Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Growing Women's Sports

In mid-October, 12-year-old McKenna Peterson of Arizona gained national fame when a story broke describing a letter she wrote to Dick’s Sporting Goods regarding the dearth of women appearing in Dick’s basketball catalog.  In fact, she noted that the only woman who appeared in the catalog at all was a photo of one sitting in the stands at a basketball game, but the catalog did include some cheerleaders on its coupons.  In her letter, she calls herself an avid basketball player, as well as a big fan of the reigning WNBA Champion Phoenix Mercury, and openly questions whether she should take her business to a sporting goods store that “supports girls to actually PLAY basketball and follow their dreams and not sit on the sidelines.” 

In one letter, this young girl brought to light the chicken-or-egg question that has regularly plagued women’s sports – both on the collegiate and professional levels – for the past several years. 

The question:  How do we grow the popularity of women’s sports?  Will popularity be driven by television and sponsors?  Or will increased player participation and fan demand force TV and sponsors to hop on board?

From a participation standpoint, women’s sports appear to be doing quite well.  The number of girls participating in high school sports is at an all-time high and continues to grow year after year.  At the collegiate level, participation in women’s sports across the NCAA’s three divisions has grown from nearly 158,000 in 2000-01 to nearly 204,000 in 2012-13. 

Women’s sports are also currently witnessing an uptick in fan popularity, and not just in tennis, which has long been the most popular women’s sport.  The 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball final between unbeatens UConn and Notre Dame earned ESPN its highest rating for a women’s basketball game since 2004.  And TV ratings for the WNBA are on the rise as well after hitting their nadir in 2012, though the league’s ratings still lag behind those of women’s college basketball. 

The good news is that television seems be doing its part.  ESPN and its vast array of networks will televise 131 women’s college basketball games, resulting in record coverage.  ESPN networks also annually televise women’s soccer, softball and volleyball.  Young girls are able to turn on the TV and can be inspired to get involved in almost any sport out there. 

However, for the most part, media attention/coverage of women’s sports is reserved for only the most astounding of feats.  While all the aforementioned sports are televised, they rarely find their way onto highlight shows or newscasts.  Often, the only times that girls get widespread media coverage is when they play with the boys, as in the case of Danica Patrick, Michelle Wie, or most recently, young Mo’ne Davis.  Otherwise, individual female athletes who gain national notoriety continue to be confined to professional tennis, aside from the occasional athlete who gains fame during an Olympic year. 

Similarly, sponsors seem to be lagging behind.  Televised women’s sports currently draw relatively small ratings, and therefore hold relatively little value for potential sponsors.  In fact, as Peterson’s letter to Dick’s shows, some businesses (mistakenly or otherwise) neglect to appeal to women and girls at all.  It’s completely understandable in this era of tighter budgets that companies involved in sports want to focus on those that provide the most reliable returns on their investments.  

At some point, the double standard that women’s sports face will change, but the chicken-or-egg question as to what will drive that change remains.  Female athletes obviously shouldn’t have to be held to the standard of whether they can compete with their male counterparts in order to be appreciated and celebrated, and the media should be held accountable to ensure that the Brittney Griners of the world are celebrated for the same reasons as the Kevin Durants: because they’re the best at what they do.  Additionally, as long as participation at the high school and collegiate levels continue to rise and popularity of women’s sports continues to grow, it follows that demand for increased television coverage will rise, and sponsors will hopefully come out of the woodwork.  The on-court playing field for female athletes has been steadily leveling over the past decade.  The next step is to level the playing field off the court as well.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

College Football's Student Problem

Just before the 2014 college football season kicked off, Wall Street Journal writer Ben Cohen penned an article about the precipitous decline among college students across the country who are choosing to attend their school's football games. Specifically, that student attendance is down 7.1% overall since 2009, and 5.6% at schools in the Power Five conferences.

These numbers represent a stark downturn at the turnstiles for a sport that continues to rise in popularity based on television ratings, merchandise sales and even overall attendance, which is down just .8% over that same time frame.

Reasons behind the decline in student attendance are numerous -- rising prices, the desire to prolong tailgates, big screen televisions that provide arguably better viewing experiences, the lack of efficient networks for mobile phones -- and examples can be seen at schools across the country.

At Michigan (this blogger's alma mater), which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last few weeks, student ticket purchases in 2014 were down by 6,000 from last season.  And while Michigan's win-loss record has been trending down over the last three years, the ticket prices have continued to increase, so much so that Michigan's student tickets are the most expensive in the Big Ten.  Combined with a schedule that doesn't include rivals Michigan State or Ohio State, and a failed foray into a General Admission policy for students in 2013 that enraged so many students it was rescinded after just one year, and it equals such a big decline that Michigan won't lead the nation in overall attendance this year, a perch it's held for 39 of the last 40 years.

But student attendance isn't just a problem at schools whose programs are struggling.  Michigan State is ranked in the Top 10, and is coming off its first Rose Bowl win since 1988, and earlier this week Athletic Director Mark Hollis and head coach Mark Dantonio both expressed disappointment and disbelief that their student section never filled up for this past Saturday's night game against Nebraska.  Even Alabama, the sport's shining beacon over the past six years, saw 17% of it's student tickets go unused in 2013.

The decline in student attendance is one that's obviously being looked by athletic departments and school administrations across the country, and it's one that marketers are focused on as well. Certainly, lowering ticket prices across the board could be a step in the right direction.  Cohen quotes a Michigan student who says that students are being priced out, and as the most expensive public school in the country with the most expensive student tickets in the Big Ten, that notion isn't hard to imagine.  The student goes on to say that attending football games is not essential to going to college, and on a basic level he's right.  There are hundreds of outstanding universities across the country that don't even offer college football.  But for students who attend schools that feature D-1 football programs, and especially for those at schools in the Power Five, football should be an essential part of the college experience.

I attended Michigan with tens of thousands of other students, and no two of us had exactly the same college experience.  But going to the Big House on fall Saturday was a singular experience that unified us as a student body and that cultivated our love not just for our football team, but for the university proudly displayed on the front of the jerseys.  Clearly, reengaging students is key not just for keeping athletic department budgets healthy, but for ensuring that the next generation of alumni remain passionate about college football and maintaining the sport's growth.

At FishBait, we're actively discussing ideas and examining ways to bring students back to the stadium through targeted sponsor outreach and programming.  We invite and encourage our current partners, as well as those who want access to the young adult demographic via a partnership with college football, to join us as we focus on this important initiative.