From Gabby Douglas to Alex Morgan, women are being hailed as the stars of the 2012 Olympics, at least for American audiences. The Baltimore Sun notes that this year the US sent more women than men to the Games, for the first time ever, and that many of the breakout stars in London — Douglas, her teammate Aly Raisman, swimmer Missy Franklin — have been women. And the New York Times just devoted a largely adoring profile to the "imperfect" but much-beloved women's soccer team. As much as viewers love to ogle (and mock) Ryan Lochte, many of the most-talked-about athletes of the Games have been female.
Maybe that's partly because for many casual sports fans, watching female athletes is something of a novelty. While the faces of the men's Olympic basketball team are familiar to most due to their NBA fame, the women's basketball players are far less well-known — most play for the WNBA, but that league has struggled to get mainstream attention (though attendance was up last season). And while Olympic women's soccer has, in the words of Sam Borden of the Times, "inspired incredible emotion from fans of all types," no fan of any type could watch women's pro soccer in the US this season, because the league folded (men's soccer, by contrast, is doing well, but the US men's team didn't make the Olympics).
So the Olympic are one of the very few times (the US Open being another) when the achievements of female athletes are big news. And American fans eat it up, arguably paying more attention to the women than the men. Are audiences paying attention because they're stoked to finally see some female athletes in headlines and on primetime TV? And if so, what does that mean for regular season sports?
An audience for one women's sporting event doesn't guarantee an audience for others, as BuzzFeed's Allison McCann learned when she moved from Stanford's popular Division I soccer team to the flailing Women's Pro Soccer league. And maybe American audiences only want a dose of women's sports every couple of years. But the fact that they want it at all is intriguing — many have claimed that Americans just don't want to watch women compete, and the Olympics give the lie to that. The question is whether the conditions of the Olympics can be replicated elsewhere.
Bleacher Report's Dan Levy thinks "it's just a matter of finding enough big events to fill the calendar," advocating that cable networks experiment with weekly roundups of a variety of women's sports. And Alan White at the New Statesman takes broadcasters and sportswriters (in the UK) to task for ignoring women, arguing that if they got more attention (and thereby sponsorships), world-class female athletes might not have to live in poverty. Ultimately, exposure may be the key. American culture is saturated with men's sports — even non-fans can name top NFL and NBA players, and when players become household names, it's easy for new fans to stumble upon them and get invested in their games. This could happen with women's sports — even those who still claim women's sports just aren't good enough to be interesting acknowledge that name recognition is a big factor. And the Olympics are great at building name recognition — leagues, networks, and marketers just have to figure out how to sustain it.
Whether they do so depends on a lot of factors, not least avoiding the mismanagement that helped doom Women's Pro Soccer. And big events like the Olympics and the Women's World Cup always raise hopes for more regular-season coverage — hopes that haven't yet come to fruition. But in a lot of ways the voices of female athletes (witness weightlifter Zoe Smith's blog counterattack against those who criticized her body) and those of their fans (like, say, Gabby Douglas's more than 500,000 Twitter followers) are louder than ever. Viewers are excited about women's sports right now — if media outlets and sports officials don't at least look for ways to keep that excitement going, they'll be missing an opportunity.