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The Best Bet In Sports Content Right Now? Nielsen Says It May Be Women’s Sports.

With a splashy launch at Cannes last month, iHeartMedia and Deep Blue cut the virtual ribbon on the Women’s Sports Audio Network. It is the biggest commitment to the fast-growing segment by any audio company to date. The move comes a pivotal time as Nielsen is pointing to a burgeoning potential audience for the content and the advertisers that support women’s sports.

The global women’s sports industry is poised to finally break the $1 billion barrier in 2024, a 300% increase from 2021, according to Deloitte. But for how audiences are growing quickly, Nielsen turns to TV. Data shows the 2024 Women’s NCAA tournament averaged nearly 19 million viewers, with a peak of 24 million for the final game between Iowa and South Carolina — up 89% from the previous year and beating viewership for the Men’s final for the first time ever.

It is not just the WNBA either. There is also women’s tennis. Tennis Channel’s T2 channel last month began dedicating every Tuesday exclusively to women’s matches, a weekly initiative called “Women’s Day.” And the impact is stretching overseas. Nielsen says the UK’s National Women’s Soccer League had a 17% boost in interest between 2023 and 2024.

The research company says data shows global fans of women’s sports are a diverse group — 43% of women’s sports fans are male, it says. And women’s sports fans skew young, are tech savvy and are highly engaged consumers. Nielsen says 74% of women’s sports fans are the chief income earner in their household, compared to 70% of men’s sports fans. And 57% of women’s sports fans have kids under the age of 18, compared to 53% of men’s sports fans.

To gauge the potential role that women’s sports could play for marketers, Nielsen looked at WNBA fan habits. Compared to other sports fans, it found that WNBA fans are much more likely to engage with a brand online, talk about the brand with friends and family, and actually make purchases. That included data showing WNBA fans are 1.8-times more likely to visit a brand’s website, and are 18% more likely to talk about the brand with friends or family. And one in three say they bought the brand.

“These are invested audiences with significant purchasing power — a brand’s dream,” Nielsen says in a blog post. “Women’s sports are gaining serious traction with desirable audiences. And it’s done so by following its own playbook. When compared to men’s sports, the audiences are different, media consumption is different and fan expectations are different. This makes it a particularly exciting and vital time for everyone to tailor and sharpen their growth strategies.”

One way Nielsen says women’s sports’ momentum can continue is by making the content more accessible. Women’s sports will never get a true shot at ubiquity if games are hidden away on obscure channels, if highlights aren’t shared across popular channels, and if publishers don’t create more spaces for women’s sports content, it says. And Nielsen says brands can help support that effort by focusing their investment on growing and amplifying women’s sports stories and through “consistent and authentic” sponsorship.

‘We Realized How Big The Fandom Had Become’

The new iHeart Women’s Sports Audio Network (WSAN) and sister Women’s Sports Podcast Network are helping to fill that opening. Launched last month at Cannes Lions Festival in France, iHeart now airs the “Women’s Sports Reports” across more than 500 iHeart-owned broadcast radio stations nationwide. And among the first podcasts set to debut on July 17 is Good Game with Sarah Spain. The daily podcast will focus on the biggest stories in women’s sports.

“We realized how big the fandom had become,” said iHeart CMO Gayle Troberman. In an interview with Variety Interview Studio, she said the radio reports will make women’s sports as ubiquitous as traffic or weather on the radio. “When you’re driving the kids to school, out shopping, running errands, or on your way to work, you’re going to hear today in women’s sports,” she said. “And not just the biggest athletes at the biggest moments in the biggest finals or playoffs. Every day, women are doing amazing things in individual sports and team sports, and we are going to start normalizing coverage.”

Troberman said iHeart estimates the new broadcast radio reports will reach about 75 million listeners each day. WSAN launches with the support of brands including Capital One and e.l.f. Cosmetics.

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