For a law with only 37 words, Title IX’s 50 year existence has had a seismic impact on the growth of women’s sports around the world.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” it reads.
The landmark law makes it illegal for any institution that receives federal funding to discriminate on the basis of sex. Put simply, this means that federally funded institutions — such as schools — are legally obligated to provide equitable opportunities in sports for boys and girls.
Though imperfect, the law has made massive strides in improving the circumstances for women to participate and succeed on the field. In 2016, the Women’s Sports Foundation reported that since the enactment of Title IX, there had been a 545% increase in the percentage of women playing college sport and a 990% increase in the percentage of women playing high school sport.
Over the next 50 years, lasting change from the law is set to make women’s sports lucrative as ever, too. It’s time to put women’s sports on TV.
Viewership of women’s sports is on the rise.
The 2022 women’s basketball national championship between South Carolina and UConn averaged 4.85 million viewers, making it the most-watched college basketball game aired on ESPN (men or women) since 2008. The NWSL’s preseason match between expansion teams Angel City and San Diego FC saw 456,000 viewers, which as of April 2 was more than all but one MLS match. The MLS regular season began in late February.
But while women’s sports viewership is on the rise, their TV deals are nowhere close. MLS, a league founded 19 years before the NWSL, just announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion distribution deal with Apple TV. That comes out to around $250 million a year, which is a substantial difference compared to the reported $4.5 million per year deal for the NWSL on CBS/Paramount+.
Women’s sports are next. “I think we’re going to see bigger [TV] deals and with a concentrated effort to actually promote and market it,” former USWNT player and current ESPN analyst Julie Foudy tells Gaming Society. “We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible there and the numbers are showing that,” Foudy adds.
So where does Title IX fit into this equation?
Since 1972, Title IX has acted as a spearhead propelling women’s sports forward. With the rise in participation, the product of women’s sports can no longer be denied.
“It’s hard now for people to argue that the women’s game is not as quality as the men,” says Ole Miss women’s basketball head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin (Coach Yo), adding that without Title IX, “I don’t know that we would have ever gotten the opportunities to get the exposure, to be given the necessary tools for our players to produce at a high level.”
Marketing inequities have been uncovered very publicly in the last two years.
The NCAA came under fire in 2021 for devaluing the women’s NCAA basketball tournament with unequal weight rooms, swag bags, lack of photographers, and more. You might be thinking, ‘Isn’t the NCAA subject to Title IX and required to provide equitable resources and opportunities?’
Thanks to the NCAA’s tireless efforts, in 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the NCAA is not a state actor, therefore it doesn’t receive the direct benefit of federal funding, and is not bound by Title IX. That’s why the NCAA has been allowed to market men’s sports at an unequal rate to women’s sports with no real ramifications.
And it’s egregious. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is broadcast on CBS in a deal worth $1 billion per year. The NCAA went to market and sold that tournament on its own while the NCAA women’s tournament was packaged in a deal to ESPN with 24 other collegiate championships valued at approximately $6 million per year. Add to that that “March Madness” had been exclusively reserved for the men’s tournament until the most recent season.
Under scrutiny for inequity, the NCAA hired a law firm to conduct a gender equity report, which unearthed that the women’s tournament’s true value will be worth between $81 million and $112 million per year on its own in 2025 when the current TV contract expires.
A larger TV deal could make all the difference.
The more visibility, the more opportunity, and the more opportunity, the more upside for women athletes to earn more. There’s proof. After playing in the 2021 National Championship game, University of Arizona head coach Adia Barnes told Gaming Society that her program’s numbers went way up. “Remember when I got to Arizona in 2016, we had 300 something season ticket holders.” She adds that after appearing in the 2021 championship game that aired on ESPN, Arizona currently boasts around 7,500 season ticket holders and are number one in attendance in the Pac-12.
Without Title IX, “I don’t think anybody would have cared,” said Barnes. “You have people like Kevin Garnett, Sue Bird, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, people who have millions of followers saying ‘Hey, that’s not cool.’” Since the rise in season ticket holders from being in that national spotlight, Barnes also noted that her team’s athletes are getting more NIL attention.
Women’s sports have nowhere to go but up.
Women’s athletics are sports’ biggest growth market, and the largest growth opportunity in it will be in TV and marketing deals. When the investment starts to match the quality of what’s given on the court, the only trajectory is a better product.
The NCAA is still not subject to Title IX, but we have the law to thank for young women and girls fully recognizing their value. Foudy adds that this value is finally being felt. “The interesting thing is it feels like [Title IX] had enough time, 50 years in now, to come full circle where the women who have played the sports and participated are now running business or running the marketing or running a corporation.”
An unanticipated product of Title IX, even when the NCAA itself is not subject to the law, the opportunities it presented to women to participate in sport have led to more women giving back to sport in monetary ways. Without Title IX, we may have never seen the 2021 outcry over NCAA basketball tournament inequities, which will lead to a massive growth in the value of the women’s hoops tournament.
“I just know that without Title IX, we would be living in the dark ages,” Coach Yo said. Women’s sports stock is on the rise and marketing and TV deals are about to catch up.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally featured in The Skimm on Wednesday June 22, 2022.