Women’s professional sport in Canada is an untapped market ripe for investment, a report written by a blue-ribbon panel of Canadian women in sports says.
More than a dozen prominent Canadian women – including tennis executive Stacey Allaster, WNBA star Kia Nurse, broadcast executive Nathalie Cook, and Teresa Resch of the Toronto Raptors – collaborated on a white paper, which is to be released widely on Monday and presented to a Toronto meeting of investors, corporate partners, sports business people, media and athletes. The summary: It’s time to catch the rising tide of women’s pro sports.
“There’s this drumbeat that the time is now,” said Allaster, a Canadian who is the chief executive of professional tennis at the United States Tennis Association. “The market is right for it, fans are calling for it, the athletes are phenomenal, and women deserve it.
“It’s a good investment and it’s the right thing to do. We need to mobilize Canadians to make that happen in our country.”
Women’s professional sport is booming around the world. There are rising viewership numbers and skyrocketing franchise valuations in the U.S.-based WNBA and NWSL, Women’s Super League in Britain and Women’s Premier League cricket in India.
Today, women’s pro sport is a new frontier for investment, with more brands committing sponsorship dollars, and traditional ownership groups and celebrities – from Natalie Portman to Patrick Mahomes – investing in teams.
Yet that’s not the story in Canada with women’s pro sports. Some of the country’s most successful and famous athletes are female. While they win medals for Canada internationally, most leave the country to compete professionally. Women’s pro leagues and teams trying to operate in Canada have typically drawn small crowds, folded or are still working to start up.
Accurately sizing the Canadian women’s pro sports market is difficult, because of the lack of domestic assets to value, but the report – with data compiled by global consulting company BCG – estimates its total market size at $150-million to $200-million. It adds that the biggest drivers of the market are sponsorship and broadcasting revenues associated with Canadian women participating in the Olympics; revenue from big standalone events – such as the WTA’s National Bank Open and LPGA’s Canadian Open; and sponsorship deals for Canadian star female athletes.
“Canadian women are competing well, and are at a level of power right now,” said Resch, vice-president of basketball operations for the Raptors. “It’s going to take a full ecosystem to make this work – corporate support, fans, athletes, investors will all have to take active roles.”
The advisory group was an initiative of Canadian Women & Sport, an advocacy group that had focused mostly on grassroots, trying to build equity in sport. Last year, it turned its gaze to something that hadn’t been studied – how to accelerate women’s pro sports in Canada. Several factors inspired the project, including the boom of women’s sports in the United States, the success of Canadian female athletes internationally and a growing network of Canadian women working in top jobs across sports spheres. So Cook, the chair, reached out to a “dream team” of women for the advocacy group, enlisting female executives, athletes and researchers with expertise in media, business and sponsorship, and sports including pro tennis, basketball, soccer, hockey and esports.
The women in this group have been volunteering since last summer, huddling in small groups or on video calls from cities across North America.
Many Canadian organizations are strategizing about how to get involved in women’s pro sports, and are doing their own research to see if it’s a viable investment.
“We’re taking initiative, putting ourselves out there and saying this is what needs to happen. Look at all the people whose voices you’re hearing – this is no slouch group,” said Tanya Mruck, vice-president of community engagement and social impact at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “We look south of the border, we see a more developed ecosystem, but people here love women’s sports, too. Our women’s national teams perform well, they draw audiences, people talk about it and are proud of them. There’s already something going on here.”
The research paper debunks old ideas – such as women’s sports not being popular with fans or worthy of investments. It shows increased viewership and sponsorship growth for various women’s pro leagues and associations around the world. The research aligns with what many of these women see in their work, such as fans scooping up most tickets in a single day to May’s WNBA exhibition game at MLSE’s Scotiabank Arena.
Added Mruck: “Many people were surprised it sold out so fast, but we were like, ‘yeah, what did you think would happen?’ Those are the folks we still need to convince. That’s where the report comes in, and the performance of the WNBA game. The proof is in the pudding.”
The white paper stresses that the market is constrained by the lack of consistent access to women’s leagues, associations and teams in Canada.
The paper stresses that a tailored business model is needed for women’s pro sports to succeed in this country. It suggests looking beyond broadcasts for revenue, maximizing eyeballs across newer channels, engaging investors with interest in gender equity and seeking diverse financial backers, not just those who have traditionally invested in teams and leagues.
Cook, an executive who worked as a vice-president at TSN, and an athlete representation at IMG, points to some reasons why it’s become popular to invest in women’s sport. She says without mainstream media regularly delivering their games and stories to living rooms, female athletes have become expert at using social media, which is paying off now.
“I think women athletes have particularly been the beneficiaries of new and emerging technology and media, and they’re very good at it,” Cook said. “Also women’s sport has a lower cost of entry in Canada now compared to the established male leagues, so it broadens the scope of people who can invest in sports. It’s a huge financial opportunity, and a huge cultural opportunity to make a difference.”
Their report cites a recent study by Vivadata, that says approximately 20 million Canadians – or 65 per cent of Canadian adults – have some level of engagement with women’s professional sport. It adds that Canadian fans who avidly follow women’s pro leagues or teams are younger and more diverse, compared to fans of men’s sport leagues.
Karina Leblanc, Canadian Olympic soccer goalkeeper and now the general manager of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, told the advisory group about walking the stadium to learn about women’s soccer fans.
“I see how personal it is for fans, they connect with the players,” Leblanc said. “There’s a movement that you can feel on our gamedays, and it’s very powerful.”
Yet outside of standalone events from the WTA and LPGA in Canada, there are few opportunities to see women’s pro sports inside Canada consistently. The Premier Hockey Federation, founded in the United States, has five U.S.-based teams and two Canadian (Toronto Six and Montreal Force).
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association is working to start a new league as soon as the 2023-24 season. Project 8, a company founded by Olympic medalist Diana Matheson, hopes to launch a domestic women’s pro soccer league by 2025.
If those two leagues launch according to plan, they’ll arrive as other women’s sports properties continue to boom.
Ratings for the recent March Madness women’s NCAA basketball tournament made headlines. More than 2.49 million viewers tuned in for Iowa’s regional final with Louisville, more than any of this season’s NBA games on ESPN.
The WNBA is growing and eyeing expansion, with Nashville, Oakland and Toronto among those in consideration for a franchise. The Seattle Storm was recently valued at a league-record US$151-million.
In soccer, 87,000 fans packed London’s Wembley Stadium last summer for the Women’s European Championship final between England and Germany. The U.S.-based NWSL had a 70-per-cent increase in viewership for its 2022 championship game over the 2021 final.
Mumbai-based media company Viacom 18 recently paid 9.51-billion Indian rupees (US$117-million) for media rights of cricket’s Women’s Premier League in India.
On the home front, Canadian Tire recently announced new investment for women’s sport, making several promises, including earmarking a minimum of 50 per cent of its sponsorship dollars toward women’s pro sport by 2026 and helping finance research on the business case for the marketplace in Canada, including this white paper. Canadian Tire has also signed as a founding sponsor of Project 8′s soccer league, along with Air Canada and CIBC.
Cheri Bradish, founder of the Future of Sport Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, is an academic lead on this research paper. Gender equity has always been part of her work, yet in 26 years she’s never seen more people taking action around the world to move the dial for women’s sport.
“This movement is happening, and it’s being powered by so many smart people,” Bradish said. “Everybody wants to do the lifting, and take advantage of the moment.”