Rising interest in women’s sport has yet to translate into media coverage and financial investment equaling men’s sports. But this year’s Summer Olympics has the opportunity to show brands and rightsholders just how high fan interest is in female sports globally. We know the Olympics is the world’s biggest sporting event, but it’s also one where fandom is nearly even among men and women.
In addition to leveling the gender playing field for the competing athletes, the Olympics boasts the biggest audience of any sporting event, with 47% of people in 13 of the world’s biggest economies expressing an interest in them. Comparatively, the NBA, one of the world’s most recognizable sports leagues, comes in at a distant second place, garnering just 33% of interest from people from these same 13 countries.
Aggregate interest aside, the Olympic games has captured something that no other sporting event does: extensive interest from women fans. And during this two-week period, that interest almost surpasses that of men, with 45% of women saying they’re interested in the games, just behind 48% of men. What’s more, interest in the Olympic games among all women is a full 12 percentage points higher than aggregate interest in the NBA. And within certain countries, women’s interest is even higher.
From a commercial opportunity perspective, the Olympics is certainly unique in its ability to engage both men and women almost equally. Even more unique is the attention that some of the women’s competitions garner—attention that elevates women’s sport even higher. Notably, at least 70% of badminton, gymnastics, swimming, table tennis, tennis and volleyball fans are interested in the women’s competitions for these events. Women’s cycling also has wide appeal during the Olympics, even though big-name global cycling events, like the Tour de France, tend to focus more heavily on the competition among men.
The interest in and engagement with the women’s competitions is important to highlight as the global sports industry grapples with ways to drive broader gender parity, particularly in media. While event-day ticket sales are important, a sizable portion of the revenue that global sports generates is connected to rights sales governing which services get to broadcast or stream events. There, the air time—and media coverage—is far from even, despite rising viewer appetites for women’s competitions.
For example, the 2019 U.S. Open women’s tennis finals attracted a greater average viewership in the U.S. than the men’s finals did. But it’s not just the traditional sports that engage big audiences. Last year, the 2020 ICC Women’s Twenty20 World Cup set new television and digital records, becoming the most watched women’s cricket event ever.
Despite the ability to deliver television and digital audiences, media coverage of women’s sport remains lackluster. According to a 2018 Nielsen Sports study, the volume of media coverage of women’s sports across Europe ranged from as low as 2% to just 12% at peak times. And a Signal AI analysis of 250,000 news articles in more than 80 languages found that women’s tennis grand slam events received 41% less coverage than the men’s events—despite the recent rise in ratings for women’s matches.
Not every league or sporting organization has recognized the importance of women’s sport to the same degree the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has. The IOC’s move toward gender equality in terms of number of competitions began decades ago, with a sharper focus over the past five decades in particular.
Notably, the first Olympic games in 1896 only included men athletes. By the 1972 games in Munich, just over 20% of the competitions were open to women. This year, 46% of the Tokyo games are open to only women. Greco-Roman wrestling, aside from baseball and softball, which balance each other out, is the only discipline at the Tokyo games that is not open to women, although women do compete in this sport internationally.
With equal medal opportunities for men and women at this year’s summer games, the performance of each gender will be critical for the overall success of each team. Comparatively, the impact of medals won by women back in 1964, for example, carried notably less weight on a team’s overall success. The medal results of the 2016 games in Rio highlight the influence that the women athletes have on team performance. The contributions from women slightly outnumbered those of both the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from the U.S. and China—the top two medal winners in 2016. Among other squads, such as Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, women played a much bigger role in their overall team’s successes.
In many ways, the changes to create a more balanced competition environment at the Olympic games were well ahead of their time—and the rest of the sporting world. After 50 years of female athletes pushing for more opportunity, the games are the biggest platform for gender equality in global sports, and the audiences are just as even. Equality in competition aside, progress is still needed in global sports to ensure all athletes are treated fairly, including nursing mothers and athletes whose biological makeups fall outside of what might be considered traditional norms. And athletes and fans can help lead the charge. As the biggest showcase for women’s sports, the Olympics stands as a shining example of how important gender parity is in global sports, simply because of the appetite for it—among both men and women.