The gold standard in Rio, U.S. women raise the bar

RIO DE JANEIRO – After considering the Rio Games medal tally, the question becomes, why shouldn’t American women secede? Why shouldn’t they take their separate and equal place among nations? I hereby declare a new sovereign state. Long live the Republic.

What should we call this new nation, so heavily freighted with resources, chiefly precious metals? “How about Badassitannia?” ESPN’s Julie Foudy suggested. By Saturday when the United States beat Spain in basketball, and Gwen Jorgensen became our first Olympic champion in the triathlon, American women had won so many gold medals they ranked third among countries.

The real question, of course, is what this means. What does it translate to, other than amusing suggestions about diplomatic privilege? The fact is, momentum for female athletes seems to evaporate quickly once the Olympic torch goes out. Why? What is that about?

We celebrate women as athletes every four years, but unless you’re Serena Williams you probably won’t make the evening news again until the run-up to PyeongChang 2018 – or her millions either. This is despite an oceanic shift that started 20 years ago in the 1996 Atlanta Games, and has been building ever since. The United States sent 292 women to Rio out of a delegation of 554, an all-time high for any country. One explanation for the medal deluge is certainly money: This is what comes of Title IX and decent funding. But obviously, pure funding is not the sole answer, or WNBA attendance would be higher and salaries wouldn’t be a tenth of the NBA’s.

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There is no unified theory that explains the riddle of the women’s sports market. But it may be a mistake to measure prosperity through the misleading and impatient metrics of men’s leagues and LeBron James’s salary. “If you look at it through the pro sports lens, it’s not there yet,” says ESPN’s senior vice president for women’s initiatives Laura Gentile. “If you’re comparing everything to the NFL and economic factors behind the leagues, yeah, it’s a tough comparison. And it makes us unduly anxious.”

In fact, women’s sports are showing “astounding” growth by some metrics, she says. There are other markers of momentum. We’ll get to those in a minute. In the meantime remember that major league baseball has had 110 years to grow, the NFL 95 years, and the NBA 70 years. WNBA average attendance in its 20th year is slightly more than 7,300, actually a tiny bit ahead of the NBA at the same stage.

Networks (and sports sections) and marketplaces are consumer-driven enterprises that respond to customer demand, not to Title IX mandates. As commentator Mimi Griffin observes, there is no Title IX in business. “Our focus in the commercial space needs to be not “what do we deserve” but “what can we earn?” she wrote in an editorial for the Sports Business Journal. What’s needed, she suggests, is “a more aggressive sales stance. What or who has the power to prompt thoughts and feelings of fandom to develop the habit of tuning in or turning up at the box office?”

You can see various entities try to solve that riddle. ESPN has dramatically increased the number of hours it televises women, to the point that it will air more than 7,500 hours this year, including ESPN3 and the SEC and Longhorn networks. With rare exceptions, however, ratings haven’t dramatically increased, and therefore sponsorship lags.

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But what you do see are dramatically suggestive bursts: the 2015 Women’s World Cup final against Japan outrated NBA games. The 2015 women’s College World Series was the most viewed softball game on record, averaging 1,196,000 viewers between May 28-June 3. And the ESPNW website has shown startling growth, reaching an all-time high last month with 11.45 million unique views and then spiking during the Rio Games to 12.4 uniques.

In fact the Olympics – an international sports property rivaled only by the NFL – is actually having a tremendous impact as a showcase of women athletes. But as Gentile suggests, we’re looking in the wrong places to measure its effect. We would do better to look at the astonishing redefinition of beauty that is taking place at the Olympics, and the fact that audiences are beginning to celebrate a diversity of once-unthinkable successes such as Helen Maroulis’s gold in wrestling, or the water polo team’s dominance, or the rugby sevens.

“The messaging has been interesting to watch,” Gentile says. “The notion of ‘strong is beautiful’ is highlighting female athletes differently, and the conversation is changing . . . sponsors are starting to see that and buy into it.”

This redefinition of attractiveness may or may not mean an immediate spike in WNBA attendance or ratings. But the better place to look for its impact is at the larger “athleisure-wear” market, which has grown to $97 billion annually in the U.S. and $330 billion worldwide including footwear and accessories. Women no longer want “pink” clothing; they want clothing that moves and shows muscle. Apparel companies are clawing for a piece of that market, from Louis Vuitton to Gap. For sponsors, the question is becoming, why wouldn’t you invest in women athletes?

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As sponsor interest builds (slowly), so does higher compensation. Forbes ranked the top 10 female athletes earners in 2016, and their income totaled $124 million.

Commerciality is only one metric by which to judge whether women’s sports are succeeding. Economic change can’t happen until audience attitudes shift. Momentum might seem to be lost over the next three years, and some of these women’s Olympic performances forgotten, but what audiences will remember is how they stretched our notions of the acceptable range of female strength and power.