Anyone paying attention has noticed women’s sports continue to surpass the disappointingly low valuation it has received from the industry and society.
In just the last few days, CBS Sports announced that the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Championship earned the highest viewership in league history. The network followed that up with the announcement that over 419,000 viewers tuned in for the original program Athletes Unlimited: A Pro Sports Revolution.
One network. Two standalone events. Over 1 million views.
What could happen if there was a dedicated place to watch original programming and live game action across women’s professional sports? That is the question the Women’s Sports Network is here to answer.
The network is a streaming network built like a cable network, FAST Studios CEO Stuart McLean told me ahead of the public launch. The Women’s Sports Network is the third streaming network in the FAST Studios family, joining Racing America and Spartan TV.
“As we have seen repeatedly, women’s sports don’t get the coverage they deserve. We have an opportunity to leverage the new FAST landscape to become a part of the solution. At the Women’s Sports Network, women’s sports are primetime, all the time,” McLean said in today’s press release.
“We’ve been listening to athletes, fans and our incredible league partners, and we know there is a tremendous need for a network that is committed to women’s sports coverage, storytelling and content.”
After a soft launch, the Women’s Sports Network is officially live today. For the last week, I have been able to stream the Women’s Sports Network through my FuboTV subscription.
In February, FAST Studios announced three league partners – the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), US Ski & Snowboard, and the World Surf League (WSL). The announcement also named sports media companies GoodSport and Empower Onyx as partners. By its soft launch, the Women’s Sports Network had nearly 1,000 hours of programming, including re-airs of competitions from the 12 women’s professional leagues working with the network.
WSN has added the WNBA, Premier Hockey Federation, United States Golf Association, the Women’s Football Alliance, and World Surf League. Other sports media companies on board include Octagon and Quattro Media.
The first-of-its-kind hub, as described in the press release, will “provide women’s sports content while creating more commercial opportunities for athletes, their leagues, and the industry at large.”
The rising tide lifts all boats.
To get this latest project off the ground, McLean cold-called a 31-year ESPN veteran with plenty of experience growing women’s sports programming.
“Stuart was talking about a studio show that was just going to be all women’s sports. No NBA, no MLB, no college football. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe in my ears I’m in,’” Carol Stiff told me during a conversation in New York City last month.
The vision McLean laid forth for the former vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN is now the flagship show for the network, GAME ON. The thirty-minute original program is hosted by former Harlem Globetrotter Crissa Jackson, sports journalist Taylor Felix, sports influencer Jenna Bandy and television host Jess Lucero. GAME ON also has what the program calls a “fourth chair” reserved for athletes, commissioners, and women’s sports influencers making a guest appearance.
On Monday, Jenny Nguyen, founder of The Sports Bra – a sports bar in Portland that airs women’s sports exclusively – was interviewed in that fourth chair. Other guests include WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Olympian, and ESPN hockey analyst Hilary Knight and Las Vegas Aces President Nikki Fargas.
McLean says the show has been built for content on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter first. From there, programming is put together for the network show.
When reflecting on her first conversation with McLean, Stiff was intrigued by the notion of such a show. However, she almost backed out when she heard it would only air once a week. Stiff emphasized that no network is carving out 30-minutes on a standalone show dedicated to women’s sports. Her vision was for much more than a half-hour once a week.
“You can’t find just a half hour of Sports Center of just women’s sports highlights. And it’s long overdue. And now’s the time,” Stiff told me.
Women’s Sports First
The Women’s Sports Network has grown from GAME ON outward. Fans of women’s sports can find storytelling in tennis, surfing, hockey, basketball, and more. Although McLean wouldn’t comment specifically about sponsorships or viewership numbers and projections, he did tell me the network received positive praise throughout the soft launch period.
“What we’re hearing is, our ability to give a single point of access for both the brands and the fans is what’s going to create more commercial opportunities for the athletes and the leagues. We at the Women’s Sports Network think women’s sports is great business,” McLean told me during a video call Monday.
“We’re hoping that our network will start to pay off the hard work that these athletes have done – both former champions and present players – and again, we’re here to lend support and give some more tools to the marketplace to create more commercial opportunities, so that the fans can enjoy more and the brands, but ultimately, this is really to support women’s sports overall,” he added.
To that end, McLean and Stiff recruited what may be The Dream Team of advisors. Olympian and co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab Angela Ruggiero, ESPN Women’s Basketball analyst LaChina Robinson, and recently retired Olympic medalist Allyson Felix are just three of the nine advisors.
“It’s a small group, and I like small groups. But more importantly, they’re all stakeholders in women’s sports. Some have history, some are present, some at both,” Stiff said Monday. “I love having our meetings once a month, but the best thing we get from this group is straight talk. And they do not hold back on questions that we ask. And I love it. And that’s what’s going to keep us together and successful.”
In one such conversation, Stiff broached whether WSN should show sports betting spreads for men’s leagues on their bottom line ticker. Unanimously, the advisory said no.
“This is a women’s sports network. We can get that elsewhere,” Stiff recalled the group saying.
And decisions like that might fulfill McLean and Stiff’s desire to change the industry. As league viewership numbers continue to disprove widely accepted assumptions on the value of women’s sports, will the fast-growing sector of the industry, sports betting, continue to lean in?
Some companies already have. There was a time the average sportsbook did not include women’s sports leagues. In September, Gaming Today reported that at DraftKing, bets on women’s sports are up 61% year-over-year, and their overall handle, the amount of money in wagers accepted, on women’s sports is up 22%. FanDuel – a WNBA partner – saw a peak of 270% in bet count and 101% in handle across all locations during the summer months. As the market opens up, companies like The Gaming Society and SheBettor are focused on welcoming women and women’s sports fans to sports betting.
The Time is Now
Although we won’t know the full impact of a 24/7 streaming network dedicated to women’s sports immediately, we can see the potential. Between equal and equitable pay movements to the 5oth anniversary of Title IX, there is momentum, perhaps as never before.
“It’s a demand right now,” Stiff told me. “We’re going to be 24/7 women’s sports. And no one has done this. No one has done this. And with the infrastructure that Stuart has built with FAST studios, we’re going to deliver, and we’re going to further the business of sports, of women’s sports. Now’s the time.”
The Women’s Sports Network is now available on platforms including Amazon Freevee, FuboTV, Sports.tv, Tubi, and XUMO.