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 yells at the player in question. “All right, that’s what I thought; I don’t play like that,” she says as he backs off.
The video goes on to show the lead-up to the near-scuffle, highlighting Powers sinking shot over shot against a team of men.
Within 24 hours, the video had racked up a million views on Twitter.
“There’s drama in it,” she says, “with us going back and forth shit-talking, and then hell yeah, we show we can play, and the men and guys that hate on women’s basketball are triggered.”
Powers didn’t play overseas this winter, as so many WNBA players do during the off-season to supplement their incomes. She didn’t have to. As a brand ambassador for @HyperX and chair of diversity and inclusion task force/streamer (and now co-owner) of @TeamLiquid, she earned enough by engaging with fans on social media. She’s taken to posting more videos, even though they can be laborious to edit, after noting how much attention they get.
“What we need…is to not take it for granted that there is just one model and that the men’s model will work for women’s sports.”
Fifty years into Title IX, the civil rights amendment that prohibits gender-based discrimination in education and sports, women’s sports is predicted to become a billion-dollar industry, according to Deloitte. And that hasn’t happened by following the traditional men’s model. A new framework, relying on social media and digital innovation, is helping female athletes bypass a model that has often dismissed women’s sports, posits a new report from the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and other researchers across the U.S. and Canada.
“What we need…is to not take it for granted that there is just one model and that the men’s model will work for women’s sports,” says University of Minnesota sports sociology assistant professor Dunja Antunovic. “We need to pay attention to alternative models and disruption that can be more beneficial both for the well-being of athletes and engaging fans.”
Women’s sports have been drawing fans in new ways, notably by bypassing traditional media organizations that often sideline women’s sports. Creating their own content allows athletes to communicate directly with fans, the report notes.
After she posts a video, for example, Powers spends the next couple of hours monitoring her social media, trying to respond to everyone who comments.
“And at that moment, people start getting invested in you,” she says.
Such direct communication may seem time-consuming and inefficient, similar to the type of labor players did in the ’70s when professional opportunities started emerging and athletes promoted their own sports and even distributed the tickets, Antunovic notes.
“It takes a lot of work to engage with fans directly; it takes a toll on individual athletes,” she says.
But the ripple effect can be much more substantial now, via social media, than it was in the early days of Title IX.
“OK, think about it: The younger generations before us have at least six figures in followers,” says Powers. “They’ll bring a percentage of their followers to the women’s college game. A percentage of those followers will watch. And then they’ll follow them to the WNBA, and the percentage of viewership will grow. Now you have different audiences from everywhere following.”
Social media also opens a different route to sponsorships, the report notes.
“Our report focuses on that branding potential, the potential of athletes to build their brand and use digital platforms to interact with sponsors and monetize that digital engagement,” says Antunovic.
The Right Moment
The “disruption” of the traditional model isn’t all digital, and it’s not all driven by the athletes. The Minnesota Aurora exemplifies a new model in more ways than one, including team ownership. Over 3,000 investors across the country and world bought shares of the preprofessional team that began playing at Eagan’s TCO Stadium in May; more had to be turned away. These community owners voted on the team name and the logos.
“It’s a movement and a moment in time that’s a tipping point for women in sports and women in the business.”
“It’s fitting into this moment in time where people are realizing that women in sports have gotten the short straw,” says Andrea Yoch, Aurora FC president and co-founder.
It started during the 2021 Final Four, Yoch says, when University of Oregon forward Sedona Prince shared a video that went viral: While the men’s teams accessed a fully stocked weight room at the tournament, the women had to share one small rack of dumbbells.
WNBA players pointed out disparities during the pandemic seasons, when it seemed as if the NBA players were eating steaks on fine china while the WNBA players were relegated to cold burgers on paper plates, Yoch says.
That created the perfect atmosphere for the Aurora to swoop in to say, “Want to do something about it? Be a part of the change,” she says. “It’s a movement and a moment in time that’s a tipping point for women in sports and women in the business. It hits right at the right moment.”
Of course, such injustices have been going on for decades—and it’s not just the tools of social media that brought them to light.“There are generational changes in values that fans bring to the table,” says Antunovic. “We’re also seeing more attention on social issues, especially in terms of gender equity and racial justice. So, there are broader sociocultural changes corresponding with digital disruptions.”
There’s no question that the tools play a huge role in creating a new model, however. The Aurora quickly discovered that their ownership model dovetailed perfectly with social media amplification: With over 3,000 owners, the team quickly garnered almost 10,000 followers on Twitter (many owners updated their bios to include “MN Aurora owner”).
“We have a fan in Italy who passed the Aurora café, and he stopped and took a picture and posted it and tagged us,” Yoch says. “We encourage that, and we thanked him for taking two seconds on his vacation to think of us.”
It’s unlikely that women’s sports will eschew the traditional model completely; television contracts, for example, are still sought after (in 2020, viewership of both the WNBA and women’s soccer rose significantly). But fans garnered through social media could accelerate such contracts by showing broadcasters how many people want to watch.
In the meantime, 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 avenue to access their favorite teams and athletes. And it means athletes have another avenue to supplement their incomes. After her social media and gaming success, Powers isn’t planning on playing overseas for the next few years.
“I feel healthy as ever because I didn’t have to pound my body and play games on games on games to make a living,” she says.
After that viral video, she tweeted a question: “Next off-season ima start a show on my YOUTUBE just for y’all of me going around playing guys that talk ish about WNBA players.. who would watch??”
Judging by the number of retweets, memes, and replies, PLENTY.