What’s behind the women’s sports boom in Minnesota? An expert explains

A crop art piece that reads "Watch Women's Sports"
Fairgoers view the crop art exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 24.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Right now, Minnesota is in the midst of a women’s sports popularity boom.

For the first time in history, the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament sold out. The competition runs through the weekend at Target Center in Minneapolis. This week, the U.S. National Women’s Soccer team shared it will play a game at Allianz Field in St. Paul on June 4. The Professional Women’s Hockey League is gaining traction. And one week ago, a groundbreaking sports bar — dedicated solely to women’s sports — opened in the Twin Cities. A Bar of Their Own is already wildly popular.

So what led to the sudden burst of interest and a passionate fanbase for the gender that’s previously lacked mainstream media coverage?

Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, told MPR News connection and social media have created a “new era” in the industry by allowing fans near-direct access to their idols.

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“Female athletes have used social and digital media to gain agency to be more popular, amplify their voices and advocate for issues, and really engage authentically and directly with fans to create viable personal brands,” LaVoi said. “And what we know from the data is that female athletes get two times the level of engagement with their followers compared to male athletes… So social media has been amazing for female athletes as they bypass traditional channels of recognition.”

Nicole LaVoi Tucker Center
Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
Courtesy College of Education and Human Development via University of Minnesota

On top of engagement, sponsorships are up for women — 22 percent year-over-year, according to LaVoi. Deloitte projects that 2024 global revenue will be near $1.3 billion, and has been trending up for several years.

“So increasingly, people are seeing the value investment in women’s sport and the great upside and potential for return on investment,” LaVoi explained.

And you can’t ignore the Caitlin Clark effect, which LaVoi believes has a positive impact on all young people, regardless of their gender.

The future, however, is blurry. In 1999, the U.S. hosted and won the FIFA Women’s World Cup, generating fresh buzz over women’s sports. But that fizzled out. LaVoi is cautiously optimistic the current boom won’t succumb to the same fate.

“This time will be different because women’s sport is being given more primetime media slots…which drives awareness and interest. And we’re seeing much higher production value and the quality of women’s sport in general that shows them as serious athletes.”

Further, LaVoi points to “rich and deep storytelling” around female athletes and current diversion from selling sex instead of sports. For example, the PWHL is taking this to heart with its promotional videos, featuring equity across ages and backgrounds and a high level of respect and excitement for hockey. That quality, LaVoi believes, will make all the difference.

“People love women’s sport. That’s why we’re seeing unprecedented viewership and attendance and sellouts like the Big Ten tournament, and it’s just a really exciting time for women’s sport.”