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OPINION: ESPN study reveals what we already know


An ESPN analysis conducted in February 2023 unsurprisingly revealed a discrepancy in how Power 5 athletic departments use social media to promote men’s and women’s college sports teams. Even though most schools have more women’s teams than men’s, athletic departments promoted the men more often on X (formerly Twitter). That’s hardly news to anyone who follows women’s sports.

But there was a bright spot in the report for softball fans. Reflecting the explosive growth of the sport over the past decade, softball was the most followed women’s team at 36 of the 55 Power 5 schools covered in the analysis. Women’s basketball was a distant second at 14, while women’s volleyball was third at 10. With softball making its return to the Olympics in LA 2028, the sport is well-positioned to become even more popular.

The validation of softball’s popularity aside, the core finding of the study deserves more than a “so what else is new” response. Because an athlete’s social media follower count and engagements are factors in getting good-paying endorsement agreements in the name, image, and likeness (NIL) marketplace, disparities in social media promotion and marketing by athletic departments can impact an athlete’s earning potential. The ESPN study found that virtually all Power 5 athletic departments’ main accounts have more followers than any single women’s team account; the lone exception is UCLA’s highly-decorated softball program. Greater promotion by athletic departments can help women reach a larger social media audience than is possible from their team account alone.  

Some legal experts expect a collision between Title IX and NIL, raising questions about universities’ responsibility in facilitating NIL deals and promoting gender equity in sports publicity. But the NIL-Title IX dilemma is just one of several forces poised to drive transformational change in college sports. Conference realignments are upending decades of tradition, and softball will see those impacts in a big way in 2025. Broader challenges that could transform the legal status of college athletes are also making their way through the courts, with the potential to render the current arrangement obsolete. Steven Godfrey of the Washington Post recently characterized the current environment as “the dying days of college sports’ “student-athlete” infrastructure”.

The prospect of massive change to this sport we love is unsettling. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that change is inevitable. We don’t know how it will unfold, nor how disruptive it will be to athletes and fans. Over the coming months, we’ll take a look at the potential changes on the horizon and how they might shape the new world ahead.