Women’s professional sports leagues utilize social media to continue pre-pandemic growth

Portland, OR - Wednesday, March 27, 2019: Seattle Reign vs Chicago Red Stars Preseason at Merlo Field.

By Leah Vann
Medill Reports

Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler stands against the blue backdrop of a team-themed blanket, staring into a camera to address nearly 1,000 fans sitting in front of their screens on the other end of a Zoom call on Thursday, April 30, 2020.

It’s the annual unveiling of the new team’s jerseys, called a, “Kit Launch,” and it was supposed to be the largest ever jersey unveiling event, where 250 fans would gather at Pinstripes on Chicago’s riverfront raising their signature cocktails to toast what should’ve been the start of the most exciting season of the National Women’s Soccer League yet. While the in-person event would’ve been more fun, the online version of it attracted more fans from across the country.

The room for growth in women’s sports exceeds men’s. Before the pandemic’s impact, Deloitte projected that the rise of women’s sports in 2020 would dominate the sports industry and that “sponsors should consider getting involved now to capitalize on the new opportunities and avenues for engagement that this growth area may create.”

On March 12, that dream of a record-breaking season came to a halt when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, making the NBA the first domino to fall in what was a chain of professional sports postponements and cancellations. The pandemic’s impact was especially disheartening for women’s professional sports, where teams were anxious to continue their pre-pandemic growth.

Despite the setback, the NWSL, WNBA, LPGA and NWHL have all found that creative social media content is attracting more eyes than they anticipated. That popularity generated through social media could cultivate a promising future for post-pandemic women’s sports.

Dr. Mary Jo Kane, founder and former director of the Tucker Center and professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota, believes the social media trends of women’s professional sports leagues throughout the pandemic proves their market potential.

“Those who are the gatekeepers of the coverage of men’s sports, what they’re most concerned about is not that nobody’s interested in women’s sports, but far too many people would be interested in women’s sports,” Kane said. “They have so monopolized coverage for so long that, and this isn’t just about men or men’s sports, but anybody who holds a position of privilege and power is not anxious to give it up.”

Two of the most famous professional female athletes, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe, host a live show on Instagram, hosting guests like Jimmy Butler, Katie Nolan, Diana Taurasi and her wife Penny Taylor, and attracting more than 5-9,000 viewers. It is one of many examples of how female professional athletes are taking advantage of the social media platform to keep women’s professional sports on people’s minds.

“Think what they could do if they actually have resources,” ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe said while speaking with students from her apartment in Brooklyn to the University of Texas at Austin over Zoom on May 5.

Chicago Red Stars model social media engagement activities for a diverse audience

The NWSL was poised for a record-setting year in growth, with a newly signed three-year TV deal with Twitch and CBS All-Access coming off a year of a 22% increase in game attendance, according to Soccer Stadium Digest.

The Red Stars were supposed to kick off their season on April 18, but now, with the fan-less Challenge Cup coming up on June 27, the team’s only source of revenue is coming from selling its latest jersey, titled, the “The Neighborhood Kit,” which has the Chicago flag plastered across the torso, its blue stripes constructed from the names of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the Red Stars maintain and even grow their popularity through their Twitter feed, which is flooded with fun activities for all ages: storytime with head coach Rory Dames (#StoryWithRory), game nights for adults over Twitch (#CRSAfterHours) and daily doses of fitness (#DDOF) with players. Each day, a schedule of online events is tweeted out coupled with #MyKindofContent.

“We just decided that we had to very quickly switch our focus from being leaders on the pitch to being leaders in human connection and community engagement,” said Chicago Red Stars marketing director Lindsay Goldner.

Red Stars defender Hannah Davison met with Brescia University’s women’s soccer team over a Zoom call after a coach reached out to her through social media. The team is based in Owensboro, Kentucky.

“I talked them through my journey, and the coach specifically asked me to talk about intrinsic motivation and competitiveness from within and what it takes to get to this next level,” Davison said. “They said that they are going to come to a game, so any kind of opportunities that we have to get our name out there, the fans are wanting to come out and see us play.”

