TV Networks Finally Agree to Let Us Watch Women’s Sports in Prime Time

The National Women's Soccer League gets a crack at a prime time slot, while the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball championship will air on ABC for the first time.

TV Networks Finally Agree to Let Us Watch Women’s Sports in Prime Time
Aliyah Boston of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates with her teammates after defeating the UConn Huskies 64-49 during the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament National Championship game in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo:Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Congratulations to broadcasters for finally doing the bare minimum for women’s sports.

On Tuesday, the sporting world blessed fans with two history-making announcements. First, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), CBS, and corporate sponsor Ally Financial announced that this season’s final will be played on CBS during a prime time slot for the first time in the league’s history. Over on the collegiate side of things, ESPN announced in a press release that the NCAA women’s basketball national championship will air on ABC for the first time in 2023. It had previously been housed by ESPN.

The NCAA women’s basketball final, however, is not currently scheduled for a prime time slot within its new home on ABC, despite appearing during primetime slots on ESPN in recent years. The network said it would consider moving the game in the future, but currently has commitments to entertainment shows slated for the same evening. Unless it’s Abbott Elementary, I don’t want to hear any excuses for why those shows can’t be moved (put it on streaming, I don’t care, figure it out). The network sounds particularly obstinate in this decision-making given that the 2022 championship game between South Carolina and UConn clocked 4.85 million viewers on ESPN during prime time, making it the most-viewed women’s title game in nearly 20 years, according to ESPN.

The NWSL championship game has previously aired on CBS, but never in a prime time slot, and regular season games are still airing on streamers like Paramount+ and Twitch. The 2022 NWSL final was initially planned for noon ET, meaning any west coast fans would need to be alert and engaging in debauchery on the couch by 9 am PT. But the match is now scheduled for 8 pm ET, “following a recent collaborative effort by Ally, CBS, and the league,” according to a news release—a welcome departure from last year’s noon final. In short, the switch to prime time was made possible not because CBS woke up and saw the inherent value in women’s sports but because an NWSL sponsor sweetened the deal. “We increased our media investment with CBS to help make it happen, delivering the first action in our promise to watch the game, change the game,” Ally’s chief marketing and PR officer Andrea Brimmer said.

All of this is technically great! It’s great for exposure to larger audiences and for empowering women athletes within their respective leagues. But before you begin asking multi-billion dollar corporations “May I kiss your ring, my Grace,” consider that none of these leaps and bounds would’ve happened without the steady stream of activism pouring out of women’s leagues. Last year, the NWSL final, which was initially slated for a 9 am PT kickoff in Portland, was moved just a few weeks before the game not because broadcasters or sponsors came to their senses, but because the players began making noise. They argued that waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to play in a professional championship game was not conducive to the mental and physical preparation needed to perform in such a high-pressure environment. The time had also been chosen to fit into CBS’ broadcast window, but players pointed out that asking fans to wake up that early for the pinnacle of their season severely limited the size of their audience. The game was later moved to 12 pm ET in Louisville, still far from a prime time slot.

At the very least, Ally’s seeming dedication to walking the walk and financially supporting the NWSL is a perfect template for other corporate sponsors dragging their feet on making the dive into women’s sports. Though sponsors have long cited the risk of investing in women’s sports, the data shows otherwise: A Nielsen Sport survey across eight key markets around the world found that 84 percent of sports fans are interested in women’s sports, 51 percent of which were men. And a highly cited 2020 Deloitte study called women’s sports “ripe for greater monetization.”

There’s much to be proud of today in the larger fight for gender equality in sports. But let’s not forget the women that really made all of this happen: not the executives signing checks or the heads of programming begrudgingly typing up “approved,” but the athletes who have advocated for themselves day in and day out, all on top of their contractual paid labor. They’re the real dealmakers today and every day, but they’re still getting tiny little trophies.

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