Haley Rosen set out to change the sports media landscape when she launched Just Women’s Sports. She speaks to Boardroom about the billion-dollar potential of women’s sports and what lies ahead for the digital media platform.
This week alone, Serena Williams drew record crowds to Flushing Meadows to witness what could be the final curtain call for the GOAT. Meanwhile, the WNBA playoffs have outpaced viewership numbers, even while commanding suboptimal timeslots.
Despite obvious fan demand, women’s sports continue to receive a minuscule fraction of the coverage that the men’s games command. But Haley Rosen and her team at Just Women’s Sports are out to disrupt the world of sports media.
In just a few short years, the digital media platform has attracted some of the biggest names. They have a bustling podcast lineup that includes a reigning NCAA national champion (South Carolina’s head women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley) and a trio of USWNT stars (Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Kelley O’Hara). Simultaneously, JWS has established an industry-changing women’s sports scoreboard and brokered a new partnership with the NWSL.
Last year, Rosen joined Rich Kleiman’s Out of Office podcast, where she recounted the steps to starting up the cross-platform media company, but, as she tells it, the game has changed in a relatively short time.
As she set out on a recent fundraising round, Rosen’s value proposition was the exact same as it was the first day she launched her Instagram page but with one major difference: people finally understand the potential of what she has set out to accomplish. “There’s been so much change in a short time, and that’s really exciting,” Rosen told Boardroom.
We recently caught up with Rosen to discuss her journey in creating a place for women by women, the people and events that motivate her most, and what she sees next in the big business of women’s sports.
This interview has been edited for length & clarity.
Bernadette Doykos: Talk to me about the process of getting Just Women’s Sports up and running. How are you feeling about where things are right now?
Haley Rosen: Women’s sports is a really exciting place to be. There’s just so much momentum and excitement. And I think when we were starting Just Women’s Sports, literally explaining to investors or brands that we were building a women’s sports media company, people looked at us like we had four heads. There was a lot of doubt and skepticism. In some ways, rightly so. There’s been a long history of women’s sports media not working, but the time is now. We have the audience. We have the momentum. We’re seeing the dollars go in the space. We’re seeing people show up. I still just feel like we’re just scratching the surface of what this space will be.
BD: Reflecting on the experience so far, what has your own journey with Just Women’s Sports been like?
HR: It’s funny because [covering exclusively women’s sports] is a unique position, but when we started, I didn’t think it was. As a former athlete, I played sports, and I played women’s sports. And so I wanted to know about that world. Four percent of sports coverage is dedicated exclusively to women’s sports. And so I’ve always thought it’s really, really important to cover women’s sports. That doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about sneaker culture or the dope people involved in this space and everything else that’s happening around it, but it does mean that we’re sports first. I think that is so critically important because I think it treats the space with the respect it deserves.
BD: Since you launched the platform, is an outstanding highlight that sticks out from the rest?
HR: Honestly, getting the investment from Rich and KD. [Laughs] When they said they wanted in, I was in the basement of my now-husband’s parents’ house, and I ran up three flights of stairs and was like, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Rich and KD are such sports people, and they have such a love for the game. I think that JWS and our mission just really resonated [with them]. We really got each other. … It was really, really cool to meet people that just immediately got it. There was a vibe. There was an energy. There’s an excitement.
Honestly, there’ve been so many moments. Our partnership with NWSL. Getting to work with athletes like Billie Jean King and Abby [Wambach]. The first time we got Kelley [O’Hara]. Kelley was the first big-time athlete to want to sign up to work with us.
There have been a lot of wins and there’s also been a lot of learnings. There have been more and more people that are getting it and getting excited about women’s sports and the opportunity of women’s sports. And that’s just incredibly motivating.
BD: You mentioned that you feel like you’ve had a lot of learnings over the course of the past year. Which sticks out to you the most?
HR: We’ve gone from three people running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We were doing everything we can to make this company go based on total heart and total hustle. … Now, we’re a real business. We have a real team and we have investors. … We’ve had a lot of learnings around the type of company we want to be.
One major lesson I learned pretty early is that our audience is a different demographic than legacy sports media draws. The people that want women’s sports, they’re sort of scattered right now. … It doesn’t mean that traditional sports fans aren’t going to switch over, but it does mean we have this whole new generation of sports fans that’s super into women’s sports. And that’s a hugely exciting opportunity.
Our objective is to bring women’s sports to the masses. And I think there’s a really exciting audience there today, but women’s sports are still fundamentally niche. … That’s what keeps us up at night, and that’s what we’re fighting for. How do we break through? We want these women to get paid, and we want this to be a big business. I think it starts with eyeballs and people knowing what this is and who these women are.
BD: Recently, you closed a significant funding round. What was that experience like for you?
HR: I’ve learned a lot through going through this process. Initially, we got a $400,000 single check, and I thought that’s how fundraising went, you know? I learned pretty quickly, that’s not how it goes.
You get a lot of nos and get a lot of people that don’t get it or see it or want to be a part of it. And then, you find people that are super down with it, and that’s super motivating.
For Just Women’s Sports, the landscape was so different six months ago. So much of my initial pitch was around the growth and the opportunity and the engagement. So much of the initial conversation was just fighting to be like, This is happening. Put your feelings aside and look at the numbers. This is a space that’s really growing.
But that’s shifted. Now people are like, “I want to get in on women’s sports. What are you doing? What’s your advantage?” And that’s pretty exciting to me because then we’re actually talking about the business, and we can get into it.
BD: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX. How do you see Just Women’s Sports as building on the legacy of that monumental legislation?
HR: We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I think so much of the opportunity today is because of Title IX and that new generation of a sports fan. For the first time ever, we have this generation of girls and women who grew up playing sports at an amateur to elite level and men that were around girls and women that were playing sports.
For me, when Billie Jean King, Abby Wambach, and Allyson Felix came on as investors, that was such a moment. Like, Holy shit. We gotta do this. These are the ones that got it started. Billie Jean King, especially. She started all of this, and for her to be like, “I believe in you, and let’s take this to the next level,” we better do this.
BD: Perhaps related to the last question, are there any individuals — entrepreneurs or media folks or athletes — who you see as primary motivators to you or role models of sorts?
HR: I am incredibly motivated by the athletes in the space because I think they’re amazing. Hard stop. I’ve played against a lot of them. I know a lot of them personally, and I think they’re like amazing, incredible athletes. They deserve media attention and money. They deserve it because they’re fucking great.
I watch the games. I see the competition, and I see what these athletes are doing. That is the motivation. These women deserve more, and I feel like I put my whole heart and soul and lack of sleep and all that into making it more.
When I was a kid, I really looked up to Mia Hamm. And people would say, well there’s no professional league. Now, I want people to look up to Trinity Rodman or Sophia Smith or Candace Parker and be like, Oh yeah, I can do that. That can be like my life and my career. That’s the world we want to build.
BD: Zooming out a little bit, what are your hopes for what’s next for women’s sports more generally?
HR: There’s research that says, in the next decade, women’s sports is projected to be a $200 billion industry. My bet is that women’s sports can be just as big, if not bigger, than men’s sports. When I was saying this two years ago, people thought it was crazy, but look at where it’s going. And the progress we’ve seen is with minimal investment, minimal media exposure, and no sort of infrastructure around it.
It is just getting started, and we are breaking records. It’s like, where could this go?