To celebrate the women’s sports moment, look to the movements

May 14, 2024


Caitlin Clark’s $28 million deal with Nike is setting history — again. While the many recently broken records across women’s sport are worth celebrating, there’s a chance the industry is so caught up in the moment that we’re at risk of forgetting how we got here.

This is important for growing fan communities to consider, and even more critical for today’s business leaders. Overlooking what’s come before the current moment threatens to alienate key stakeholders — especially women’s sport employees, many of whom are experiencing this record-setting time through a unique lens.

Our recent research provides insights into the experiences of the workers who’ve dedicated themselves to growing women’s sport and the steps leaders can take to continue the progress of the movement. Over the past three-and-a-half years, we interviewed employees working for women’s sport teams and leagues. We heard from people across the gender spectrum, nearly 40% of whom were people of color and nearly one-third of whom identified as LGBTQ+. Respondents ranged from 24-57 and spanned departments and hierarchies.

Despite these differences, their experiences working in women’s sport were remarkably similar: the joy in recent developments is juxtaposed against the pain of decades of disregard and mistreatment.

In one breath, employees would rattle off enthusiasm for recent records broken: attendance, viewership, valuation, media rights, sales, and expansion fees. In the next, they shared frustrations about recent and historic experiences with limited media coverage, disrespect from prospective partners, being deprioritized by venues, poor pay and treatment for athletes, and more. Notably, they also shared stories of the ridicule they personally faced for working in women’s sport — times they were cursed out on the job when making calls on behalf of the organization, and times off the job when friends and family disparaged their career choices.

The research illustrates a sports industry turning point, with visible progress and growing respect contrasted with a traumatic past for workers that cannot be erased with a few (or many) records.

That’s why industry leaders celebrating during this moment in time must also embrace the movement — the path to getting here and the path ahead.

Educate yourself on women’s sport’s canon

Leaders who want to celebrate today’s wins have to know why these wins matter — and why they didn’t happen sooner. Seek out the history, in all its nuances.
Apply a mindset to understand and learn, expanding your horizons to include foundational knowledge of the community that has built and sustained women’s sport for decades. Leaders who do will be better equipped to take part in and contribute to the movement.

One of the best ways to learn is simply to listen to the stories told by those who have been part of the movement. Listen to the athletes, front office employees, agents, journalists, and fans who have devoted themselves to women’s sport for the past years and decades. All these people have stories to tell, and many share them publicly. Following new voices on social media, consuming message boards, and reading think pieces by those who have paved this path can help fill in the backstory.

Commit to creating tomorrow while celebrating today

The movement is also about the future. Indeed, employees we spoke with see this moment as a “tipping point” — not as a final destination. Chances are, if you are reading this piece, you also understand that the narrative around women’s sport is shifting, not shifted. For all of the recent growth, disparities still remain, in athlete salaries, media rights, facility access, employee compensation, and more.
Mia Hamm, who a quarter-of-a-century ago led our country through its last women’s sport awakening, said, “Take your victories, whatever they may be, cherish them, use them, but don’t settle for them.” Indeed, we have so much farther to go.
Leaders should recognize this and make a commitment to the women’s sport movement, signing on for long-term investments to continually propel the game so that today’s records are just tomorrow’s benchmarks. Media companies should invest in full-time positions, hiring beat writers for the women’s sport teams and staffing journalists who came up through the women’s game, in addition to creating expanded content. Brands should spend intentionally, building partnerships with women’s teams, athletes, and players’ associations, along with making concentrated ad buys that support media coverage. Innovators can find gaps and double down in creating something new, like this new women’s track invitational.

Tell the whole story

Sport loves underdogs, and there may be no bigger upset than the one women’s sport has recently achieved. The underdog story acknowledges what athletes, employees, and fans have been through, while celebrating that even decades of corporate disinvestment and seemingly impenetrable stereotypes couldn’t keep down the force that is women’s sport. It’s precisely this confidence — the belief derived from overcoming, paired with an authentic recognition — that will advance women’s sport.

WNBA legend Nneka Ogwumike said it best: “We’re at a very pivotal moment for the history of our league… I love to see all the new fans. I would implore upon them to do their homework on the history just so that they can better understand things, because we have people that are working hard in the front office, in the offices of these teams, we have all these players that have been around for a long time that played with OGs who are no longer playing that we’re standing on the backs of.”

For all that so many in the industry have given, women’s sport deserves nothing less than the latest records and attention of the day. It also still deserves so much more.

Risa F. Isard (@RisaLovesSports) is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut; E. Nicole Melton (@Doc_Melton) is a professor at the University of Massachusetts; and Katie Sveinson (@KatieSveinson) is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts. This piece is crafted in partnership with The Collective Think Tank: a global consortium of academic minds and industry leaders focused on gender parity and improving diversity. The collaboration is led by The Collective, Wasserman’s women-focused division.

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