Aja Wilson Las Vegas Aces May 27, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Aces forward Aja Wilson (22) reacts during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks at Michelob Ultra Arena. Mandatory Credit: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

New year, new leagues, growth, and opportunities–that’s the energy of the women’s sports industry as hockey was the first major women’s sports event to ring in 2024 on a high note. 

On New Year’s Day, tennis legend Billie Jean King dropped the puck on the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League season–the same day that marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association that King founded. 8,318 fans attended PWHL Ottawa’s home opener against Montreal, setting a record for the highest attendance in professional women’s hockey history. 

“I’ve experienced my share of memorable moments on grass, on clay, and on hard courts all over the world,” King said of the historic game. “And now on ice.”

The PWHL has been a long time coming. The newest professional women’s sports league results from the purchase and subsequent dissolution of the Premier Hockey Federation–formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League until its rebranding in 2021–that was prompted by the National Women’s Hockey Players Association in an effort to consolidate women’s pro hockey into a single North American league. Prior to the formation of the PWHL, star players from the U.S. and Canadian national teams refused to join the NWHL/PHF due to a lack of faith in its business model. Instead, these players competed against each other in exhibition games with the NWHPA to stay sharp for international play. But times are changing with the formation of the PWHL thanks in part to collaboration efforts with the men’s equivalent, the National Hockey League.

“I think that is one of the elements that hasn’t been there in all prior iterations of a pro women’s league,” said PWHL board member and Dodgers president Stan Kasten. “[That support] is a major differentiator and a major reason that I’m so confident about our long-term success.”

The PWHL is following other women’s leagues that have seen success over the years after increasing buy-in to the business potential (and proven results) of women’s sports. In college basketball, the “March Madness” trademark is iconic, but since the tournament’s inception in 1939, it was reserved solely for the men’s tournament and has only been used on the women’s side since 2022 following activist efforts in 2021. But after just two seasons of improved branding, last year’s women’s national championship game between LSU and Iowa averaged nearly 10 million viewers, and peaked at 12.6 million, breaking a record that stood since 1995–and that’s after the 2022 championship matchup between South Carolina and UConn saw the most viewers in a women’s championship game since 2004. This past October, 55,646 people gathered in Kinnick Stadium, not for a punting showcase from the Hawkeye’s football team, but to watch Iowa women’s basketball play an exhibition game against DePaul led by a double-double from Caitlin Clark, and shattering the previous women’s college basketball attendance record of 29,619 set in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.  

On the professional side, the WNBA celebrated its 27th year of play in 2023 by showcasing similarly impressive growth. Last year’s Finals between the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces averaged 728,000 viewers–a 20-year high–with Game 4 averaging 889,000 views for the most-viewed Game 4 in league history. These numbers followed a similarly impressive regular season that was the most watched in 20 years, and saw record-breaking social media engagement–the 20 million actions/engagements, 1.1 million hours watched, and 373 million video views throughout the 2023 season were all increases of 65%, 42%, and 96%, respectively, from 2022. 

Although these are significant yearly jumps, they didn’t happen overnight as growth in the sports industry results from decades of work. Building sports leagues, whether men’s or women’s, are investments, and investments in sports take time to cultivate (Even Art Rooney’s Steelers lost the equivalent of $2,000,000 a year for his first seven seasons in the 1930s and many of today’s MLS teams lose money every year). The PWHL seems to be taking these dynamics into account with the formation of their new league. 

“We understand that this is gonna be expensive, particularly in the early years. But we’re prepared for that,” Kasten told ESPN in August of 2023. “We didn’t do this for the short term. We didn’t do it for the long term. We did it to be permanent.”

Outside of hockey and basketball, women’s sports across the board thrived in 2023. Volleyball shined from the preseason to the postseason, starting with Nebraska volleyball exceeding capacity at Memorial Stadium in a summer exhibition match, playing in front of a crowd of 92,003 fans (the stadium’s capacity is 85,458, but because the whole field wasn’t occupied, chairs were available courtside to meet demand). Months later, the national semi-finals and finals broke in-person indoor volleyball records twice as 19,727 gathered to watch the final between Texas and Nebraska, breaking the record of 19,598 that was set in the semifinals just days prior. Television viewership skyrocketed 115% from 2022, with the championship game garnering 1.7 million viewers on ESPN on an NFL Sunday. 

Then, following the national championship, League One Volleyball, a professional women’s volleyball league set to launch in November 2024, announced its future cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Salt Lake City, and Omaha, providing more pathways for women to go pro. LOVB has raised over $35 million from donors like Jason Tatum, Amy Schumer, Candace Parker, and Lindsey Vonn to support the league and the growing fanbase of women’s volleyball. The league takes a unique community approach, springboarding its operations from already-cultivated junior club teams in its founding cities, proving that not only does a pro league have potential, but the sport itself has proven results and just needs more upward mobility which LOVB is set to provide.

“We’ve definitely had folks that said, ‘Well this youth thing, isn’t that pretty complicated?’” LOVB CEO and co-founder Katlyn Gao said in an interview. “We stuck to our guns to say this is the right, disciplined approach, and we’re here to build a legacy league.”

“Legacy” was certainly a keyword for college softball as well. As the Oklahoma Sooners extended their win streak to 56 straight games en route to winning its third-straight Women’s College World Series, their title matchup against Florida State averaged 1.9 million viewers, peaking at 2.3 million, up 7% from 2022. The Women’s College World Series had a record year, as championship series tickets sold out in 24 hours (super regional tickets sold out in minutes) and boosted Oklahoma City’s economy by an estimated $25 million over nine days. 

International sports also saw huge numbers in 2023, setting the stage for the 2024 Olympics, the first ever to feature numerical gender parity with the same number of male and female athletes competing. 3.4 million viewers watched Coco Gauff’s U.S. Open win against  Aryna Sabalenka, which was the most viewers ever for a women’s tennis Grand Slam final, catapulting Gauff to the highest-earning female athlete of the year, earning a fitting $23 million in 2023. In soccer, the Women’s World Cup sold 1.4 million tickets before the tournament even began, breaking the record sold in Canada eight years prior, and the WWC overall generated $570 million for the second-largest global total, behind only the Men’s World Cup. In total, the WWC met projections and reached a staggering 2 billion viewers worldwide.

It’s no wonder Deloitte projects women’s elite sports to generate $1.28 billion worldwide in 2024–over 300% higher than their projections in 2020. And this is all happening as 2023 reports indicated that college and professional women’s sports receive a paltry 15% of total coverage across popular sports networks, nearly triple the coverage they’ve historically received according to longitudinal data from 1989-2019.

In 2023, the phrase “women’s sports is having a moment” was a popular refrain in sports media as the numbers rolled in–but the saying doesn’t paint the whole picture of what has been happening in the women’s sports industry as athletes and teams increasingly receive the investment that is required for leagues to survive and thrive. There’s still work to be done to reach true equality but numbers across the board speak for themselves: women’s sports is a movement that has been gaining momentum each year and fans, stakeholders, and investors have a lot to look forward to in 2024. 

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.