Increasing popularity of women’s sports brings opportunities for sports betting

Image: SBC

“Build it and they will come” is something of a cliché. But when there’s a proven audience for something, success hinges on first providing what people want and then advertising that you’re providing it.

That’s true of many things in betting and it’s true of women’s sports.

“It’s evident that as we start putting women’s sports above the fold, people are tuning in and watching regardless of gender,” said Syd Harris, director of brand and content at Digital Gaming Corporation, the owner of Betway. “We’ve seen that it correlates on the sportsbook side. The more people watch women’s sports, the more they’re also betting on it.”

Harris was speaking as part of a women in sports betting leadership panel at SBC Summit North America that followed quickly on the heels of March Madness and the WNBA Draft and coincided with the start of the WNBA season.

The WNBA is into its fourth decade of play and is perhaps the best renowned of North America’s stable of leading pro women’s sports leagues. But there are also the likes of the 10-year-old National Women’s Soccer League and Athletes Unlimited’s leagues in basketball, softball, volleyball and lacrosse.

The Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), which ended its first season this week, has recorded attendances of around 20,000 for its top games in its inaugural year. The women’s soccer World Cup in Australia and New Zealand last summer garnered significant viewership in North America despite its games taking place in unsociable hours this side of the Pacific. And virtually every sports fan regardless of gender will know the name of college basketball star turned WNBA star Caitlyn Clark.

Amid the swell of prominence in women’s sports, how can sportsbooks and stakeholders take advantage and continue the momentum?

Give the people what they want

Jennifer Matthews, VP of brand strategy at FanDuel, told attendees at the panel that the North American sports betting market leader doubled its female sports betting volume last year. During the women’s March Madness tournament, FanDuel set new records in per-game betting volume round by round, culminating in the championship game.

While the groundswell in women’s sports viewership was naturally a big factor, the translation to wagering activity doesn’t happen by accident. It takes innovation and proactivity from sportsbooks that will appeal to fans and bettors and keep them coming back.

Matthews noted that FanDuel, a major partner of the WNBA, has worked hard on beefing up its offerings for the sport.

“In order to get people to bet more on it, we’ve provided better forecasts, more options, a whole Caitlyn Clark markets tab. We’re able to give more people, both men and women, more ways to interact with them than they may have had in the past.”

Panel moderator Christina Ventura of Action Network noted that studies have shown that, while women are betting on women’s sports more than men, men are also betting on women’s sports and women are also betting on men’s sports. The fact that those demographics overlap provides an opportunity. 

“If you have a male who’s a basketball fan, hopefully we can take that basketball fan and bring them over,” said Nicole Pawlak, senior director of special projects at Athletes Unlimited. “Sports betting is an entertainment product, it keeps viewers engaged. You’ll start seeing it grow with the WNBA where more people are going to start betting and it’s going to be common, not taboo.”

“We see so much more value that you can squeeze out of the women’s sports market,” Megan Chayka, co-founder of sports data firm Stathletes, told attendees. “It’s under-covered at a certain level but there’s so much interest. Being fast to that space gives your brand or sportsbook a big step up. I started a women’s sportsbook about 12 years ago; now, it’s just an obvious way to not only monetize but diversify your fan base.”

Tell the story

One thing the panelists agreed on was that part of the untapped opportunity lies in the comparative lack of storytelling in women’s sports. 

Ventura cited a stat that, while only 15% of sports media coverage is dedicated to women’s sport, more than half of the top marketable athletes were women. One thing that characterizes many sports fans’ consumption is that they not only want to talk about a certain team or player’s performance but also feel like they have got to know the athlete beyond just their sporting prowess.

“Our athletes aren’t one-dimensional,” Pawlak noted. “You have athletes who are mothers or have other brand investments or have a second job based on the salary. Fans want to get to know the athlete on and off the field, they like to know the whole story and it gets them invested.”

As well as building those connections, recognizing that women’s sports can be as much of an all-year-round focus as men’s sports is important.

Pawlak uses the example of the NFL, where storylines and coverage don’t stop just because it’s the offseason. There’s free agency, the draft, pre-season, what players and teams are up to during the quiet months. “We can tell that story and have that conversation 365,” she added.

“If someone came in around the excitement of March Madness, how do you continue those narratives so they don’t just go away after one major milestone in the sports calendar?” asked Harris. “We can control bringing the sports fan and the sports bettor the insight that they’re looking for. That’s where we can go above and beyond.”

Women’s sport isn’t an afterthought 

The panelists noted that cross-selling men’s sports bettors on women’ sports is a profitable avenue but it’s also important that promoting women’s sport and offering gambling options on leagues like the WNBA or the PWHL isn’t left to an afterthought.

“It’s important not to say ‘OK, March Madness is coming up so what are we going to do for the women’s tournament?’ It needs to be at the beginning of the conversation. It’s important that we start the conversation with women’s sports.”

Sportsbooks and stakeholders placing these events front and center in their offerings is the best way to precipitate progress.

“Just taking a model from the men’s sports and plugging it into the woman’s game is not the same,” added Chayka. “Curate women’s sports and leagues as their own entity and think about what actually is meaningful for that brand and for these women. There’s a huge appetite for it, so why not put gas on the fire right now?”

As a leader in a women’s sports league network, Pawlak knows firsthand the opportunities for innovation and creativity that exist.

“We don’t have to do it the way the men’s leagues have been doing. The cool thing with these startups in women’s leagues is that they can take a chance to shake it up and do something differently. You don’t have to follow the blueprint. If it fails, you learn.”

As with all things in this industry, it’s a collaborative effort. Sportsbooks can invest in offering the markets, leagues can invest in promoting their products and their athletes, ambassadors and partners can invest comprehensively to build up these products.

“It’s not just our job to make it bigger and better,” concluded Matthews. “Media, partnerships, sponsorships, all of this stuff adds up. We’ve seen a really beautiful trajectory of where it’s going and we all just have to continue on that. 

“Men’s sports and men’s sports betting didn’t turn into what it is overnight either.”