Full disclosure: The original concept for this column was a focus on Tom Brady’s minority ownership stake in the Las Vegas Aces. What does this mean for women’s sports? What does her investment say about the progress made by women’s professional teams? What kind of visibility and cool factor could a seven-time Super Bowl champion bring to the WNBA and other corners of the women’s sports landscape?
Judging by how the news of Brady’s ownership stake was greeted — national headlines, press statements, emojis and GIF-filled tweets from the Aces’ top players, it certainly seemed like some sort of progress metric. In a statement, Aces majority owner Mark Davis called Brady’s investment “a win not only for the Aces and the NBA, but for women’s professional sports as a whole.”
But the flood of ratings records for the recent women’s NCAA basketball tournament and the NWSL’s opening weekend, along with attendance records and other milestones, put the Brady-related “win” into proper perspective. Her investment in the Aces was one of the least consequential national news stories in women’s sports in recent weeks. That’s not a knock on Brady. This is a reflection of the progress women’s sports have made and the warp speed they are moving forward. It’s also a reflection of how women’s sports can draw attention to their own merits, thank you very much.
In the past few weeks, women’s sports have experienced a surge of growth-and-awareness, entering a new era, entering a new reality. Brady’s ownership stake is one part of that larger storyline, one of an ever-increasing number of data points that make this latest iteration of women’s sports more compelling to make the progress more permanent and the momentum more sustainable. The retired quarterback is lucky to have the opportunity to invest in the Aces, not the other way around. She was lucky to get in before women’s sports properties became too expensive.
After all, evaluation records are results. Good results if you favor women sports. Not so good if you’re negotiating for ESPN when the media rights deal with the women’s NCAA basketball tournament expires next year.
Speaking of ratings records, let’s get to the staggering numbers that confirm what fans of women’s sports have known for a long time: keep the games people can easily find, focus on storytelling, bring great production value, and audiences will be ready and eager to watch. As you’ve probably heard by now, the championship game between LSU and Iowa averaged 9.9 million viewers and peaked at 12.6 million. Those statistics made the game broadcast on ABC the most-watched women’s college basketball contest in television history. They also represented over 100% of the audience for last year’s championship.
The championship broadcast built a narrative around the record-setting exploits of Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark. His performance during the tournament became the talk of the basketball world. period. Magic Johnson tweeted about his 40-point triple-double. Steph Curry admired his fearlessness. Sue Bird spoke about her courtroom approach and ability to anticipate.
But the sense that women’s sports have entered a new reality comes from more than just NCAA Tournament rating records. It also comes from a NWSL opening weekend attendance record. The San Diego Wave welcomed 30,854 fans to Snapdragon Stadium, setting a record for the largest crowd in an NWSL home opener. On the road in Los Angeles, Angel City sold out its home opener for the second year in a row with 22,000 in attendance. Overall, the league set an opening-week attendance record with more than 90,000 fans at games across the country.
In addition to traditional evaluations and attendance measures, the Seattle Storm’s breaking ground at the practice facility also helped create a sense of the new era. The Storm will be the first WNBA team with its own practice facility. Another sign that women’s professional team sports are becoming, well, more professional. Then, Monarch Collective was launched, a VC fund focused on investing in women’s teams and leagues. In a Fast Company piece, the fund’s co-founder Cara Nortman called the strategy “moderation in sexuality.” The same piece noted that funding such as the Monarch Collective marked “the next big step in the development of women’s sport”.
Right now, it seems all up and down for women’s sports. Not because the women’s NCAA Tournament buzz is still humming, but because of how women’s sports have historically been underappreciated, underfunded and underappreciated. ESPN has held the rights to the women’s tournament since 1996, but waited until 2023 to broadcast the championship game on ABC for the first time. Let’s not forget that.
For those watching at home and those in the middle of the action, the progress in women’s sports has been a classic case of slow progress at once. To get to this point, it’s been decades of slipping away from connected cultures and tired stories and insufficient exposure. Let’s not forget that either.
The gradual-later-all-at-once pattern will continue in this new era. Record and groundbreaking weeks like the ones we’ve just enjoyed will remain the exception. They will happen, perhaps with increasing frequency, but the next phase of the development of women’s sports will require more gradual slippage. As a minority owner of the Aces, Brady is welcome to go into the pits and help out there. That means investing, really investing.
Shira Springer writes about the intersection of sports and culture and teaches leadership communication at MIT Sloan.