Ep 2: Why do women's professional sports leagues fail?

27 March 2019

Looking at 21 current and historical women's leagues in four professional sports (baseball, basketball, soccer, and indoor volleyball), Marvin Washington, professor of Strategic Management and Organization at the Alberta School of Business, wanted to better understand why professional women's sports leagues continue to struggle. His answer? Something Washington and his fellow researchers call "gender imprinting."

Ep 2: Why do women's professional sports leagues fail?


Marvin Washington-professor of Strategic Management and Organization, Alberta School of Business


Andy Grabia-Digital Communications, Alberta School of Business

March 27, 2019 13 minute listen

Episode Highlights

  • There is lots of research on entrepreneurial ventures that succeed. There isn't as much on why they fail. Washington and his fellow researchers wanted to look at why, in particular, women's professional sports leagues have historically not succeeded.
  • Gender imprinting is a persistent set of cultural values, beliefs and norms about masculinity and femininity that hinder the attempts of entrepreneurs to establish new ventures.
  • Gender imprinting is common to many industries and professions-think fashion, construction, and nursing-but is particularly strong when it comes to professional sports, and professional sports leagues.
  • Washington has identified how gender imprinting has led to three liabilities that negatively affected the new leagues: identity, conformity, and differentiation.
  • Identity: League owners have consistently believed that consumers were "ready" for female leagues when in reality there was and still is a great deal of cultural hostility and skepticism towards women playing professional sports.
  • Conformity: Despite having smaller budgets and less brand recognition, league owners have attempted to copy the business model of male leagues, pouring money into marketing and promotional activities that rarely translated into profits.
  • Differentiation: League owners failed to carve out a niche for their ventures that could have avoided the comparison with the men's leagues, and the distinctiveness of the women's leagues was therefore not fully articulated.
  • Washington has also identified some strategies that may help gender imprinted enterprises succeed in the future: be aware of these liabilities when you are creating the identity of your sports league; work really hard to avoid the comparison to men's professions as it only brings the gender imprint to consciousness; be patient in letting your league get off the ground; compare female athletes to fellow female athletes, not male athletes.

Further Reading

Industry Gender Imprinting and New Venture Creation: The Liabilities of Women's Leagues in the Sports Industry

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