by Deb Seymour
In a day and age in which both fantasy sports and sports betting are becoming not only more popular, but more legal — and more “just part of being a fan” — the sports fandom of women is making its voice heard. A decade or two ago, the strategy in trying to convert more women to being sports fans — and thus growing the target pool for ticket sales, merchandise, and other related revenue streams — was to try to market more women’s sports to them (or shall I say, to us); and to market us pretty heavily . We were marketed to heavily to become WNBA fans, just for example. But here’s a general wake-up call about that strategy: for those women who genuinely follow the WNBA, it’s not just because they’re fans of watching other women play a professional sport. It’s because the WNBA is a professional league alongside all the other professional sports leagues that women also follow. (And there are plenty of men who follow the WNBA, as well.)
Just as a quick anecdote, while I was living in Newport Beach, California, I once met the great NBA player Karl Malone while he was out with his daughters. Naturally, it was a huge thrill to meet the Mailman himself; and he autographed a dollar bill for me because I literally had no other piece of paper to hand him. But here’s why the story is relevant: Karl Malone’s daughter, Cheryl, was playing in the WNBA at the time. And it was pretty thrilling to meet her, as well. Cheryl Ford was the first player in the WNBA to win both Rookie of the Year and a WNBA championship in her rookie year, playing for the Detroit Shock. She went on to win several more championships. And yet, as excited as I was to meet both Karl Malone and Cheryl Ford, I wasn’t a huge WNBA fan; as my fandom revolves mostly around male sports leagues. So…did the marketing strategy not work on me? Actually, I think the marketing strategy was targeted in the wrong way. Women who care about the WNBA mostly care about male sports leagues as well. And this is precisely where 1990s-early 2000s sports marketers missed the boat.
Female sports fans are now making themselves heard not only through ticket sales and merchandise purchases and tailgating and cheering. Female sports fans are all over sports Twitter and Instagram. We write about sports. We podcast about sports. We’re sports broadcasters, commentators, and analysts. And we are, not that slowly, becoming part of the fantasy sports and sports betting world, as well.
When it comes to fantasy football, in season-long leagues, men outnumber women by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. But when it comes to Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS), the numbers start to flatten. In fact, according to a study published in July 2021 by CivicScience, among people who planned to play daily fantasy football this season, 44% were female.
The first graphic below displays overall intent, by gender, to play fantasy football in 2021. The second graphic below displays type of intent, by gender, to play fantasy football in 2021.
A 2019 survey conducted by The Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association concluded that across all fantasy sports leagues — not just football, but including baseball, soccer, basketball, golf, hockey, and several other sports — 19 percent of players were female. Moreover, 20 percent of sports bettors were female. Admittedly, the second statistic surprised me more than the first. The number of women betting on sports seems to outnumber the number of women playing fantasy sports; and I’d venture a guess that most of the sports fan population has absolutely no idea that’s happening.
Why do women play fantasy football? A 2018 academic study published by the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM) demonstrated that there are at least five factors influencing women’s interest in playing fantasy football:
According to Brendan Dwyer, Joshua M. Lupinek, & Rebecca Achen, authors of the study:
“Women dominate the consumer economy. Some estimate that they control over 75% of all discretionary purchases and represent a growth market larger than China and India combined. Yet, our marketing strategies for this lucrative population are often stuck in the 1950s. Spectator sport marketing provides a harrowing example of this, as we often engage women’s sports fans through the “Pink it and Shrink it” strategy. That is, we take a product initially marketed toward men, like a football jersey, and make it pink and smaller. While the strategy may reach some women, it fails to fully represent the unique needs and wants of this important demographic.”
This observation about marketing sports to women harks back to the one I made earlier about marketing the WNBA to women, in its description of “if it looks and walks and talks like a woman, women will want to engage with it.” But women fantasy sports players and bettors are proving that myth to be a misfire. If they engage with the WNBA, it’s because it’s a professional league with professional players, rules, and competition. That’s no different from why they engage with professional sports played by men. And it’s true for NCAA sports and minor league sports, as well. Personally, I have never yet played fantasy any sport, nor bet on a sport except in the context of workplace March Madness and Superbowl pools. But as the movement for female fantasy players gains steam, I might just consider participating in a league. After all, if I’m a fan and have a little bit of knowledge (and can do some research), why not?