This year has been one of reflection and celebration for women’s tennis and women’s sports. Not only does 2023 commemorate the 50th anniversary of equal pay at the U.S. Open as well as Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, but it reinforces how far women’s tennis and women’s sports have come over the last half-century.
Yet, while it took tennis’ other Grand Slams three more decades to finally follow suit—the Australian Open began offering equal pay in 2001, while the French Open and Wimbledon began doing so in 2007—the work is far from over toward achieving equality in tennis, and sports in general.
But increased interest and investment has many of sports’ champions for equality excited for the present, and especially the future.
“The good thing that’s happening is we’re at a tipping point and people want to invest in women’s sports,” King said ahead of the Women’s Sports Foundation 2023 Annual Salute to Women in Sports. “It’s a good investment. It’s good business.”
“I have optimism,” said Stacey Allaster, USTA chief executive of professional tennis and former WTA CEO (2009-15). “For a while I really, really felt we were stuck but as we’ve come out through the pandemic, I think there’s been an awakening to these amazing athletes and we’re starting to see leadership from corporations to lean in, and of course with investors as well.”
While tennis served the opening salvo in the fight for equality led by King and The Original 9 and followed by the likes of Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova, other sports have begun reaping the benefits of furthering finances from investors and corporate sponsors, broadcasters and partners.
Recently celebrating a decade at the top of the women’s soccer pyramid in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has become a popular value proposition for investors, whether it’s Alexis Ohanian, Kara Nortman, Julie Uhrman, Natalie Portman and a who’s who list of celebrities and athletes backing Angel City FC, Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang’s vision to build a multi-team global women’s soccer conglomerate a la City Football Group or Red Bull, or a record-breaking $53 million expansion fee for Bay FC, which is backed by investment firm Sixth Street as well as former USWNT players Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne, Danielle Slaton and Aly Wagner.
With attendance up 48% and viewership on CBS up 21% at the midway point of the 2023 season, it’s no surprise athletes like Naomi Osaka, Kevin Durant, Eli Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Serena Williams, Sue Bird and King are invested in NWSL clubs.
In India, the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL) cricket franchise auction commanded approximately $572 million for five teams, averaging to just under $115 million each, more than what owners paid on average for the first eight Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket clubs.
King, a minority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and franchise co-owner Mark Walter and wife Kimbra as well as team president Stan Kasten are launching the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) in 2024.
The WNBA raised $75 million from investors in February 2022, Athletes Unlimited raised $30 million in September 2022, while CVC Capital acquired a 20% stake in the WTA in March for $150 million to create a new commercial subsidiary named WTA Ventures.
“We’re really starting to see investors leaning in to shape the market as they’re exerting their influence to create these outcomes,” said Allaster, who was named the 2023 WSF Billie Jean King Leadership Award recipient. “Women’s pro sports is a growth market with a low cost to enter with a significant long-term upside.
“We’re starting to see those investors and we need more of them. Every time a male investor invests in women’s sports—whether they’re a celebrity or professional athlete—it sends an incredible message about the value of these female athletes and the business of women’s pro sports.”
Increased investment isn’t the only factor for growth in support of women’s sports as more corporate sponsors and brand partners have started balancing out their books more equally as well.
Living up to its name, Ally has been at the forefront of supporting women’s sports whether it’s through a one-year, multimillion-dollar media buy with ESPN that requires 90% of its investment to be put to women’s sports, working with CBS to elevate the 2022 NWSL Championship to primetime TV for the first time ever, or by committing to equal spending in men’s and women’s sports over the next five years.
Morgan Stanley announced a multi-year global partnership with the WTA in March that goes beyond slapping their name and logo on signage, commercials and content.
Not only is the investment banking and financial services company the exclusive partner of the WTA’s Come Play initiative that utilizes tennis to positively impact communities and encourage girls to lead health and productive lives on and off the court, but it also is providing financial planning and wealth management tools to WTA players, coaches and their families through its “What Moves You” platform to empower players during and after their playing careers.
“Brands do well by doing good,” Morgan Stanley chief marketing officer Alice Milligan said. “You can’t just be someone who’s focused only on the bottom line. You have to be a brand that stands for purpose and stands for more.
“It was really about how do we create something that’s not just a one-and-done but is something that will really help change the game for the women, their coaches and their support systems in an ongoing manner.”
The third piece to the equity puzzle that’s gained steam in recent years is consumers. While investors and corporate partners are putting much-needed dollars behind athletes, organizations and leagues, broadcast partners are starting to prioritize women’s sports and the results have been telling.
The NWSL had a 30% increase in attendance from the 2022 season, Game 3 of the 2023 WNBA Finals was the largest gate attendance in league history (17,143), a world record 92,003 watched the Nebraska women’s volleyball team play on August 30 at Memorial Stadium, while Iowa women’s basketball’s preseason exhibition against DePaul was witnessed by a record 55,646 fans, almost doubling the previous mark of 29,619 set by UConn and Oklahoma in the 2002 NCAA championship game at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
While Billie Jean King’s conversation with U.S. Open tournament director Billy Talbert ahead of the 1972 event at Forest Hills paved the way for equal prize money the following year as tennis proudly hoisted the equality flag in sports, the work is far from over.
Despite girls participation in high school sports at nearly 12 times more than it was in 1972, girls today have less opportunities to play sports than boys did 50 years ago, according to WSF’s 50 Years of Title IX report. In 2019, coverage of women’s sports on TV news and highlight shows was 5.4% of all airtime, barely up from 5% in 1989.