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‘We may lose a generation of female athletes’: Will women’s sport recover momentum after Covid-19?

Women’s sport had positioned itself to capitalise on a bumper 2019 before for the coronavirus pandemic struck at the most inopportune moment. Now, there are concerns that female leagues and competitions will be hit hardest by the health crisis, raising questions about where they go from here.

15 May 2020 Sam Carp

It was perhaps serendipitous – for the purposes of this article, at least – that the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Women’s T20 World Cup was one of the last major sporting events able to reach its conclusion before the coronavirus froze the industry.

The record-breaking crowd of 86,174 fans that funnelled into Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the final was simultaneously a reminder of the massive potential of women’s sport and the momentum that may now be lost as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

On the back of a blockbuster 2019, this was supposed to be the year when some of that progress was converted into profit; when more – and more valuable – media rights deals should have been signed and further sponsorship dollars cashed in. Above all else, it was an opportunity to prove that the events of last summer were not simply a drop in the ocean, but rather the start of something greater for women’s sport, a gaping pocket of the industry that for too long has been little more than an afterthought.

Now, though, there is a very real risk that some of the hard work from the past 18 months and before is about to be undone by the financial aftereffects of the health crisis.

Golf’s Ladies European Tour (LET) was just one of many women’s sports properties hoping to turn a corner in 2020. This would have been the first year of a new joint venture with the US-based Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and was due to see the European circuit stage 24 events, with a record-breaking prize fund of €18 million (US$19.3 million) on offer to a group of players previously starved of such opportunity.

If there is uncertainty about the stability of women’s sport, you have to wonder how many of the players will choose to pursue other careers.

However, the LET schedule has been on hold since the Investec South African Women’s Open in mid-March, and the tour is left wondering how many more events it will be able to fit in this year. Speaking to SportsPro at the beginning of May, LET chief executive Alexandra Armas said that the pause had been “hugely disappointing” and “heart-breaking” for the players, but hinted that the situation could have been even more severe for the organisation.

“This very challenging time, I think the LET would have struggled to get through it if we didn’t have the LPGA as a partner,” she said. “Thanks to that timely joint venture with the LPGA, we will see this year through, and we will have a schedule next year, and we will continue to grow.”

And therein lies the concern. Historically underfunded compared to their male counterparts, there is reason to believe that some women’s sports may not withstand the financial impact of the coronavirus without the same resources and infrastructure to fall back on.

The LET might have been fortunate with the timing of its LPGA partnership, but there are growing fears that others will not be so lucky.

March's ICC Women's T20 World Cup final was played in front of 86,174 fans

‘Women’s teams were already losing money’

There was perhaps no better showcase for women’s sport than last year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup, which was played out in front of busy stadiums and broadcast worldwide to all-time high television audiences. Progress on the global stage, however, is yet to trickle all the way down to domestic competitions, which are likely to be hit hardest by the pandemic. What’s more is that women’s sport is growing at inconsistent rates in different parts of the world, meaning it remains severely underdeveloped in most countries.

Fifpro, the international representative body for professional soccer players, claimed in mid-April that women’s soccer faces an ‘existential threat’ as a result of Covid-19. That potential cliff edge is not, of course, only a danger to women’s sport, with the English Football League (EFL) also warning that lower-league men’s clubs could be staring into a “cash hole” of UK£200 million (US$242 million) come September.

But with no shortage of clubs in England’s Women’s Super League (WSL), for example, at the mercy of their men’s sides for funding, it highlights the precarious position in which many women’s sports and teams are likely to find themselves once the health crisis subsides.

“If you look at the accounts of the WSL teams, the clubs are still losing money,” notes Kieran Maguire, a university lecturer on soccer finance and co-host of the Price of Football podcast. “They’re not huge amounts, but when we come out of the pandemic, I think some chief executives, some club owners, will be looking to repair the finances as best they can. There is potential to cut things where they feel that there is perhaps not a medium or long-term future, and women’s football could come under that umbrella.”

Already there are signs that women’s sports events are being cast aside as organisers move to recuperate as much revenue as possible from more lucrative men’s competitions. The Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) season was cancelled in the midst of its finals series, yet talks are ongoing for the men’s campaign to resume later this year. Meanwhile, it felt almost inevitable that the 2021 Uefa Women’s European Championship would give up its place on the calendar for this year’s postponed men’s Euro 2020. Indeed, it might not be until 2022 that women’s sport truly gets the stage to itself once again.

