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Members of Team Women's Sports Foundation talk with Billie Jean King, center, after the third period of the Dream Gap Tour game against Team Adidas at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28, 2021 in New York City.Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It was billed as a historic moment. Last Sunday night, for the first time in history, two women’s hockey teams met at Madison Square Garden to face off in a professional game. Before the puck drop, Billie Jean King stood in the stands – empty of fans but full of spirit – and issued a rousing call to action, telling the players to “look up at the most iconic ceiling in all of sports and entertainment, because you’re about to bust through it. ... You’re doing something bold, meaningful, long-lasting.”

But if they were hoping to measure the moment in one of the few currencies the sports industry considers meaningful – TV ratings – they’d be disappointed. In the United States, the game between Minnesota and New Hampshire, part of a series of events dubbed the Dream Gap Tour, aired on the NHL Network, a niche channel that doesn’t subscribe to the Nielsen ratings service. No one will ever know how many people actually witnessed history.

And so it is that the Dream Gap unintentionally illuminated one of the biggest challenges facing women’s sports: the data gap.

Women may have achieved parity in a handful of athletic endeavours – earning equal pay for Grand Slam tennis competitions, for example – but in most areas they’re still second-class citizens: On TV, women’s sports get an estimated 4 per cent of the coverage.

That’s partly because of a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: Potential investors, sponsors and broadcasters are wary of backing women’s sports because they haven’t seen good data to indicate there’s a sizeable fan base. But how are fans supposed to demonstrate their support for teams and leagues that don’t exist; that don’t get on TV; or whose performance isn’t even measured, such as that Dream Gap game?

Last month the Sports Innovation Lab, a Boston-based market-research consultancy headed by four-time U.S. Olympic hockey player Angela Ruggiero, launched The Fan Project, which aims to prove there’s a large unserved fan base hungry for more women’s sports.

Backed by more than 20 organizations, including the WNBA, WWE and the LPGA, the project asks fans to share their social-media data, which the Lab believes might be a dependable proxy of fans’ engagement with women’s sports. “Fans today are fluid,” Ruggiero told the online outlet Sportico when the project was launched. “They are betting, liking, sharing, co-creating, going to games – there are all these other behavioural traits that more accurately capture fandom.”

Certainly, fans of women’s sports seem to over-index in their use of social media to engage with those leagues: Data captured by the social-media research firm Zoomph indicate the NWSL and the WNBA both scored higher rates of engagement on Twitter during their truncated seasons last summer than the five men’s major leagues in North America (NHL, NBA, MLS, NFL, MLB). The NWSL also outscored all of the leagues on Instagram engagement.

Katie Lebel, an assistant professor with Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, who is working on The Fan Project, says measuring fandom through TV ratings is becoming outmoded, anyway. “The traditional [sports business] model is very reliant on creating interest and value through media. The viewership numbers inform sponsorship dollars, which leads to brand equity for the athletes and teams,” she explained during a recent interview. “And that model was built largely by and for men.”

Now, Lebel says, the model is under pressure for numerous reasons, including a generational shift that’s under way. “Gen Z and millennials aren’t watching TV anymore.” After years of explosive growth, the value of sports leagues’ TV contracts seems to be softening. And viewership for sports has fallen during the pandemic.

“You’re seeing some of the professional men’s leagues really struggle right now. They’re tied to some of these kind of stale delivery modes,” Lebel said. “And I think women’s sports might be better able to adapt and be more representative of the changes that we’re seeing in more general consumer behavior, but also [specifically] sport-consumption strategies.”

“I am really starting to firmly believe that they could really be blazing the trail for the future of sport.”

For the moment, though, television is still dominant, which is why The Fan Project’s immediate goal is to more than double the coverage of women’s sports on TV, bringing it to 10 per cent over the next 10 months.

At the moment, says Lebel, “you have to be a pretty committed fan of women’s sports to find out when they’re going to be on.” She cites the Dream Gap event last weekend, which the PWHPA only announced five days in advance would air on the NHL Network in the United States and on Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet One in Canada. (Up here, where Sportsnet does subscribe to the Numeris ratings service, the network says the game pulled in an average of 28,000 viewers. Not great, sure, but not a terrible number for a low-profile match between two U.S. teams, competing for eyeballs against a slate of NHL and NBA games scheduled at the same time, as well as everything else on TV.)

“There’s a lot of people that wouldn’t have [heard about the game], when you don’t have the constant drumbeat that a major men’s sporting event would receive. And so the lack of investment really, really hurts that awareness component, which would allow [the game] to get a bigger audience.”

Lebel likes to compare the state of women’s sports to the Toronto Raptors when they first began playing in 1995. “Everybody said basketball was a terrible idea, it wasn’t Canada’s sport, it would fail.” Now, she says, “it’s arguably Canada’s sport. But it took consistent investments over time.

“But women’s sports would have never been given that opportunity, right? It doesn’t make money in the first year and they say, ‘Well, there’s no market, this is a miserable failure.’ That’s the hypocrisy. It’s just a mindset, right?”

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