US women's soccer and basketball earned strong television ratings as they returned after being put on hold due to COVID-19, helping to quell concern that the pandemic would undo progress made in women's sports over the last year.
The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Challenge Cup final on Sunday averaged 653,000 viewers, up almost 300 per cent from the 2019 final, broadcaster CBS said.
The Women's National Basketball Association's (WNBA) opening day attracted its most viewers in eight years as an average of 539,000 watched the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury.
"These numbers are significant because they are evidence that the economic viability of women's sport is continuing, despite this unprecedented time," said Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas focused on sports marketing.
"I believe we are now seeing sustained momentum."
Both the NWSL and the WNBA rode into 2020 with plenty of momentum.
The fourth World Cup victory of the US women's soccer team drummed up enthusiasm for the sport across the country, while the WNBA's January collective bargaining agreement aggressively ramped up pay for players, in a landmark moment for women in sports.
"Most prognosticators look to the past to predict the future. What they don't see as clearly are turning points," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College specialising in sports economics.
"The US women's World Cup victory last year was a turning point."
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has pushed back on suggestions that the pandemic would set the sport back.
On Monday, two days after the truncated, coronavirus-delayed season kicked off, ESPN said it added 13 more WNBA games to its broadcast schedule.
The majority of the NWSL Challenge Cup games aired on streaming platforms like CBS All Access and Twitch, with the opener and final broadcast on CBS.
"We're obviously thrilled," said Commissioner Lisa Baird. "The numbers clearly demonstrate that we are a league on the rise. But make no mistake, we're not satisfied. Women's sports still don't receive the attention they should."
The NWSL opener last month snared an average of 572,000 viewers, according to CBS.
This was higher than their male counterpart Major League Soccer's (MLS) tournament opener, which averaged 492,000 viewers according to ESPN, its second-highest regular season audience in three seasons.
Olga Harvey, chief strategy & impact officer at the Women’s Sports Foundation, said she was 'thrilled yet not surprised' by the NWSL and WNBA ratings.
"Women’s sports have always been, and remain, a showcase of skill, grit, and dedication – pre- or post-pandemic," said Harvey.
David Carter, a professor of sports business at USC and principal at the Sports Business Group, cautioned that it could be too soon to say whether the trend will continue.
"The early numbers are encouraging," said Carter. "Only the passage of time will determine if these early ratings successes are sticky.”