Breaking the Bias Against Women’s Sport: The Impact of Equal Opportunity for Athletes, Fans and Sponsors

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is known for winning on the field, and now they’ve won in their fight for fair pay following a long court battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation. But the pursuit of gender equity in sports includes more than compensation—and fans are leading in the evangelism.

Gender equity in sports still has a long way to go, but research from Nielsen Sports highlights the extent to which fans want change sooner rather than later. Not only do fans broadly expect leagues, teams and athletes to take a stand on societal issues they care about, 61% of fans in the U.S. specifically name gender equality as the cause they are most passionate about. That goes for fair pay of athletes across genders to equal airtime on TV for their events. 

In addition to outcries from fans, leagues, sponsors and athletes are helping close the gap as well—and the efforts are paying off. An expanded TV deal in 2021 that made it easy for fans to find the Women’s Super League in the U.K. stands out as one of the most dramatic examples, as it led to a 542% increase in viewership. Fans in the U.S. also responded in a big way to the increased coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament—a move that doubled the audience reach in the first round of the 2021 women’s tournament compared to 2019.

For brands to deepen engagement with the ever growing female fanbase, it’s also important to consider relevant content and activation around men’s sports. A recent analysis of Super Bowl LVI ads leveraging Nielsen Ad Intel and Pudding.ai found that 30% of the ads during the game featured women in the creative, lagging their representation in TV content of 43%, according to Gracenote Inclusion Analytics. Considering that women of color over age 50 are key drivers of weekly NFL ratings performance, increased representation of women in brand messaging throughout sports will help brands connect with some of the league’s most loyal fans. That goes for esports as well, as Nielsen Esports Fan Insights data shows that globally the female esports fan base grew by 19% in the last year, outpacing 12% growth among the male fan base.

What’s next for gender equity in sports? A recent Nielsen analysis found that media coverage of women’s sports still significantly lags men’s sports coverage. Making games more accessible to fans is a great first step, providing more opportunities for audiences and sponsors to connect. The sports commentary and analysis that complements those broadcasts should expand their coverage as well. Fans around the world are telling leagues and sponsors they’re ready for more when it comes to women’s sports.