Minnesota Lynx Forward Aerial Powers posted a video last March, something she often does after practice. This particular clip shows Powers shutting down a man who tries to shoulder check her during a pickup game.
“What’s up? What’s up? What’s up?” she shouts at the player in question. “Okay, that’s what I thought; I don’t play like that,” she says as he steps back.
The video goes on to show the build-up to the near scuffle, highlighting Powers sinking against a team of men.
Within 24 hours, the video had racked up one million views on Twitter.
“There’s drama in that,” she said, “with us talking shit, and then damn it, we show we can play, and men and guys who hate women’s basketball get fired. “
Powers hasn’t played overseas this winter, like so many WNBA players do in the offseason to supplement their income. She didn’t have to. As a brand ambassador for @HyperX and Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce/Streamer (and now co-owner) of @TeamLiquid, she’s earned enough by engaging with fans on social media . She has made a habit of posting more videos, even though they can be laborious to edit, after noticing the attention they get.
“What we need…is to not take it for granted that there is only one model and that the male model will work for women’s sport.”
Fifty years after Title IX, the Civil Rights Amendment that bans gender discrimination in education and sports, women’s sports are set to become a billion-dollar industry, according to Deloitte. And it didn’t happen by following the traditional male model. A new framework, powered by social media and digital innovation, is helping female athletes circumvent a model that has often dismissed women’s sports, posits a new report from the University’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. of Minnesota and other researchers across the United States and Canada.
“What we need…is not to take for granted that there is only one model and that the male model will work for women’s sports,” says Dunja Antunovic, assistant professor of sociology sports at the University of Minnesota. “We need to pay attention to alternative models and disruptions that can be more beneficial to both athlete wellbeing and fan engagement.”
Women’s sports are engaging fans in new ways, including bypassing traditional media that often discount women’s sports. Creating their own content allows athletes to communicate directly with fans, the report notes.
After posting a video, for example, Powers spends the next two hours monitoring his social media, trying to respond to anyone who comments.
“And then people start to invest in you,” she says.
Such direct communication can seem time-consuming and inefficient, similar to the type of player work in the 70s when professional opportunities began to emerge and athletes promoted their own sport and even distributed tickets, notes Antunovic.
“It takes a lot of work to engage directly with fans; it has an impact on individual athletes,” she says.
But the ripple effect may be much greater now, via social media, than it was at the start of Title IX.
“OK, think about it: the younger generations before us have at least six figures of followers,” Powers says. “They will bring a percentage of their fans to the women’s varsity game. A percentage of those subscribers will watch. And then they’ll follow them to the WNBA, and the viewership percentage will go up. Now you have different audiences from everywhere following you.
Social media also opens up a different avenue for referrals, the report notes.
“Our report focuses on this brand potential, the potential for athletes to build their brand and use digital platforms to interact with sponsors and monetize this digital engagement,” says Antunovic.
The good moment
The “disruption” of the traditional model is not entirely digital, and it is not entirely athlete-driven. The Minnesota Aurora exemplifies a new model in more ways than one, including team ownership. More than 3,000 investors across the country and around the world have purchased shares of the pre-pro team that began play at TCO Eagan Stadium in May; others had to be refused. These community owners voted on the team name and logos.
“It is a movement and a moment that marks a turning point for women in sport and women in business.”
“It fits with that moment when people realize that women in sport have had a short straw,” said Andrea Yoch, president and co-founder of Aurora FC.
It started during the 2021 Final Four, Yoch says, when University of Oregon forward Sedona Prince shared a video that went viral: As the men’s teams accessed a fully stocked weight room during the tournament, the women had to share a small rack of dumbbells.
WNBA players pointed to the disparities during pandemic seasons, when it seemed like NBA players ate steaks on fine china while WNBA players were relegated to cold burgers on paper plates, says yoch.
It created the perfect atmosphere for the Aurora to rush in and say, “Do you want to do something about this?” Be part of the change,” she says. “It’s a movement and a turning point for women in sport and women in business. It just comes at the right time. »
Of course, such injustices have been going on for decades, and it’s not just social media tools that have brought them to light. “There are generational shifts in the values that fans bring to the table,” says Antunovic. “We are also seeing greater attention to social issues, particularly in terms of gender equity and racial justice. So there are broader socio-cultural changes corresponding to digital disruptions.
There’s no doubt that tools play a huge role in creating a new model, though. The Aurora quickly discovered that its ownership model fit perfectly with social media amplification: with over 3,000 owners, the team quickly garnered nearly 10,000 Twitter followers (many owners updated update their bios to include “owner of MN Aurora”).
“We have a fan in Italy who walked past Aurora Cafe, and he stopped and took a picture and posted it and tagged us,” Yoch says. “We encourage him and we thanked him for taking two seconds during his vacation to think of us.”
Women’s sports are unlikely to completely avoid the traditional model; TV deals, for example, are still in demand (in 2020, viewership for the WNBA and women’s soccer grew significantly). But fans garnered via social media could speed up those deals by showing broadcasters how many people want to watch.
Meanwhile, digital content means fans, who often have to resort to separate subscriptions or text-based play-by-plays on NCAA.org for live game coverage, have another way to access their teams. and favorite athletes. And that means athletes have another way to supplement their income. After his success on social media and in games, Powers does not plan to play overseas for the next few years.
“I feel as healthy as ever because I haven’t had to beat my body and play game upon game upon game for a living,” she says.
After this viral video, she tweeted a question: “Next off season I will be starting a show on my YOUTUBE just for all of you guys playing with guys talking about WNBA players…who would be watching??”
Judging by the number of retweets, memes and replies, A LOT.