  • The US (56 percent) is the exception, where basketball is by far the most watched sporting event, compared to 25 percent or less viewership in all other countries. 

Despite a growing interest in women’s sports, accessibility remains a barrier—especially for women

  • Time is the main barrier that prevents fans from watching women’s sports: 43 percent in Germany, 41 percent in the UK, 40 percent in Spain, 40 percent in the US, 39 percent in Australia, 39 percent in Canada, and 35 percent in France.
  • Globally, women are overall more likely than men to report lacking sufficient time to watch women’s sports (42 percent vs. 39 percent).
  • More than double 18–34-year-olds compared to 65+ cite “too expensive” (7 percent/3 percent) as a barrier to viewing—showing an increase of interest among generations but a lack of accessibility. Women and gender non-conforming respondents are also slightly more likely than men to say the cost of watching women’s sports is a barrier.

Paris 2024 will set a key gender equity milestone—and most people have no idea

  • Most adults plan to watch the Olympics and/or Paralympics this summer, but fewer than a fifth know that these will be the first Games in history to feature an equal number of men and women athletes—except for France (25 percent), where the games will take place. From least knowledgeable to most: 14 percent in Germany, 15 percent in the US, 16 percent in Spain, 17 percent in Canada, 18 percent in the UK, and 20 percent in Australia.
  • Despite this lack of awareness, a vast majority think it is very or somewhat important that the Olympic games feature equal representation: 87 percent in the UK, 85 percent in the US, 85 percent in Canada, 84 percent in Australia, 83 percent in Spain, 81 percent in France and 74 percent in Germany.

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“Women’s sports is experiencing a surge of attention right now, but there’s still an abundance of pressing questions about the pervasiveness of women’s sports fandom in 2024,” said Leela Srinivasan, CEO of Parity, in a news release. “In collaboration with SurveyMonkey, we embarked on a groundbreaking international survey to reaffirm what those of us committed to leveling the playing field have been witnessing for some time: women’s sports are no longer just a ‘moment’ but a powerful mainstream force. The fandom gap is narrowing, signaling a seismic change in attitudes towards women’s sports. While there is much to celebrate, our findings also shed light on the enduring challenges faced by women athletes on the path to true parity.”

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“By partnering with Parity on one of the largest women’s sports research projects conducted to date, we uncovered key drivers for the spike in popularity of women’s sports that we’re all witnessing in mainstream media and on our TVs,” said Lara Belonogoff, senior director of brand management and research at SurveyMonkey, in the release. “The insights we collected can empower people and businesses to make decisions quickly and confidently to help further close the fracture in fandom between the growing demand for women’s sports and the current reality of investment in them.”

Download the full report here.

This SurveyMonkey poll was conducted March 28 – April 10, 2024, among a national sample of 5,408 U.S., 1,972 UK, 1,251 Australian, 1,743 Canadian, 1,290 German, 1,193 Spanish, and 1,517 French adults 18+. Respondents for this survey were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the platform each day. 

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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