There is potential to cut things where they feel that there is perhaps not a medium or long-term future, and women’s football could come under that umbrella.

In the meantime it can be expected that women’s sports will become increasingly reliant upon the reserves of their governing bodies the longer the virus prevails. When contacted by SportsPro, global soccer body Fifa referred to a recent statement in which the organisation said its US$1 billion investment in the women’s game ‘will not be impacted’ by the Covid-19 crisis, noting that the funding will be applied across a range of areas.

Others, though, will have to follow suit. Speaking during a recent Westminster Media Forum virtual conference, Dame Heather Rabbatts, chair of strategic communications firm Vero, urged rights owners, commercial partners and broadcasters to “restate their confidence” in women’s sport to ensure that the downturn some are predicting does not become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. 

The consequences if women’s sport does not receive that support could be stark.

“If there is uncertainty about the stability of women’s sport, you have to wonder how many of the players, for example, will choose to pursue other careers,” states Misha Sher, global vice president at MediaCom Sport & Entertainment. “If you get into a situation now where there is insecurity around the game and players don’t know from day to day what’s going to happen in 12 months’ time, we may lose a generation of female athletes who just end up pursuing other careers because they have to, because there is no security in the sport.”

Losing sponsors ‘could be catastrophic’

Women’s sport has been walking something of a financial tight rope for years, but recent investments from major brands have at least helped to strengthen the ground on which it treads. In 2019, financial services company Barclays’ reported UK£10 million (US$12.1 million) commitment to title sponsor the WSL headlined a steady stream of deals that were signed across many sports. 

But what if some of those companies scale back – or worse still, withdraw – their investments in the aftermath of Covid-19?

“Look, I think that could be quite catastrophic, to be honest,” admits Sher. “The women’s game doesn’t have the same type of revenue streams that the men’s game has. The men’s game drives so much revenue from television, commercial and matchday, but you don’t really have that in the women’s game, you can’t really compare. So if someone like Barclays were to all of a sudden walk away from the game, that would be pretty catastrophic.”

Even before the coronavirus had ground sport to a halt, some commercial conversations were slowing down. W Series, the all-female motorsport championship, had secured Rokit Phones (right) as its first major partner at the end of last year and had reason to be positive about bringing in more sponsors during its second season.

But speaking to the Black Book in early March, chief executive Catherine Bond Muir revealed that while talks “were going really well” prior to the pandemic, some of those negotiations were likely to be put on hold.

“I think there’s going to be a big economic correction,” she said. “There’s obviously currently a massive market correction going on, so one of the issues that we’ve got is all of these fantastic conversations we’re having with these big, beautiful and wonderful brands, I don’t know how those are going to go in the next few months.”

And it isn’t just sponsorship deals that women’s sports properties might miss out on. Many female leagues at present are either without a media rights partner or give away their content for free, and some domestic competitions would have been counting on the recent spike in interest to offer added leverage during broadcast negotiations.

English soccer body the Football Association (FA) had appointed the Women’s Sports Group in March to help it monetise the domestic rights to the WSL for the first time. But now, with media companies likely to refrain from overspending on rights, there is a chance that broadcasters could hedge their bets on the sports that have traditionally generated bigger audiences.

“One of the biggest hits is going to be some of the broadcast deals that were around,” says Steve Martin, global chief executive of the M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment agency. “One of the biggest drivers for support of women’s sport in the last 18 months has been getting the big broadcast companies behind it, and I hope that continues, because a lot of the other sports are struggling. I think the broadcasters are going to be cutting their cloth accordingly again.”

W Series was hoping to add more sponsors during its second season after announcing Rokit Phones as its first major partner

‘It’s right today, and it will be right tomorrow’

Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, Wasserman’s managing director for EMEA, says the current pause does not detract from the momentum women’s sport had created for itself, but admits “it might” impact a company’s “financial and budgetary decisions” in relation to its involvement with female leagues and competitions. 

“I hope not, but it might,” she adds. “There are bigger and broader discussions that are happening, and I think as we re-evaluate and look at what the future of sports [holds], women’s sports have historically been more embedded and more accessible to the community.”

With marketing budgets set to be slashed, it would be tempting to suggest that sponsors might refocus their attentions back towards men’s sports. However Sher, who helped broker Boots’ three-year deal to partner with the UK and Ireland women’s national soccer teams, has faith that brands will look to make cuts elsewhere before scaling back their investments in women’s sports.

