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Major events, commercial attention and growing audiences: What does 2022 hold for women’s sport?

SportsPro looks ahead to a bumper 12 months for women’s sport and outlines why this year could be another significant milestone in its ongoing upward trajectory.

28 January 2022 Ed Dixon

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Nearly two years ago, when the world remained in the height of lockdown, BBC Sport director Barbara Slater had already identified a light at the end of the tunnel.

Speaking during the Westminster Media Forum’s virtual policy conference on women and the sport sector in April 2020, Slater acknowledged Covid-19 could well have a “knock-on effect” for women’s sport. But she was also quick to note that “an absolutely bumper year” of events in 2022 would present an unmissable chance to get things back on track.

And here we are today. Slater’s forecast for a pivotal 12 months has not only come to pass, but the delay of more major events has created a calendar further brimming with intrigue and opportunity.

There is also a feeling of relief. In May 2020, MediaCom Sport & Entertainment’s Misha Sher warned that “a generation of female athletes” could be lost as women’s competitions were hit hard by mass cancellations, with most rights holders seemingly intent on preserving the commercial revenues of their men’s properties. Seeing that the appetite for women’s sport has not only persisted but seemingly increased has belied fears that recent momentum – manifesting in record crowds, bumper broadcast deals and lucrative sponsorships – could be irretrievably lost.

British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith is set to race at the World Athletics Championship and Commonwealth Games

Numerous studies in 2021 also offered further reason for optimism. A report commissioned by the Women’s Sport Trust found that UK broadcast audiences for women’s sport were set to increase to 51.1 million viewers by the end of last year, up from 46.8 million in 2019. A survey from agency giant Wasserman also revealed that 88 per cent of people would watch more women’s soccer if there were greater opportunities to do so.

Commercially, too, the signs are promising. In the UK alone, women’s sport could amass UK£1 billion (US$1.4 billion) a year in revenue by 2030, according to the Women’s Sport Trust and the Two Circles agency, up from the UK£350 million (US$477 million) it was generating when the study was released last April.

So, despite the pandemic-sized curveball thrown its way, the groundwork looks to have been laid for women’s sport to make the most of 2022. The last two years may have required some course correction, and more could still be forthcoming, but now feels like an opportune moment for another mighty leap forward.

What’s on?

A lot and often at the same time.

The World Athletics Championship from 15th to 24th July and the Commonwealth Games from 28th July to 8th August mean track and field athletes will be competing at two standout events in 2022. Notably, the latter is set to award more medals to female athletes than male competitors and will include women’s cricket for the first time. There are also the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games which, amid much controversy, are being staged from 4th to 20th February and 4th to 13th March, respectively.

But it is the vast number of female-specific events that, despite multiple postponements, are drawing their fair share of attention. Cricket is in for a busy first quarter with the Women’s Ashes between Australia and England, which began on 20th January, preceding the Women’s Cricket World Cup in New Zealand from 4th March to 3rd April.

The highlight of the summer will be the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 in England from 6th to 31st July, and the soccer tournament’s final week will be running in tandem with cycling’s inaugural Tour de France Femmes, which gets underway on 24th July.

Autumn brings with it the women’s edition of the Rugby World Cup and the Women’s Rugby League World Cup. The tournaments are being held from 8th October to 12th November in New Zealand and from 15th October to 19th November in England, respectively.

New Zealand’s Black Ferns will be hoping to make the most of home advantage at the Rugby World Cup

What are the expectations?

Generally speaking, there is of course the legacy element of ensuring that these events are used as an opportunity to inspire greater participation among women of all ages. That aside, each event has its own unique set of hopes and ambitions.

Buoyed by increasing interest in the domestic top-flight Women’s Super League (WSL), Sport England has pumped an additional UK£1 million (US$1.4 million) of National Lottery funding into the country’s hosting of Women’s Euro 2022. With England’s Lionesses among the favourites, the ingredients are there to leave a lasting impact.

Initially scheduled for the summer of 2021, the tournament was pushed back a year as a consequence of the men’s Euro 2020 being delayed by 12 months. Uefa’s decision to ensure its flagship women’s competition was the only major soccer tournament this summer appears to have been vindicated. Last August, European soccer’s governing body confirmed that over 140,000 tickets had already been sold, including 53,000 for the final.

New Zealand, meanwhile, finds itself as an epicentre for women’s sport this year after landing hosting duties for the Women’s Cricket World Cup and Rugby World Cup. The two events have also been shunted back from 2021 but both will offer their organisers further insight into where their respective women’s programmes stand. The International Cricket Council (ICC) will be mindful of building on the digital and television records set two years ago during the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup, while World Rugby has dropped gender titles from its flagship event in an effort to achieve neutrality in the game.

The ongoing Covid restrictions in New Zealand, though, are a lingering headache for cricket and rugby union’s world governing bodies, so tempering expectations may, reluctantly, be required.

The Tour de France Femmes has signed partnerships with Zwift and Discovery

One event that hasn’t had to shift its dates is the Tour de France Femmes. The race will have an eight-stage route and the peloton will start on the Champs-Élysées in Paris prior to the conclusion of the men’s event. Prize money for the Tour de France Femmes is lower than the men’s equivalent and will run for a shorter period of time, but the Amaury Sporting Organisation (ASO), which will organise the race, is committing considerable resources to make the event a success. Given the iconic status of the men’s race, there are hopes that the women’s edition will similarly provide a global platform to showcase the best female riders.

Exposure is also a watchword for organisers. The high-profile nature of this year’s events could allow their respective stakeholders to build fanbases and establish viewing habits that endure way beyond the tournaments taking place in 2022.

“I think we’ve got this great product. It’s now just getting it out there and getting a regular audience to see it,” said Sue Anstiss, author of ‘Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport’, speaking on the SportsPro Podcast in November.

Which brands and broadcasters are already on board?

Despite the recent progress, low levels of sponsorship interest and media exposure, coupled with decades of underfunding, have historically stunted the commercial growth of women’s sport. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning as brands start to recognise the benefits of backing female competitions.

Generally speaking, women’s sport is considered more inclusive, community-driven and family friendly, and findings from The Space Between agency in October showed that women’s sport fans are 25 per cent more likely to purchase sponsor products than followers of men’s sport. The study also stated that brand recall among women’s sport fans is twice as likely. Purpose in activations, as well as championing positive change, were cited as key ingredients for success.

The Women’s Cricket World will be aiming to build on the the digital and television records set at the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup

Several brands appear to have been alert to the opportunity, but some sponsorship portfolios for this year’s events are looking fuller than others.

Lego is among the big name brands confirmed as a national sponsor for Women’s Euro 2022, with the Danish toy giant looking to push its ‘Ready for Girls’ campaign, which was set up to challenge dated gender norms. Other companies backing the event currently include Pandora, Starling Bank and Heineken. Uefa has also agreed to double the tournament’s total prize money to €16 million (US$18.1 million), part of the organisation’s ‘TimeForAction’ initiative that aims to generate more revenue across women’s soccer.

The women’s Rugby World Cup will arrive nearly 18 months after World Rugby announced Mastercard as the first dedicated sponsor of the women’s game. The payments technology specialist will also serve as the founding partner of the global governing body’s women in rugby commercial programme, established to raise the profile of the women’s calendar and competitions. While Mastercard is currently the only worldwide sponsor of the tournament later this year, Tudor and Gilbert are also listed as official suppliers.

The Tour de France Femmes has also been able to attract an array of backers ahead of its launch. Connected fitness platform Zwift is on board as title sponsor, while Discovery has committed to serving up the same level of coverage across its various platforms in Europe as it would for the men’s race.

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