Brett Abarbanel says that in her household growing up, “spectatorship of sports was always very matriarchal.”
“I grew up watching sports with my mom,” said Abarbanel, the director of research at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. “My dad had no interest.”
Dave Sharapan has three daughters, aged 18, 16, and 8. The oldest plays softball on scholarship at the College of Southern Nevada and recently wrote a paper wondering why women’s sports aren’t on TV as often as men’s sports.
“She’s like, ‘Softball’s as good or better than baseball,’” said Sharapan, a veteran Las Vegas bookmaker and sports betting personality. “I’ve been coaching girls since the age of 12 to pursue this dream, and for them not to have a next level stinks. That’s why the WNBA is so important. The problem with it is it’s always compared to the men’s sport.”
“I think the problem is men don’t give women’s sports a chance,” said Robert Walker, director of sportsbook operations for US Bookmaking, who considers women’s basketball to be “the greatest sport out there.”
“I always ask them what the problem is, and invariably the answer is it’s inferior basketball, which is a terrible argument. You’d never watch men’s college [basketball] if that were the case.”
That being said, Sharapan revealed, “Some of the sharpest guys I know bet on the WNBA.”
OK, but what about the ladies?
“Women are smarter than men,” said Sharapan. “They love the games. They like talking about it. [But] they don’t like to lose. If they lose, I think they’re quicker to say, ‘Eh, you know what? This isn’t for me.’”
Female participation way up
Increasingly, however, sports betting appears to be an activity a lot of women want to engage in. A new survey by Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) showed that 4.6 million women signed up for sportsbook apps in 2021, with female user rates growing 115% year over year. By way of comparison, the rate of men using sports betting apps grew by 63% over the same period.
A startup called The Gaming Society is wagering that now is the time to focus on female bettors and women’s sports. Started by Players’ Tribune co-founder Jaymee Messler and former NBA great Kevin Garnett, the company recently closed a $3.5 million round of funding, according to Fortune.
Meanwhile, FanDuel — led by its president, Amy Howe — has committed considerable energy to bringing more female fantasy football players and bettors into the fold. The GWS survey found that FanDuel brought in more new U.S. female users — 1.7 million — in 2021 than any other sportsbook. Next was DraftKings, with 900,000 new female users.
26-years ago today the WNBA launched … pic.twitter.com/wGTudhGDTi
— Rex Chapman🏇🏼 (@RexChapman) April 24, 2022
Despite this growth, data from organizations like the American Gaming Association and the National Council on Problem Gambling show that women comprise less than a third of all sports bettors. Setting Sharapan’s gender-based intelligence theory aside, what other factors account for this discrepancy?
“I think social interaction is one of the biggest drivers in sports betting, and it’s all too easy to forget that sports betting was sports’ dirty little secret until [PASPA was repealed in] 2018,” said Messler. “It’s just newer [for women]. As the industry is growing and becoming more mainstream, the fan experience is getting better.”
“My personal hypothesis is it has partly to do with social attitudes toward different types of gambling,” said Professor Rachel Volberg of the University of Massachusetts, who has studied gambling behavior extensively. “Certainly betting on sports has been heavily gendered.”
Gendered and generational, to be sure.
“Sports betting is much more popular among young adults than older adults,” said Don Feeney, a research consultant for the NCPG. “I’m guessing that’s particularly true for women, because there are a lot of women 50 and older who would have never even considered making a bet on sports. Women in their 20s, that’s very much a part of their landscape.”
Remote access makes it easier
Similar to the GWS study, Volberg and Feeney have noticed a recent uptick in female participation in sports betting, as have others.
“Sports is one of those things that men are more prone to be socialized and betting on,” said Michelle Malkin, associate professor of criminal justice at Eastern Carolina University. “When it was just in a couple places, it seemed to be that just men engaged in that activity. But now that there’s constant ads and the ability to do it from home, it makes it easier for women to bet on sports.”
“More traditional sportsbooks, the imagery and the feel of it, it tends to be a more male-centric space,” said UNLV’s Abarbanel. “As we move online, we’ve been seeing a big shift in this. We saw that a lot when gambling in general started moving online about 2½ decades ago. That learning curve and sense of belonging was much easier because you could do that in the privacy of your home.
“From the academic side, [why women don’t bet as often as men] certainly hasn’t been an avenue of study that people have pursued — which, frankly, is an answer unto itself. I think it’s a little odd that we just say ‘sports’ instead of ‘men’s sports.’”
Sex sells sex, not sports
This gets to another of The Gaming Society’s objectives: getting more people, regardless of gender, to bet on women’s sports. And to the company’s vice president of business development, former WNBA player Marissa Coleman, visibility — or lack thereof — is the main roadblock.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of interest. It’s a lack of visibility,” said Coleman. “The more you put it on TV, the more people will watch. If you’re gonna bet on women, you have to know who they are. The more games that are on TV, the more they’ll be bet on. People will literally bet on anything if it’s on TV.”
But when and where it’s able to be seen matters as well.
“It’s got to be on something other than ESPN+,” said Kelly Stewart of Barstool Sports. “Women’s tennis players are out of this world, incredibly athletic. They get more airtime probably because it’s a more international sport. We’ve got amazing women golfers, but they’re never on TV, so nobody knows their names.
“The Lingerie Football Leagues of the world were created to get more people to watch, but I don’t think it worked out. Yeah, sex sells, but nobody went to the games.”
Added Abarbanel, “People are just interested in sports if they’re good sports. If you’re trying to sell women’s sports via sex, you’re selling sex. It generally tends to work, but you’re not selling the sport.”