Editor's note: This article is based on BFF's Twitter Space, The Future Playbook: Web3's Role in the World of Sports. Listen to the full recording.
Women’s sports is booming. Whether calculating live attendance or viewership, there’s a persistent, growing demand from sports fans to see women play. But here's the thing: this surge of interest hasn't quite translated into earnings and recognition comparable to their male counterparts. Just take a look at the Forbes’ list of highest-paid athletes, and you'll find that only tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams made the cut. It's a stark reminder that despite the increased attention and attendance, female athletes — from the pros to those at the Junior College level — are still being underpaid and underfunded.
However, there are two game-changers set to rock the boat that could disrupt the status quo: social media and the advent of blockchain technology. By combining these forces, women athletes have a real shot at taking control of their careers and finally bridge the gender pay gap in earnings.
Only in its mid-season, the WNBA has seen a 46% increase in viewership. That is 584,000 viewers across 13 ESPN platforms, and 647,000 viewers for its eight games on ABC. To capitalize on this momentum, the WNBA has secured an extended schedule of 36 games per team and a $75 million investment from Nike along with WNBA and NBA owners. Sponsorship deals for women have grown 20 % in 2022, with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) leading the charge with 940 brand deals with the likes of Coca-Cola, Rolex, and Epson. Across the board, women sports have made significant strides with increased attendance, viewership and brand deals. Yet, those numbers are a drop in the bucket against the 2023 global sports market value of $512 billion dollars.
Lucy Mills, chief catalyst at Ready Sport Global, a technology and innovation consultancy, is excited about the great strides the women’s sports industry is making, but thinks we are still a long way from seeing significant progress in broadcasting, partnership deals and ad revenue.
"Women's sports for decades has been held back by gatekeepers, by centralized institutions who have deprioritized and treated women as second-class athletes,” Mills told BFF in a recent Twitter Space. “Lack of investments, lack of resources, lack of visibility, exposure. Yes, there's been really good efforts, professionalization and growth in pockets of the world and a handful of places, but it's spotty, and it's going to take a long time to achieve gender equality in sports."
Limited awareness and branding opportunities have long been challenges for female athletes. Though they account for 40% of all participants, women’s sports gets allocated only 4% of sports media content. Sadly, a majority of media coverage still focuses on female athletes’ bodies over their performance.
Thankfully, social media platforms have provided a new avenue for them to monetize their personal brands and generate income. And that is helping not only pro athletes, but athletes at the collegiate and junior collegiate level too. Case in point: Olivia Dunne.
Olivia Dunne is a gymnast from Louisiana State University (LSU). She’s also the highest-paid female athlete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
According to On3‘s tracker, Dunne earned about $3.5 million from monetizing her name, image and likeness (NIL) through various partnerships with brands such as ESPN, Body Armor, Motorola and Sports Illustrated. As revealed on the Full Send podcast, her largest payday to date $500,000 came courtesy of a single social media post.
Captiv8, an influencer-marketing firm based in San Francisco, has found that student-athletes have some of the highest engagement rates among all social-media influencers. Women athletes, particularly basketball players, have been successful in partnering with brands.
“There are opportunities within beauty, within fashion, even tech [because of having a large audience, for both males and females, but specifically with females, there are business opportunities there that don't exist for the male athlete,” says PR professional Mary Beth Sales.
With nearly 12 million followers combined across Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, Dunne exemplifies that phenomenon. Yet, many student-athletes have not earned as much from monetizing their NIL they had anticipated once the NCAA finally lifted their restriction in 2021.
Could it be that leveraging your image as a content creator is not as straightforward as it looks? “It's more about understanding what business opportunities lie outside of the sports contract.” Sales explains. ”It's about understanding how businesses work, number one."
Let’s face it, Dunne is an outlier for her multi-million dollar income, and she knows it. That’s why she started the Livvy Fund in July to support other LSU female athletes with securing NIL opportunities. Currently 80% of all NIL deals are funded by collectives, which are donor-funded groups helping college athletes build their brands. However, most of the NIL collectives fund male sport, despite record-breaking attendance, further encouraging Dunne to create her own collective for women specifically.
But what if these collectives could utilize the blockchain? Artist and sports fan Leslie Motta is experimenting with that very question. In 2022 Motta founded Women of Basketball, a non-fungible token (NFT) membership community for basketball lovers and donors, as a means to support female athletes at the junior college level. She explained that many female players have to work sometimes multiple jobs to cover parts of their tuition and living expenses. “The goal is to bring awareness to how under-funded, and under-resourced the junior athletes are," she said. “Scholarships don't fully cover all of the tuition. They're very limited as to what they're giving. In-state girls would probably have to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, but out-of-state girls could pay up to $10 000."
While scholarships are helpful, Motta believes athletes should diversify their funding sources, leveraging new technologies when possible. "You know, for some of these girls, for some of these high school girls, it is their last chance to tap into what could possibly be their dream,” she says.
By owning their image and likeness on the blockchain, athletes can directly monetize their personal brands without relying on intermediaries.
Naomi Metzger, a British triple jumper and artist, is one of those who found financial stability through her AfroChicks NFT collection. As told to Athletics Weekly, Metzger had lost her sponsorship and was feeling homesick. When I lost my sponsor I knew I needed to find a way to be able to survive,” Metzger said in the article. “I’m on funding, which I really appreciate, but it still wasn’t enough. I spent a bit of time researching NFTs [non-Fungible Tokens], so now I sell my artwork online for cryptocurrency which I swap into pounds.”
Selling her digital artwork online allowed Metzger to fund her sports career, take control of her financial future as a female athlete and inspire others in the process.
Beyond empowering individual athletes, Web3 technology has the potential to revolutionize the sports industry as a whole, from partnership deals to fan-centric experiences. Platforms like Parity were created for this exact reason. Designed to offer female athletes a chance to directly monetize their name, image and likeness, Parity is an NFT marketplace for selling memorabilia and connecting with fans. And the process is easy: fans can browse the marketplace until they find a token they like. When they’re ready, they can register or log in with Google, link a credit card and start bidding. If they win the bid, their credit card gets charged.
A basketball lover since the young age of 4, sports content creator Nicole Fetchko (Fetch) bid on a meet-and-greet activity with WNBA point-guard Didi Richards in 2022. “Most fans would jump at the chance to meet their favorite player,” says Fetchko.
Sales agrees: “There's a way to collect data from your NFT holders so you understand what kind of people are in your community.”
Through data collection and smart contracts on the blockchain, new revenue streams can be created for female athletes, ensuring fair compensation. For example, let's say an athlete could tokenize digital passes to an exclusive meet-and-greet event to thank her fans for buying some of her memorabilia. Since smart contracts require unique identifiers, tokens become trackers to pull up buying history, agreements and price range. Based on the data she finds, our athlete can then use this data as a benchmark to cater events towards her fans' preferences.
The possibilities for female athletes to leverage the blockchain technologies to build projects to scale revenue are truly endless. They are waiting simply waiting to be grabbed.
Émilie Boivin is a crypto and AI enthusiast who covers immersive technologies, ethics, financial innovation and the Metaverse. Connect with her on Twitter.
This article and all the information in it does not constitute financial advice. If you don’t want to invest money or time in Web3, you don’t have to. As always: Do your own research.