“In the grand scheme of things we’re not talking about significant investments that sponsors have been making in the women’s game,” he notes. “They are sizeable, but they’re not the types of investments that I see them pulling back on.

“When we look at women’s sport, I don’t think it’s ever really been about budget, because it’s very affordable, even at the elite level. Spending a couple hundred thousand, for example, which is reasonable and is pretty common for a lot of sponsorships in the women’s game, is not a major investment, but there’s a shift in thinking and how these companies market themselves.”

I still think it’s a very smart investment to get behind, because the audience hasn’t gone away, it’s just been a bit dormant.

One company that does not plan on changing tact is payments giant Visa, which at the end of 2018 signed a seven-year deal to become the first ever sponsor of Uefa’s women’s soccer competitions. The company, which also backs the US women’s national team (USWNT) and female athletes including Megan Rapinoe and Simone Biles, has already committed to supporting its roster of Olympians for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, and it appears that security will be extended to women’s sport at large.

“We’re all hoping that we’re able to hit a collective pause button and, once we get through this Covid-19 window, we can take the pause button off and the same enthusiasm, the same institutional support that we saw tracking towards either female entrepreneurs or female athletes, or both, resumes at the same pace and level and interest, if not grows,” Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer at Visa, told SportsPro in April.

“That’s our hope. It might be a tall task to hope as ambitiously as that, but that would be our hope, because it was right yesterday, it’s right today, and I think it will be right tomorrow.”

In any case, brands thinking about shying away will have to weigh up whether it might even be more costly from a PR perspective to pull their investment from women’s sport. Others could spy an opportunity to associate themselves with the recovery narrative, and there are certainly those that believe female competitions will represent a more viable financial opportunity for sponsors in the wake of the pandemic.

“The cost of entry to support women’s sport is much less at the moment,” says Martin, “so if my budget has been slashed 50 per cent, I’m going to spend that wisely. I maybe can’t put all of that 50 per cent into men’s sport, so I’ll be looking at the deals I have in place and looking at the opportunity in women’s sport because I think it can be very cost-effective and then you can grow with those sports.

“I still think it’s a very smart investment to get behind, because the audience hasn’t gone away, it’s just been a bit dormant. If you can reignite the passion around that audience again, reignite the interest and keep it consistent…then you can still elevate it and still activate it very strongly.”

Payments giant Visa says it will continue to support women's sport after the coronavirus pandemic

‘There shouldn’t be a slowdown in the interest and growth’

The impact of the coronavirus on the wider industry is likely to be felt for many years, but there is no doubting that the pandemic arrived at a particularly inopportune moment for women’s sport. Having said that, the fact that preserving female leagues and teams is being talked about as a significant part of the rebuilding process is perhaps testament to the awareness that has been generated and the progress made.

“It’s about all sport. It’s almost like a reset, a massive reset button,” begins Martin. “Women’s sport in particular is going to have to draw a line in the sand and look to why it had that momentum in the first place, what were the key drivers for that, and almost start again.

“I’m not saying it’s back to ground zero, it’s not. I think there’s a huge appetite for it, but they’re going to have to look at how it’s repackaged.”

Women’s sport in particular is going to have to draw a line in the sand and look to why it had that momentum in the first place, what were the key drivers for that, and almost start again.

Those within certainly seem convinced that the long-term outlook is not as bleak as some have made out. There is an acknowledgement that women’s sport will still require the support of the entire industry – from rights owners, to broadcasters, to sponsors – if it is to recover its momentum, but that message hasn’t changed significantly from this time a year ago.

Perhaps the difference now is that the need to act on those impulses has become more urgent.

“Women’s sport has, by necessity, had to be a lot more creative, a lot more flexible,” says Armas. “I think at this time when we all have to adjust on how sporting events may look, and how we can introduce new opportunities, and how we can change peoples’ expectations and still bring great competition and entertainment to our audiences, women’s sports is very well-placed to do that and adjust very, very quickly.

“One thing that has come out of this, the sports industry has come together to find a way forward, and that is definitely driving a lot of strength within the opportunities and where we go in the future.

“It won’t look the same, but I think it will be as good if not better.”

SportsPro's next Insider Series event covers all things women's sport and takes place on 24th and 25th June, featuring the president of Commonwealth Games England Denise Lewis OBE; WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon; NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird; and Johanna Faries, commissioner of the Call of Duty League. To find out more or to register, click here.  

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