The State of Women’s Sports Fandom in America
Despite current attention toward the Women’s World Cup, volleyball is the sport U.S. adults most enjoy watching, followed by skiing, basketball and tennis.
Roughly one-quarter of U.S. adults consider themselves fans of women’s professional sports, and they are more likely to be white, male and millennial.
Serena and Venus Williams are the two most popular women athletes, though they, along with many other favored athletes, are either retired or nearing retirement, potentially posing a visibility issue for women’s sports as stakeholders try to grow their respective properties’ popularity.
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The FIFA Women’s World Cup has reached the semifinals amid a wave of momentum for women’s sports in the United States. Greater financial investment, increased viewership and more sponsorship dollars have flooded the women’s game over the past few years, most notably in the past 18 months.
Women’s pro sports leagues like the WNBA and NWSL have made the most headway. The WNBA, which raised $75 million in capital as part of its first-ever funding round a year ago, aired its most-watched All-Star Game ever last month. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league could expand from 12 to 14 teams in 2025 as it considers about a half-dozen cities including Philadelphia and Toronto.
Meanwhile, the NWSL awarded an expansion team in April to an ownership group in San Francisco, led by investment firm Sixth Street, for a record $53 million fee. In 2024, the Kansas City Current will open the first stadium built specifically for a women’s pro sports team after devoting nearly $120 million toward the project. Commissioner Jessica Berman said in May that the league could add two more teams by 2026.
Amid this greater interest and financial investment, new Morning Consult research finds that roughly 25% of U.S. adults are women’s sports fans, defined as those who watch, read about or seek information about women’s sports at least monthly. Of that group, more than 3 in 5 are men, almost half identify as white and a plurality are millennials.
Whites, Men and Millennials Identify as Fans of Women's Sports
But despite increased momentum, pessimism for the future of women’s sports is high, especially among older adults. A majority of U.S. adults (55%) said that women’s sports will always be less popular than men’s sports. Furthermore, around half of the 16 most popular women’s sports icons are retired or close to retiring, suggesting that many women’s leagues could have trouble maintaining a connection with existing fans and winning over new ones.
Women’s soccer is in the spotlight right now, but other sports garner more support
Currently, all eyes are on soccer. The first three World Cup matches for the U.S. women’s national team averaged 4.35 million viewers, marking the most-watched group stage ever on English-language TV.
Still, interest in women’s soccer in the United States isn’t as pronounced as some may think. Morning Consult’s July data shows that 28% of U.S. adults said they enjoy watching it either “a lot” or “somewhat,” ranking seventh among the 15 women’s sports included in our survey.
U.S. Adults Most Enjoy Watching Women’s Volleyball, Skiing
Volleyball, skiing, basketball and tennis are the top women’s sports that U.S. adults most enjoy watching. In the United States, volleyball’s steady growth recently hit a high school participation boom, making it the country’s second most popular sport among girls in 2022. The success of the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team at the recent Tokyo Olympics, where they captured gold for the first time ever, may also have contributed to the sport’s rise in popularity. Softball — which has experienced record-setting viewership growth in recent years with the Women’s College World Series — and tennis are also popular women’s sports in America.
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Among the four leagues and associations tested, 17% of U.S. adults said they watch the WNBA at least monthly, making it the most popular women’s league, while 14% said the same of the NWSL and WTA. Given the WNBA’s longevity and close affiliation with the NBA, it’s no surprise that the league is No. 1 domestically.
Serena and Venus Williams top the list of most popular women athletes
While basketball may have a slight edge among the major U.S. sports, there’s still room for all women’s sports to grow when it comes to player popularity. Around half of the 16 most popular women athletes in the United States are either retired or nearing retirement, meaning their affiliated leagues and associations could struggle with public awareness in the near future.
About 3 in 5 U.S. adults (59%) said they have a favorable opinion of recently retired tennis star and 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams, making her the most popular female athlete, followed by her sister Venus (53%).
About Half of the Most Popular Women Athletes Are Retired or Nearing Retirement
But some of the best women athletes in the United States remain unrecognizable. More than 3 in 5 U.S. adults (64%) said they’ve never heard of Las Vegas Aces forward and last year’s WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, while LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark — two of the breakout stars from the most recent women’s college basketball tournament — are similarly unknown.
This could be partially due to the fact that only 5% of all U.S. sports coverage focuses on women’s sports, per a 2021 academic study by the University of Southern California and Purdue University. Meanwhile, almost one-third of U.S. adults (32%) said women’s sports would become more popular in America if sports media covered more women’s games.
To prepare athletes for their futures on and off the court, schools, starting at the high school level, should consider educating their players about how to market themselves on social media and in public. Relying solely on media exposure from traditional networks and digital streaming services is no longer an option.
Then when these athletes enter college, they may already have a small but devoted online audience, which can in turn be amplified by their university’s athletic department as it aims to showcase their student-athletes’ personalities, with the end goal of driving increased viewership.
Most U.S. adults don’t see a future where women’s sports are as popular as men’s
Majorities of every generation except Gen Z believe that women’s sports will always be less popular than men’s sports, which doesn’t bode well for the fandom.
Younger Adults See a More Equitable Future for Women’s Sports
It will take broader cultural changes to move the needle, as well as time and investment from the leagues themselves. Whether the solution to boosting popularity lies in broadcasting more women’s games live on cable TV, as many respondents suggested, or creating more women-specific media brands (think espnW, Just Women’s Sports and The GIST), one thing is certain: The sports industry needs more stars to elevate the profile of women’s sports.
But it’s not all bad news. Women’s sports are seeing signs of growth. This year’s women’s college basketball national championship between LSU and Iowa — featuring a marquee matchup between Reese and Clark — averaged nearly 10 million viewers on ABC and ESPN2, becoming the most-watched title game in tournament history. And in early August, the Women’s World Cup set a new attendance record with the round of 16 drawing over 1.36 million fans, surpassing the prior mark of about 1.35 million for the 2015 tournament.
Mark J. Burns is a sports analyst on the Industry Intelligence team, where he conducts research, authors analyst notes and advises leaders in the sports industry on how to apply insights to make better business decisions. Before joining Morning Consult, he served as a beat reporter at Sports Business Journal, covering the business of hockey and soccer. Mark graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in history and holds a Juris Doctor from Belmont University. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].