Two women’s pro leagues had historic viewership during the pandemic. What’s behind the spike?

Last July, Robbie Rogers sat down on the couch of his apartment in New London, Connecticut to do what a lot of American 20-something-year-old men like to do on a weekend afternoon: watch sports. For the Navy yeoman, taking in a game has long been a respite from the humdrum of work and, amidst the pandemic, has brought what he describes as “a return to normalcy.” 

The game he watched that day was the 2020 WNBA season opener between the Seattle Storm and the New York Liberty. It was his first time watching a WNBA game. 

Rogers was one of hundreds of thousands of fans who watched the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and WNBA in 2020. Both leagues saw a significant uptick in viewership last year as compared to 2019 and even set all-time records. Few would have predicted these numbers. When the pandemic started to unfold in March, many were worried women’s sports specifically would take a debilitating hit. And yet these two leagues rose. 

The biggest reason behind the surge is simple: When you show the game you grow the game, said Seattle Storm’s Vice President of Marketing Kenny Dow.

“This summer was really the first time that people have had access to watch the WNBA on a consistent basis, whether it was in their local markets or nationally,” Dow said.

For the 2020 season, ESPN signed on to broadcast more WNBA games than ever before. Along with ESPN, Chicago Sky fans were able to watch games on ABC, CBS, NBA TV, Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, the NWSL was on CBS, CBSSN, Twitch and the NWSL website. The league’s historic deal with CBS came with exceptional reach, as women’s pro soccer was broadcasted on national television for the first time ever. The Red Stars reached the final of the NWSL Challenge Cup — the league’s most watched game ever. 

Many if not all of these rights deals were set before the pandemic hit. The massive shifts in behavior and the halting of the sports world that came with 2020 only helped usher people to their screens for more women’s games. 

“The world was on pause and people were at home in ways they’d never been and searching for content in ways that they never would have been searching for content before,” said Kelsey Trainor, a women’s sports fan and lawyer who has written extensively about the U.S. Women’s National Team’s equal pay case.

Forced to consider new ways to play during a pandemic, leagues devised bubble seasons, a format that also played into the hands of the NWSL and WNBA. For CBS, a shortened, month-long season like the NWSL Challenge Cup came with some key familiarity; The network has the rights to March Madness. “They can look at this stand alone, one-month tournament and consider ‘How do we sell March Madness storylines to a nation that does not necessarily follow [the sport]?’” said Meg Linehan, national women’s soccer writer for The Athletic. “You want the upsets. You want the Houston Dash to win this tournament.”

Bubble seasons à la March Madness provided fans with games at consistent time slots over a shorter period of time. 

“The format is a lot easier to consume as a new viewer,” Linehan said. 

The format was also ideal for team marketing. 

“In one week’s time, the standings have changed. So many other people have had big performances in games,” Dow explained. “All the content that was being put out, in a condensed time, I think also elevated the league itself and enticed more people to watch and it was fed to them on a more consistent basis.”

Then add in the staggering amount of crossover support between the two leagues. “I honestly don’t think I’ve seen it like that before,” Trainor said on the women’s sports crossover content. The Chicago Sky releasing videos of their players watching the Red Stars play; Women’s basketball personality Arielle Chambers’ entertaining efforts to learn about soccer. Rogers was initially motivated to watch the WNBA when he saw those in his NWSL circle tweeting about the “Wubble.”

“Part of being a women’s sports fan is not just about the sport itself but in things women’s sports stands for like equality and justice,” Trainor said. 

Dow echoed a similar sentiment. “If you’re a fan of the WNBA, you already are invested in more than just sports,” he said. “The WNBA exists as a social movement and that movement first and foremost is empowering and growing the women’s game and opportunities for women.”

Was there increased urgency to support one another’s leagues when the experts voiced concerns about the future of women’s sports as a whole last March? Was it a  pandemic-heightened awareness around the idea of “When I take care of me, I’m also taking care of you”?

“I think it was capitalizing on other leagues’ success. I would say it was less survival and more seeing opportunity,” Trainor said. 

Whatever the motivation, the crossover support has continued with the start of the National Women’s Hockey League.

On January 23, almost six months to the day, Rogers found himself once again sitting down to watch his first game of a women’s pro league. This time it was the NWHL.

“I’m a Riveters fan now,” he said.

Illustration by Gabi Rodriguez