When the 2012 Olympics come to a close, the United States will welcome back a host of fresh-faced superstars and newfound champions. Many of them are women.
Someone needs to figure out a way to finally capitalize on the growing popularity of women's sports. Consider this a plea, TV executives.
ESPN has tried over the years to showcase women's sports, especially at the collegiate level with wall-to-wall coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament and softball College World Series. Still, outside of women's tennis—which rivals the men's game in popularity—and women's international soccer, no women's sport has been able hold enough of an audience to justify heavy promotion.
For years, those in the industry have suggested the women's product isn't palatable to the American public, but the success of women's sports at the Olympics—from gymnastics and swimming to tennis and soccer to beach volleyball—has proven there is an audience that will show up for the big events.
It's just a matter of finding enough big events to fill the calendar.
When Gabby Douglas won the gymnastics all-around competition to go with her team gymnastics gold, she instantly—along with fellow gold medalist Aly Raisman and the rest of the "fab five" for U.S. gymnastics—became a breakout American star of the 2012 Summer Games.
Is Douglas the breakout American star in London? Is Raisman, after winning a bronze on the balance beam and gold on the floor exercise to go with her team gold?
Missy Franklin might have something to say about either of the gymnasts taking that crown, heading back to the United States with five medals draped around her neck, four of which are gold.
Franklin leads a host of female swimmers returning to America as Olympic royalty, including Allison Schmitt (three gold, one silver, one bronze), Dana Vollmer (three gold) and Rebecca Soni (two gold, one silver). While we focused so much on Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte heading into the Games, just as much attention will go to Franklin and the other female swimmers on the way out.
After the talk-show circuit runs out of questions and the social media buzz moves on to the next major event (welcome back, NFL), Douglas and Franklin will go back to being regular American teenagers for a while. Four years from now, when the country starts to care about big-ticket Olympic events again, those two—along with their returning teammates and a crop of newcomers representing the US of A—will be superstars all over again.
It shouldn't happen that way. These are all household names now. Someone needs to capitalize on this and use these names to catapult these sports into a more prominent plot on the American sports landscape.
There are too many outlets—via network or cable television or even here on the Internet—to highlight and promote the women we've cheered for the last two weeks.
The popularity of women's sports transcends the Summer Olympics, too. While gymnastics is the big-ticket item at the Summer Games, figure skating is every bit as popular at the Winter Olympics. Certainly it's not limited to just the rink, either.
The middling ratings for the WNBA and the failure for the WPS—America's latest attempt at a women's professional soccer league—certainly hurt the chances of women's professional sports being showcased on TV. There is no denying the fact that a weekday-afternoon sports show with boxes full of sportswriters yelling at each other can draw a better rating than most women's sports.
Still, the buzz is palpable with the interest many women's events have garnered during the Olympics.
The women's soccer team's run to the gold-medal match has drawn better ratings than the U.S. men's basketball team. Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and a host of other women's soccer players have become bona fide international superstars.
Gabby Douglas had more than twice as many viewers to NBC's online stream as Michael Phelps. Serena Williams—as only she can—had the world buzzing after her gold-medal victory with both her sheer dominance on the court and her celebratory dance off it. The success of the women's water polo team—reaching the gold-medal match in dramatic fashion—has made Americans care about that water polo! The list goes on and on.
And then, again, there's women's beach volleyball, proving to be the most marketable women's sport for TV networks.
With the return of the AVP from a two-year break after going bankrupt, the beach volleyball association will need to tap into the world's best players to regain a foothold like it had in the 1990s. While the men's game was the big draw back then, clearly the women's game has surpassed the men's during the Olympics—if not in skill, then certainly in American interest.
It would be naïve to think any of these sports—swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball or even track and field, with hugely marketable stars like Allyson Felix and Lolo Jones—will get the kind of justifiable TV ratings on their own. But what about together?
Before we had 50,000 channels and millions of hours of on-demand video, there was a show that gave us the wide world of sports for an hour or two each weekend. What was the name of that show again? Anyway, not the point.
The point is, there was an audience for small doses of non-traditional sports from around the world back then, and there still is now. With NBC, CBS and ESPN all fighting for cable-network sports rights, there is an untapped resource of women's sports that can be used as a showcase to a younger generation.
It's easier said than done, sure. If I were in charge of a cable network, I would produce a "Ladies Night" (if you pardon the cheesy nightclub promotional connotation), where one night per week is dedicated to the promotion of women's sports around the world.
Certainly rights fees will be an issue for tennis, soccer and golf (which hasn't been discussed until now but joins the Olympics in 2016), but enough events can come cheaply, and highlights shows or interviews features could fill the additional time.
Clearly people have shown they don't mind watching sports on tape delay, so the events would not have to be live so long as they are compelling and feature notable American stars.
Let's forget about an entire night. Start with an hour.
How great would it be for young girls to know there is a weekly, hour-long block on network TV featuring 30 minutes of the top plays in women's sports from around the world, preceded by a show geared toward teaching kids the right way to play each sport, as taught by the experts themselves. Think of it as an Inside the NBA, just for girls.
None of this, of course, is to suggest the promotion of women in sports (and women's sports) hasn't already been going on for years. Former Olympians like Summer Sanders and Julie Foudy have made successful media careers out of their international success.
ESPN has already laid the groundwork for this idea with its launch of espnW in late 2010 and an in-depth series this summer on the history of women's sports to honor the anniversary of Title IX. The growth is possible, and the time is now for networks to capture a huge audience looking for an Olympic follow-up.
NBC's television and online Olympic coverage has been full of former Olympic athletes who are now taking a second career step into sports media. Like in male sports, more and more opportunities are arising for former female athletes. With the success of the Olympics—both in American medal count and TV ratings—it's time for more opportunities to come for the current athletes.
If done right, the audience will be there.
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