A League of Her Own: ESPN-Athletes Unlimited women’s sports broadcasting deal overdue

The ESPN-Athletes broadcasting deal marks an advance in women’s sports online accessibility. In 2019, a study on women and men’s sports coverage found 5% of total television coverage focused on women’s sports. The study also found that 80% of highlight programs and news devoted zero time to women’s sports.

Infographic by Caroline Coffey ’22

The ESPN-Athletes broadcasting deal marks an advance in women’s sports online accessibility. In 2019, a study on women and men’s sports coverage found 5% of total television coverage focused on women’s sports. The study also found that 80% of highlight programs and news devoted zero time to women’s sports.

When asked who my sports idol was at the dawn of my softball career in second grade, Derek Jeter was my answer. In the impassioned one-on-one pick up basketball games I played with my younger sister, we likened ourselves to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James with every jump shot. Sports were a staple of my childhood and every game I watched was devoid of a single female role model. 

On April 27, ESPN struck a deal with Athletes Unlimited (AU), a women-centric sports platform founded in 2020, to exclusively air softball and women’s lacrosse. This agreement is long overdue, for while interest and participation among women’s sports has surged for 30 consecutive years, as per the National Federation of State High School Associations, women’s sports remain an afterthought. On the eve of the Title IX’s 50th anniversary, prolonged airtime for women’s sports will generate a greater fanbase and respect for female athletes that will break existing barriers. 

For the next two years, fans will be able to tune in to 160 softball and lacrosse games across all ESPN platforms. AU is founded upon a unique athlete-centered model reminiscent of fantasy sports and markedly different from other professional sports leagues, as athletes garner points based upon their performance and the top four earners become captains of reorganized teams the next week. 

The deal marks a grand step forward given that media coverage of women’s sports is practically nonexistent. In 2019, University of Southern California and Purdue University published a study on women and men’s sports coverage which found 5% of total television coverage focused on women’s sports. The study also found that 80% of highlight programs and news devoted zero time to women’s sports.

In due time, young girls will have women to watch and see themselves in as women’s sports coverage expands. When they pick up a ball and bat, pondering their sports idols, they will think of Derek Jeter and Sis Bates. When they lace their sneakers for a pick-up game, they will think of LeBron James and Sue Bird.”

— Caroline Coffey ’22

The gulf between both realms of sport is colossal. Share this fact with any female athlete, however, and I am certain few will express shock.

Throughout high school, I have been a member of our softball program and our fans are few but fiercely loyal. When we played against the best team in the conference as the three-seed ourselves, perhaps only three sets of stands were filled. 

Conversely, consider baseball on a weekday afternoon. Parents will tailgate prior to the game and devoted fans and passersby alike will perch on the hill to watch the game. Consider boys basketball, which always amasses a crowd regardless of their season record. Students will coordinate themed nights to further liven the spirits of the attendees. 

My entire 12 year long career, I’ve known small crowds. As a consequence, the energy I draw upon derives from the cheers of my teammates and what I can find within myself. My experiences are not unique. 

Imagine a WNBA game or a college women’s lacrosse game with the same crowd as their male counterparts and the atmosphere would be equally electrifying. The deal between ESPN and AU has only scraped the surface of expanding coverage for women’s sports, but the progression will promote athletics to young girls and aid such sports in garnering a fanbase to call their own. 

In due time, young girls will have women to watch and see themselves in as women’s sports coverage expands. When they pick up a ball and bat, pondering their sports idols, they will think of Derek Jeter and Sis Bates. When they lace their sneakers for a pick-up game, they will think of LeBron James and Sue Bird.