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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A record-breaking 2023 in sports

More than 92,000 fans filled the University of Nebraska’s football stadium to watch women’s college volleyball, setting a global mark for the largest attendance at any women’s sporting event.

By Lizz Robbins

Records are made to be broken, the saying goes.

If so, 2023 ought to go down as a record-breaking year for breaking records. The shattering happened not only on the courts, marathon courses and racetracks, but off the fields and around the game.

The Formula One driving maestro Max Verstappen won all but three of the season’s 22 grands prix, Lionel Messi ignited Major League Soccer and Jenni Hermoso, after leading Spain to the Women’s World Cup title, set the record straight: She said she did not want to be kissed by the Spanish federation’s president in the trophy ceremony.

From these 2023 headliners, the fans followed, bearing out in record attendance and viewership numbers and record-high broadcast deals.

Nowhere was this progress more apparent than in women’s sports. More than 92,000 fans filled the University of Nebraska’s football stadium to watch a women’s collegiate volleyball match, setting a global mark for the largest attendance at any women’s sporting event.

The 64 Women’s World Cup matches in Australia and New Zealand drew a record 1,997,824 fans for an average of about 31,000 per game, nearly 10,000 more than the average attendance at the matches in the 2019 tournament in France. And the women’s International Cricket Council’s T20 World Cup in South Africa became the most-watched women’s cricket event, with 192 million hours of viewership.

Will these blockbuster events result in more fans filling the stands consistently?

“Every change in consciousness in society starts with lightning in a bottle,” said Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who studies sports fandom. “You just don’t know until a few months or a few years down the road.”

The growth is coming, with more professional women’s teams in soccer and basketball, franchise valuations soaring, more sponsorship deals and better competition. The consulting firm Deloitte released a report in November that predicted the revenue from elite women’s sports in 2024 would surpass $1 billion, up 300% from its 2021 forecast, citing the Women’s World Cup as a catalyst.

Australia, which hosted the final between Spain and England, engaged a new generation of fans and athletes, much like the U.S. women’s national soccer team did en route to winning the 1999 World Cup in Pasadena, California.

“I don’t think this was once-in-a-lifetime,” Sam Kerr, Australia’s captain and one of the world’s top players, said after her team lost to England in a World Cup semifinal. The Australian team, known as the Matildas, had played before a sold-out crowd of 75,784 in Sydney. “If you bring the product to the show, we’ve proven people will come out and support it.”

Although a ragged U.S. team lost in the round of 16, that gave space for other squads to emerge. Underdog Colombia advanced to the quarterfinals, the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica knocked out powerhouse Brazil and the Lionesses of England captured their nation’s attention on the way to the final.

Spain’s joyous victory made international news for weeks, but not primarily for the players’ talent. The president of the Spanish soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, forcibly kissed Hermoso, a star player, during the medal ceremony — publicly displaying the kind of sexist behavior the players said they had endured for years in the system. Under political pressure, he eventually resigned; the federation had fired head coach Jorge Vilda weeks earlier.

It was a stark reminder that for all the record gains for female athletes, men still dominate sports’ executive ranks, sidelines and airwaves.

In October, a new study of women’s sports demonstrated this. The share of women’s sports media coverage in the United States increased to 15% in 2022 from about 5% in 2018, according to the Wasserman Collective, a research think tank studying women’s sports.

Considering new digital news sites, streaming options, sports leagues and social media, the study estimated that by 2025 the share would approach 20%.

“I think that in a year of record-breaking and a year of this type of momentum, what resetting the number does for us is it makes it much harder to dismiss,” Shelley Pisarra, Wasserman’s executive vice president of global insights, said in an interview. “So, do we have a long way to go? Yes. Do we still need more inventory? Yes, but it’s not 4% any longer.”

The majority of competitive opportunities for women still exist on the collegiate level in the United States, highlighted by a volleyball match in America’s heartland.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, where the University of Nebraska has won five national championships in football, women’s volleyball is seemingly more popular. At least it was on Aug. 30, when Nebraska eclipsed the attendance record for a women’s sporting event.

A few weeks later, the University of Iowa women’s basketball team, led by Caitlin Clark, the reigning Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year, staged an outdoor preseason game in its football stadium, drawing a record 55,646 fans.

Clark, the sharpshooting guard with uncanny range, led Iowa to the 2023 women’s NCAA Division I championship game, where it lost to Louisiana State University. The game drew 9.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN2, a record for an NCAA women’s basketball game.

The momentum for women’s basketball carried into the WNBA season. The players set a slew of scoring records in an expanded regular season, and the Las Vegas Aces became the first WNBA franchise in 21 years to repeat as champions, downing the New York Liberty.

While Taylor Swift’s romance with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was creating a huge audience for the NFL, and college football prepared for conference realignment, another women’s pro team captured a title.

Gotham FC, the New Jersey and New York team that finished last in the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022, outlasted Seattle’s OL Reign, 2-1, to win the championship in early November.

Megan Rapinoe, the international superstar for OL Reign, ended her trailblazing career by rupturing an Achilles tendon in the opening minutes. A header from Esther González of Spain proved to be the game-winner. Gotham forward Midge Purce, whose two assists earned her MVP honors, posted celebratory photos on Instagram of her smoking a cigar, drawing gendered criticism.

“There’s such defiance about how the women are carrying themselves,” Brian Moritz, a professor of sports journalism at St. Bonaventure University in New York, said in an interview. “It’s like, ‘I’m doing my thing. I’m awesome. We are awesome.’ ”

In the biggest broadcast deal for any women’s domestic league, the NWSL struck a four-year TV rights deal with CBS Sports, ESPN, Prime Video and Scripps Sports worth $240 million.

And in marathoning, powered by their own talent and new shoe technology, Kenyan men inched closer to shattering the magic two-hour mark. Kelvin Kiptum broke the world record by 34 seconds in Chicago in October, finishing in 2 hours 35 seconds.

In Berlin in September, Tigst Assefa of Ethiopia broke the women’s marathon record by more than 2 minutes, with a time of 2:11:53.

Quite a prologue to Paris. There, the 2024 Summer Olympics are expected to have the same number of women as men athletes for the first time. With 2023 as a guide, records may fall.

This article originally appeared in <a href=””>The New York Times</a>.

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