June 23, 2024

‘W’ is for women and for winning: the rise and popularity of women’s sports viewership

Women’s athletics have a history fraught with underpayment, undervaluing and exclusion. Today, unprecedented levels of viewership and popularity call for better treatment of female athletes.

In the early development of professional and educationally affiliated athletics, only men were included in sports. 

In the 1800s, women were encouraged to participate in recreational sports that were considered acceptable in terms of femininity, such as horseback riding. 

However, the absence of men in athletics in the 1940s due to World War II created opportunities for women to participate in sports. 

This kickstarted “the Girls Baseball League and golf competitions;” the popularity of these events “led to a rise in intramural and intercollegiate sports in the 1950s and 1960s.

Funding for women’s sports was dismal until the amendment of the Education Acts in 1972, banning discrimination based on sex for all programs that receive federal funding. 

This amendment, known as Title IX, is generally only considered in terms of the procedures by which colleges handle sexual assault cases. 

However, one of the other influential effects of the amendment was the addition of official women and girls’ teams and programs at high schools and universities across the country.

Professional women’s sports developed largely through the 1970s into the 1990s. 

The first women’s pro sports association in the United States was the Ladies Professional Golf Association, founded in 1950. 

Since then, numerous other athletics programs have been established: the Women’s Tennis Association (1973), National Pro Fastpitch (2004), National Women’s Soccer League (2013) and the National Women’s Hockey League (2015).

The Women’s National Basketball Association was formed in 1996, the same year that women’s soccer was added to the Olympics. 

The rise of women’s professional sports has created household names out of female athletes across a wide range of programs, ages and positions.

Tennis players Serena Williams and Coco Gauff have been internationally recognized for their outstanding efforts in competitions such as the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. 

A grand slam win occurs when a player collects all these titles. Gauff has already won a grand slam at just 20 years old. Williams, at 42, has won 23 grand slams over her professional career since she started in professional tennis in October 1995. She achieved her first at 21.

Both women of color starting in the sport young and reaching fame early on in their lives and careers are representative of the strides within the tennis world.

In terms of star power, retired soccer forward Mia Hamm also has a long list of accolades. Notably, she is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Cup champion and the “U.S. Soccer all-time leader in goals scored for male or female players.” 

Hamm played in the 1999 World Cup, which was a historic win for both women’s soccer and professional athletics.

[A]fter scoring the game-winning penalty kick for the U.S. women’s national team at the 1999 World Cup,” a photo of Hamm’s teammate Brandi Chastain’s drop to her knees with her jersey held up in triumph became synonymous with the vibrant culture and determined nature of women’s soccer.

Many female athletes have used their massive platforms to support causes. Megan Rapinoe, legendary soccer player, has been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality throughout the duration of her career and beyond.

Similarly, Simone Biles is not only a world class gymnastics champion but a proponent of mental health in athletics. Biles took a two-year hiatus due to the immense toll the stress and pressure was taking on her.

Thanks to her outspokenness, Biles has mitigated the unrealistic expectations of sports fans and viewers. All of these women have been active proponents of the sport and how our society interacts with broadcasts.

Over the past year, the popularity of women’s sports has increased exponentially.

Specifically, viewership of women’s college basketball began to rise with the team of tight-knit players called “the Freshies” fighting their way through March Madness.

Considered one of the most successful recruiting classes in women’s college basketball history, the Freshies were on the University of South Carolina (USC) team: forwards Aliyah Boston and Laeticia Amihere and guards Zia Cooke and Brea Beal.

In the 2023 WNBA draft, Boston was the number one overall draft pick and joined the Indiana Fever; she was unanimously named Rookie of the Year.

The University of Iowa won against Louisiana State University (LSU) in the 2023 March Madness after an exciting game between LSU and South Carolina (SC). Since last year, the popularity of women’s college basketball has exploded.

Guard Caitlin Clark and forward Angel Reese have become instantly recognizable household names because of their prowess and skill in the basketball world. 

According to the ESPN Press Room, the March Madness women’s basketball national championship was the most-viewed college basketball game on the station ever. ESPN reported 18.9 million viewers on their platforms.

The championship game’s viewership peaked at 24.1 million, the “second most-watched non-Olympic women’s sporting event on record on U.S. television behind the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Japan.”

Soon after, Clark was drafted to play for the Indiana Fever after playing for Iowa and Reese was drafted to the Chicago Sky after playing for LSU.

Upon graduating and declaring their draft eligibility, Clark and Reese joined the ranks of players like Boston and Cooke. Reese and SC center Kamala Cardoso joined the Chicago Sky, while Clark joined Boston on the Indiana Fever team. 

With these pairings, this season will surely shape up to be an exciting time for the WNBA.

This draft generation is one of the first to have grown up with the WNBA established for their whole lives as examples of a respected women’s athletic program.

Much progress made in the collegiate and professional sports sphere is also owed to coaches: SC’s current coach, Dawn Staley, and late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt are examples of women supporting and refining the skills of younger players.

In her 38 years as head coach at the University of Tennessee, Summitt was a trailblazer for women’s athletics. Her overall win percentage was 84% with a record of 1,098-208.

From 1976-2011, every player under Summitt was able to compete in at least one Final Four all four years of their time on the team. Three classes of players were even able to compete in the Final Four all four years of their collegiate career. 

Every player on Summitt’s teams who completed their eligibility at Tennessee graduated. Not only did she prioritize focus on the court, she emphasized academics and giving back to create opportunities for other young women.

Like Summitt, SC’s head coach Staley is her respective university’s most “winningest” coach. 

She is the only Black head coach in both women’s or men’s college basketball to win multiple national championships. Similarly, she is the only SC basketball coach ever to reach 300 victories in their career. 

Staley has been named National Coach of the Year four times. Her winning percentage of .769 is second only to Pat Summitt’s (.874) in SEC league history.

In her 15 seasons as SC’s head coach, Staley has already solidified an impressive record and legacy that will only continue to grow.

The efforts of the women who have worked their whole lives for the betterment of the quality and perception of women’s athletics have not and will not go unnoticed.

Young girls across the country will continue to see powerhouse female players on their screens and be raised with this as the cultural norm, believing they are capable of anything they set their minds to.


  • Charlotte Keller

    Charlotte is a third-year English Literature major with a Spanish minor. She is secretary of the Capital Book Club, an AIM Change Advocate, and Capital’s Student Government Parliamentarian. In her free time, she likes to make Spotify playlists and watch rom-coms.

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