Women's college sports get boost in TV ratings, visibility
Oklahoma City — Odicci Alexander became an overnight sensation at the Women's College World Series.
James Madison's dynamic, endearingly humble pitcher was well known among die-hard softball fans, but she introduced herself to a national audience by throwing a complete game to help her unseeded squad stun tournament favorite Oklahoma in the opening game earlier this month. She threw another complete game the next day in a victory over Oklahoma State and a star was born.
As her team was being eliminated in the semifinals, Alexander drew a standing ovation when she left the field. Fans watching on TV and streaming devices were sorry to see her go — and so was ESPN, which has been broadcasting the WCWS since 2000.
Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming for college sports, called her emergence and her battles with Oklahoma “the overarching story of the event," and said she set the tone for a memorable week.
"It just so worked out that she, as a dominant pitcher, ended up paired against arguably the greatest offensive softball team in the history of the sport in the opening game of the Women’s College World Series," Dawson said. "To me, a lot of that’s luck. It just falls in your lap. The win is that we’re positioned based on our commitment to the coverage of the event.”
Coverage of Division I women's sports has been in a particularly bright spotlight in 2021 and the record-setting WCWS was just the latest example of growing interest — and growing demands for a more equitable playing field when compared with men's events.
ESPN's has been experimenting in recent years with showing more women’s sports on its various platforms, and good numbers have led the network to become more aggressive. Television viewership was up significantly compared to 2019 in the four most popular women's college sports -- basketball, softball, gymnastics and volleyball. The network expanded its volleyball coverage this year to include every match of the championship on an ESPN platform.
The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC and ESPN, and Dawson said ESPN is pushing to get more sports programming onto Saturday afternoon spots on ABC. This year, ABC broadcast women’s basketball games and a women's softball game for the first time.
The women’s gymnastics final on ABC averaged 808,000 viewers, a 510% increase over the 2019 final on ESPNU.
Ripples of the increased exposure are being felt. According to the Social Blade social media analytics site, Alexander gained more than 50,000 Instagram followers within a week of her win over Oklahoma. She has since signed a professional contract with the USSSA Pride.
“There were enough places where that story was told this time around that she’s reached a certain critical masse," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture. “She’s penetrated the culture. That is the important part of that story.”
Alexander's story resonated on various levels. She's a Black player in a largely white sport who knocked off the eventual national champion while playing for an upstart school.
“I’m sure there have been great stories filled with all of these great narrative flourishes like hers that have been going on in women’s sports for years," Thompson said, “but people who would have loved those stories never hear them because there hasn’t been a lot of space given.”
The average number of viewers for the three championship final games between Oklahoma and Florida State was a record 1,840,000, up 15% over 2019. The average for the 17-game WCWS was 1,203,000, up 10% over 2019 and numbers comparable to those from the men's College World Series in 2019.
“Finally, there is this recognition that if you show it, people will watch it,” Thompson said. "And there’s been a lot of resistance to that to women’s sports, probably because a lot of the people managing the media outlets, a lot of the people managing the various sports venues and so forth just assumed they couldn’t get the kinds of numbers that they wanted.”
As the viewership numbers climbed, coaches used the broader platform to speak up.
Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said changes were needed to make sure the sport makes positive strides as its popularity grows. She pointed out issues she had with t he WCWS format, saying adding off days, eliminating doubleheaders and ensuring that games end at reasonable times should be among the changes considered. Though ESPN and the NCAA converse on those issues, the NCAA Division I Softball Committee oversees the format and scheduling for the event.
Ratings also were high for the women’s basketball Final Four. The championship game drew 4,077,000 viewers -- the highest total since 2014 and up 9% from 2019. The semifinals averaged 2,850,000 viewers, the best numbers since 2012 and a 20% jump from 2019. The Final Four weekend numbers overall were up 14%.
The volleyball championship match between Kentucky and Texas averaged 696,000 viewers, up 28% from 2019. Kentucky’s victory was the most-viewed telecast on ESPN2 for the month of April.
The growth includes the number of sports getting exposure. ESPN added ice hockey, field hockey and cross country to the women’s sports championship schedule in the spring, bringing the total number of women's championships the network broadcasts to 15.
Dawson said ESPN will remain aggressive about expanding programming opportunities for women's sports. Thompson said that makes sense.
“For women’s sports, there is lots and lots and lots of room for lots and lots and lots of growth," he said. "If I were looking to invest in a genre of futures of American entertainment, women’s sports would be close to the top of my list.”