Even as the nation rallies together to protest police brutality, former U.S. women’s national team member and current ESPN commentator Julie Foudy says the Red Stars have been mindful about their tone with both marketing and supporting social change. That authenticity translates to international sponsors like Secret, P&G and Verizon, who want to make sure they are supporting an inclusive brand.

“Their content over social media and kind of their branding during this time, it strikes the right tone,” Foudy said. “It’s women, it’s families, people who cherish the idea of women having the opportunity to play a professional sport and make a living. It’s an educated demo that cares deeply about people and causes and making this world better.”

WNBA capitalizes on Twitter and Instagram popularity

In a joint HORSE challenge with the NBA, Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley sat to the left of her basketball hoop between the lane line and 3-point line to lob a bank shot during the HORSE challenge on ESPN. Chicago Bulls point guard Zach LaVine’s shot kissed the rim, giving him an “H” in the challenge on April 16 competition.

Quigley’s shot became a viral social media sensation when Sky CEO Adam Fox’s daughter tried her hand at it.

“I went out to get groceries and my younger daughter, Phoebe, 15, had watched the HORSE tournament and she went out in the driveway and she decided to try that sitting down shot,” Fox said. “And she made it, so she got my wife to come out and film her doing it, and by the time I came home, she was like, ‘Hey dad I’m on Twitter now.’”

Phoebe tweeted the video to Quigley, who commended her performance with an invitation to play HORSE someday. But that invitation turned into much more when the Sky’s PR department decided Quigley should market the shot as a twitter challenge, naming it the #QuarantineQuigleyChallenge.


“A lot of our players are having downtime for the first time ever, so they’re able to do things like the Quigley quarantine challenge,” said Kelly Kane, director of media relations for the Chicago Sky. “We’re just trying out new things that our team wants to do. They’re dealing with the same kind of problems everyone else is.”

That was especially true for Sky forward Cheyenne Parker, who admitted she struggled without being able to play the game she loved. Her motivation lapsed in quarantine, but when her former college teammate, Jasmine Nesbitt, reached out about leading creative at-home workouts through Instagram live, Parker knew she had the platform to help her friend’s following, increase her visibility as a player and do something to lift her own spirits.

“I’ve had people ask me what type of food I eat and what type of workout to do,” Parker said. “I love when people reach out, it’s super inspiring to me. I’m definitely all about trying to build the WNBA brand in any way I can and that has to be an individual job as well.”

LPGA sees an opportunity for pure, intimate storytelling through social media

It’s easy for individuals to pick up their phones and create original content. That’s what Kelly Schultz, vice president of communications for the LPGA has found.

After the LPGA completed its most recent tournament on Feb. 16 in Australia, the organization had to find ways to keep fans across the world on different platforms engaged.

Schultz said that the sports coverage on television looks different during the pandemic: there’s little use of state-of-the-art studios, more at-home Zoom calls and fewer graphics. That informal production of sports television has lowered the bar for any sports content at all. She believes fans are not driven away from sports content by this lack of production quality, which might be why they turn to social media for a more intimate look into athletes’ lives.

“You’re seeing them [women golfers] create more content on their own,” Schultz said. “They’re realizing they can do that and people are really looking for that and wanting to engage with it.”

According to Schultz, despite the fewer tournaments, the LPGA has seen social media engagement increase.

Athletes are teaching viewers important swing dynamics through instructional videos with athletes using golf simulators. Through the World Golf Tour videogame, fans can watch and listen to the friendly banter between players alongside commentary from Tom Abbott and Karen Stupples from Golf Channel and Henni Zuël from GolfTV.

Mexico’s Gaby López took over the LPGA’s Instagram for a day-in-the-life feature while American golfer Angela Stanford took fans on a tour of her Texas home, showing everything down to her cans of Dr. Pepper, shelves of memorabilia and backyard golf simulator.

“I think what this has just shown is how people still relate to the storytelling and the athletes themselves,” Schultz said.

