As women’s sports have become more popular, television and streaming companies have started paying attention.

The National Women’s Soccer League’s upcoming broadcast-rights deal is worth $240 million over four years, 40 times the amount of its current deal. The Women’s National Basketball Association’s broadcast-rights package will be worth about $60 million next season, following its most successful year in history.

A rise of interest in women’s sports led to lucrative TV deals despite the uncertain and unfavorable times in the television and streaming business. The deals show the growth in women’s sports and its growing attractiveness as sports rights at large become an ever-growing contest between streaming and television companies. For traditional television, sports are a way to hang on to fleeing customers; for beleaguered streaming companies that are mostly unprofitable and trying to catch up with Netflix, it is a potential pathway to profitability — and women’s sports are an affordable way to achieve that goal.

“Our consumer survey research shows that over a quarter of US sports fans are interested in women’s sports with the WNBA, and the US Women’s International Soccer team is by far the most popular,” said Mindal Modha, Consumer Research Lead at Ampere Analysis. “While popularity in women’s sports is still growing, they offer a slightly cheaper means of acquiring live sport for platforms.”

For now, Fox and ESPN, which Disney owns, have a grip over most sports rights. But cracks could easily appear as deals expire and sports rights grow costlier. ESPN, for example, has grown its streaming platform — ESPN+. It now includes many college football games, which often have one of the top television ad impressions yearly, as does the NFL and NBA. But Disney’s attempt to turn its other streaming service, Disney+, into a profitable business will likely create fissures in its ability to maintain all of its sports rights access.

For television companies, however, who are desperately trying to hold on to subscribers instead of growing them, live sports can keep people from cutting the cord — and despite the high cost, losing out to streaming services could accelerate the fall of cable television.

The momentum in women’s sports offers a more affordable option for television and streaming companies to fight over. The WNSL and WNBA won’t generate as much dollars as the NBA or the NFL, but the lower cost and smaller but loyal and growing fan bases make them a treasure to try and claim.

The recent deals in the WNSL and WNBA are evident of that trend.

The new NSWL deal covers 62% of its games, spanning CBS Sports, ESPN, Amazon’s Prime Video, and Scripps Sports, which owns the Ion TV network. The current rights deal for the WNBA, which runs through 2025, also appears on ESPN and Scripps sports, with 20 regular season games and the 2023 Commissioners Cup tournament appearing on Amazon Prime Video.

“Sports programming will go where the sports audience is,” said Dennis Deninger, who teaches sports media courses at Syracuse University and is the author of Live Sports Media, The What, How and Why of Sports Broadcasting. “A strong mix of distribution channels across broadcast, cable, and streaming is becoming the new standard for all leagues and conferences. The mix is the thing. A rights deal that doesn’t include a broadcast or a cable piece will not deliver the size of the audience that leagues need to survive.”

With the variety of viewing options included in both leagues’ deals, the significance of the rights distribution is no accident. Women’s sports are riding a wave of momentum, a fire that started during the pandemic that shows no signs of being put out.

WNBA viewership rose 21 percent over the 2022 regular season. Viewership on ABC, ESPN, and CBS was up eight percent over the past season, averaging over 500,000 viewers. WNBA attendance was also up. Attendance rose 16 percent for the 2023 season compared to the previous season, with an average attendance of 6,600 fans per game — the highest since 2018. The WNBA had its highest total attendance in 13 years and is expected to expand to 14 teams in 2025, adding teams in the Bay Area and Portland.

For the NWSL, its newest teams, the San Diego Wave and Los Angeles’s Angel City FC, led the league in attendance this season, with the Wave setting a league record of over 20,000 fans per game.

Overall, the league’s attendance climbed 36% this year despite several star players leaving in the summer to play for the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup in Australia/New Zealand. The NWSL league, which had fallen to nine teams in 2018, will also be expanded to 14 teams, adding teams in the Bay Area and Utah.

“The US Women’s National soccer team has been winning major championships for decades, which has helped to strengthen their brand as the gold standard in American soccer,” Deninger said. “The WNBA has now been in place for a generation, so sports fans have grown up with the league. These two brands now represent a permanence and a premium that signal growing strength and marketability in future years.”

Miguel Ortega, a 26-year-old senior business strategist at a media agency in New York, started watching the NBA in the fifth grade. He’s been a Knicks fan ever since, with a special appreciation for the Mamba mentality, having idolized the late Kobe Bryant growing up.

Bryant, a supporter of the WNBA, often seen alongside his daughter Gigi Bryant, who passed away with him in a January 2020 helicopter crash, helped inspire Ortega to give the WNBA a chance. Ortega began watching the WNBA in 2021, during the breakout sophomore season of New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, who had a close relationship with Kobe Bryant.

“Part of my love for sports is the identity and personalities of the athletes,” Ortega said. ‘With Ionescu, it started feeling like she had the Mamba Mentality, which hooked me in from the start.”

Ortega is now a fervent Liberty supporter. He attends about two games a year. This season, he traveled to Barclays Center to catch game three of the 2023 WNBA finals, the one game won by the Liberty in their three-games-to-one series defeat against the champion Las Vegas Aces. Ortega also regularly watches the NWSL. He supports Gotham FC and says he found himself more interested in watching the league after seeing parts of the 2023 Women’s Soccer World Cup, despite the United States and his home country of Colombia falling short.

“Me and all my friends are watching women’s sports, and its been a great addition to our heavy sports diet,” he said. “In the stands, or at home, it’s just different from the male competition, but that’s what makes it great.”

While the two deals show the growth in women’s sports, the NBA’s television rights expire at the end of next season, which already looks like the next battle between broadcasters and streaming companies. But once that dust settles, the next fight will likely be refocused on women’s sports.

“Once all the deals for the NBA are concluded, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next battleground is around women’s sports,” Modha said.