It may seem strange on the surface that women’s lifestyle media company Refinery29, which focuses on fashion and beauty, would be branding out into sports coverage. But with the lack of media in the women’s sports space, it might have a fighting chance.
“It’s a layup for us,” said Refinery29 co-founder Philippe von Borries. “It’s a space where we should be. It makes complete and utter sense. For us, it’s always been a commitment to categories where we’re celebrating women and amazing achievement, and building a community of incredible female voices. Last but not least, it’s a huge commercial category.”
The digital network is launching a YouTube channel called “Brawlers,” which includes a series following athletes like United States Paralympic Jessica Long. It also will profile hula hoop world record holder Marawa The Amazing, as well as launch a health-and-fitness series called “60 Seconds to Fit.” Olympics content is also in the works.
Even before its announcement in early May during the digital content Newfronts for advertisers, Refinery29 secured Smartwater as a sponsor.
Just how sparse is coverage for women’s sports? The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesotasays that 40 percent of all sports participants are women — but only 4 percent of sports media coverage is dedicated to those sports.
A June 2015 Gallup poll found that 66 percent of men are sports fans, but so are 51 percent of women. What’s more, higher-income men and women (meaning they had a household income of $75,000 or more) were more likely to be sports fans than those who were middle or lower income.
For leagues like the NFL, women now make up 45 percent of their fan base. And thanks to their FIFA World Cup win in 2015, the U.S. women’s soccer team is helping raise American interest in the sport among both genders.
“There’s going to be a tipping point from an advertiser standpoint and from a broadcaster standpoint,” said David Selby, managing partner and president of agency Schafer Condon Carter. “It’s obviously the right thing to do. There’s a huge level of interest to market there. I don’t think it’s going to be will women watch women’s sports and men men’s sports. The caliber and entertainment value of watching the (women) athletes is pretty amazing.”
Refinery 29 isn’t the only one creating more content about female athletes. Fox also announced a drama series on Monday in partnership with the MLB called “Pitch.” The show will revolve around the first female pro baseball player, which the network called “a true story … on the verge of happening.”
At its NewFront presentation in early May, Conde Nast Entertainent touted its digital series “Why I” late last year, which is tied to Selfmagazine. The profile series follows women athletes to find the motivation behind why they do what they do. Its debut clip in November, which featured MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, was Self‘s top performing video on Facebook that year.
Nickolas James, executive producer at Conde Nast Entertainment, admitted that in the past there weren’t that many female athletes to cover. But thanks to the women’s World Cup win and other high-profile leagues like the WNBA, more women want to read about sports. James also points out that these profiles are “guaranteed to be extraordinary, positive and uplifting — something any brand would want to be associated with.
“Male athletes have multimillion dollar contracts,” said James, executive producer of “Why I.” “For women it’s not about the fame or glory, it’s because they love the sport.”
Despite the potential, some media buyers say that much of the media and advertisers still are hesitant to commit to women’s sports coverage. One cited the lack of viewership compared with men’s sports. Another source pointed out that many media companies and brands “are full of guys who have been doing sports for the last 25 years, and they just don’t get (the appeal of women’s sports).”
Even this crop of women’s sports coverage doesn’t highlight live sports. It’s mostly profiles, and, in the case of Fox, fictionalized sports stories. While ESPN touted women like MLB analyst Jessica Mendoza, ESPN The Magazine and ESPNw editor-in-chief Alison Overholt and “His and Hers” host Jemele Hill during its upfront presentation on Tuesday, it still emphasized that its key demographic and programming was for young men.
But digital could become the testing ground, and if it succeeds, it could lead to more coverage. Nick Bourne, chief commercial officer at Bigballs Media, which runs two of the largest digital soccer video brands, said digital has more leeway to experiment with women’s sports content. Young women are more likely to be on digital platforms compared with men, he said.
For example, Pew Research Center reported that 76 percent of women who use the internet use social networking sites, versus 72 percent of men. Nielsen has also reported that more women get their news from social media (28 percent) than men (25 percent), as well as are more likely to use it for entertainment (48 percent versus 45 percent).
“It’s got the role models,” Bourne said. “It’s got the stories, especially when you look at women’s soccer. It’s perfect for digital because when you look at where the young females are, they are on digital rather than TV.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Refinery 29 said that Elena Delle Donne would be a part of the “Brawlers” series. After publication, Refinery 29 notified CNBC that she will no longer appear because of a scheduling conflict.