NWHL’s twitter draft proves successful

The NWHL Twitter draft used star-studded guest appearances to attract record viewership.

Women’s hockey, so far, has been the least affected by the pandemic, but is still a fledgling league working through innovative ways to grow. This past season, the NWHL’s games attracted 8 million views through Twitch.

The pandemic only eliminated the league’s final game, the Isobel Cup, and the Twitter draft was next on the calendar already.

But because of the lull in sports, the NWHL took advantage of people’s time, inviting sports moguls from other professional sports leagues like the commissioner of the National Lacrosse League, WNBA players like Natalie Achonwa (Indiana Fever, Canadian National Team) and Rachel Banham (Minnesota Lynx), the director of USA Hockey and ESPN reporters to participate in its annual Twitter draft, which, as a result, helped attract more eyes than ever.

“We’ve always done our draft on Twitter, but we got over half a million eyes, which was like a 215% growth for our draft,” said NWHL Player’s Association director Anya Packer. “Now if you take what we did versus what the NFL did by having a video of [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell in his basement, that was pretty boring.”

Packer said she believes digital creativity is an essential skill for women’s sports because they don’t have the broadcast footprint that men’s sports have.

“Right now, it lends to watching women immediately flip a switch to showing at-home training videos or posting more on TikTok because that’s what you have to do,” Packer said.

Bringing in the revenue

The WTA, while enduring the postponement of the French Open on March 20 and cancellation of Wimbledon on April 1, is already the most popular women’s sport in the world thanks to former pioneers like Billie Jean King and current 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams.

On May 6, the WTA decided to take additional steps to continue that trend by merging with the ATP.

“What this kind of an unexpected pause can do is it can make you sort of rethink everything from how you’re living your life to your company or companies that you’re affiliated with,” said former tennis player and current ESPN broadcaster Pam Shriver. “I can’t think of a company that’s not making significant adjustments.”

The COVID-19 pandemic’s biggest blow to women’s professional sports that aren’t as widely televised as the WTA is attendance. While season ticket holders can choose to maintain their tickets to support the team, they still lose out on non-season-ticket holders.

But that’s all the more reason for sponsors to invest in women’s professional sports now, according to the NWHL’s Packer, because it’s cheap to get involved and has the potential to grow as an investment.

“The amount of money that it takes for a company to meaningfully support a women’s league is so vastly different than what it takes to have the smallest piece of attachment for a men’s league,” Packer said. “So, we’ve not seen that huge rollback because we’re not expecting hundreds of millions of dollars from our sponsors”

ESPN’s Rowe also suspects that from a consumer standpoint, women’s sports might have an advantage in a post-pandemic world when people have less disposable income.

“Maybe families who are cutting back might go to a WNBA game because they can go to four or five WNBA games for the price of one NBA game,” Rowe said.

Allen Sanderson, a professor at the University of Chicago who researches the economics of sports, said that’s not likely.

Using baseball as an example, Sanderson said the majority of fans wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a AAA player and MLB player without the name on the jersey, but there’s a noticeable difference between watching men’s and women’s sports. Still, he doesn’t believe women’s sports are always an easy substitute.

“I suspect fans will gravitate back to what they were doing before [the pandemic],” Sanderson said. “If people really wanted to watch the WNBA, trust me: ABC, NBC, CBS, ESPN would make sure everybody knew when the games were on.”

But what the pandemic has shown is that women’s sports are captivating eyes, and as long as they keep it up, fans will want more.

“What some of these teams are doing on social media right now is making that visceral connection, either through players or what their team accounts are doing,” Foudy said. “It’s so important because maybe that’s the difference of a family trying it out for the first time or not. Once they get there, they’re going to end up loving it. The challenge is getting them in there for the first time.”

Chicago Red Stars defender Hannah Davison dribbles the ball in a preseason game against the Seattle Reign on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at Merlo Field. Davison has spent her COVID-19 quarantine filming online workouts and connecting with fans through Zoom calls. (Craig Mitchelldyer/ isiphotos.com)