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World Cups and record-breaking viewing figures: Inside the BBC’s summer of women’s sport

As part of Women in Sport Week, Anna Thompson, the BBC’s women’s sport lead, discusses the public service broadcaster’s #changethegame campaign, and explains why the media has a responsibility to keep moving the conversation forward.

13 August 2019 Sam Carp

On 28th June Piers Morgan subjected himself to the wrath of the American Twittersphere. The outspoken British television personality is well-versed in exploiting the volatile social media platform to draw attention to himself, but in this instance it was not for trying to revive the international cricket career of Kevin Pietersen or cozying up to president Donald Trump.

Instead, Morgan had singled out the ‘stupendous ego’ of sharp-shooter Megan Rapinoe ahead of the US women’s national team’s (USWNT) Fifa Women’s World Cup semi-final against England’s Lionesses. The post gave way to a threads-worth of back-and-forth between American and English Twitter users before, during and after the game. The match was eventually decided by Piers’ namesake Alex, who threw shade at her opponents with a tea-drinking goal celebration which would soon go viral and appear on the front page of the New York Post.

Behind the banter, though, was a more pertinent takeaway – that this was not being treated as a women’s soccer game, but as a huge sporting showdown between the USA and England.

Four years ago, it would have been inconceivable that male celebrities would be talking up a Women’s World Cup semi-final, let alone that the match would be trending all over social media timelines. If nothing else, it proved that the viewing public is in the nascent stages of developing an emotional connection to women’s sport, further chipping away at the myth that nobody cares or wants to watch it.

“It’s almost like now you don’t have to apologise to be a follower of women’s sport,” begins Anna Thompson, the BBC’s women’s sport lead. “In the past, people might ask ‘why would you want to watch it when you can watch the men’s World Cup’, but now people think it is great quality so you don’t have to be apologetic.

“I think the media has changed that perception, and they’re not afraid now to call critics out and are prepared to say it. That level is there, there is that quality, whereas rightfully a few years ago they probably did have an argument about it not being as good. Now it’s different to men’s but it’s still as compelling.”

The USA's Alex Morgan celebrates her goal against England in the Women's World Cup semi-final

In case there were any lingering doubts, a day after the USWNT’s 2-1 win it emerged that the game had drawn a combined 7.39 million viewers for US network Fox across its linear and streaming platforms, peaking at nine million. In the UK, the BBC clocked a peak audience of 11.7 million, accounting for 50.8 per cent of the available audience share and displacing Line of Duty as the country’s most watched TV programme of 2019.

For the BBC, though, the Women’s World Cup was just one part of its biggest ever summer of women’s sport across TV, digital and radio, which, among other events, included a commitment to cover the British Open and Solheim Cup golf tournaments, Women’s Ashes cricket and the Netball World Cup, which was also given its own dedicated channel on pay-TV platform Sky Sports.

“For us it was the fact that we knew we could really showcase it this summer because of all the events,” explains Thompson. “For pretty much all of them we’ve either got TV rights or radio and digital rights, so it was this perfect storm.

It’s almost like now you don’t have to apologise to be a follower of women’s sport.

Anna Thompson, women's sport lead, BBC

“We just thought that’s when we can really showcase female athletes, showcase the sports, while we’ve got this massive platform to do it. But at the same time we do feel we are at that tipping point now with women’s sport where all the sports are on this upward trajectory, whether that’s people going to watch them or watching them on TV. We seem to be at that moment, so we wanted to capitalise on that as well.”

In fact, the BBC is not alone. Down Under, Seven Network and Foxtel signed a historic four-year domestic rights deal in December to provide blanket coverage of the inaugural Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition. Meanwhile in the US, CBS Sports has committed to televising 40 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) games per season during primetime, adding to the league’s existing tie-up with ESPN.

This year's Netball World Cup was shown on both the BBC and Sky Sports in the UK

While linear coverage is undoubtedly important for women’s sport to build audience and attract new investment, the rise of social and digital media means that rights holders no longer have to try and muscle their way into cluttered television schedules to get noticed. On top of its partnerships with ESPN and CBS, for instance, the WNBA also shows games on Twitter and its League Pass streaming platform. Elsewhere, Uefa’s new over-the-top (OTT) service has launched with rights to Liga Iberdrola, the top flight of women’s soccer in Spain, as well as coverage of the European game.

“Traditional media like the newspapers struggle and haven’t wanted to cover a lot of women’s sport because it isn’t commercially viable for them, whereas things like social media mean a lot of women’s sports have got better profiles because of that,” says Thompson. “It’s about visibility, and obviously you can grow that on social, but it’s also about being able to watch it for free so people aren’t having to pay for it – that is massive in women’s sport as well.

It’s slightly different storytelling, but we don’t want to be patronising. We’re not just cheerleaders – we will call them up if they’re not playing well.

Anna Thompson, women's sport lead, BBC

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be the BBC showing everything, but I think free-to-air is a massive deal in this if you want to expose it to as big an audience as possible.”

In the immediate term, though, the real challenge for women’s sport is to remain in the media spotlight beyond flagship events through regular coverage. For all of the record-breaking viewing figures generated by the Women’s World Cup, the Uefa Women’s Champions League, Europe’s elite female club competition, does not receive regular TV coverage, even in the UK. 

“I think that media, our rights licensees and broadcasters have a massive part to play in that respect,” Sarai Bareman, Fifa’s chief women’s football officer, told SportsPro in May. “Of course it is the World Cup, it is the best teams in the world, and it is a fantastic moment to get that covered, but it’s what we do afterwards.

A view of the BBC studio at the Women's World Cup

“How do we retain that interest within the media? How do we ensure that those broadcasters are looking to the national leagues and the regional competitions? That is a big part of our strategy: how we get more eyeballs on the game on a regular basis – not just every four years when the World Cup is happening.”

Part of that responsibility, of course, also falls on those covering women’s sport. The media has undoubtedly contributed to generating excitement around major tournaments, but it is widely accepted that outlets must now make year-round commitments that will enable female domestic leagues and competitions to grow.

The Telegraph, one of the UK’s leading broadsheet newspapers, recently introduced a dedicated women’s sport division, promising ‘unprecedented investment and coverage’ among British publishers. For its part, meanwhile, Thompson reveals that the BBC is already exploring ways that it can provide more exposure for England’s top-flight Women’s Super League (WSL)

“For us, we actually said this summer is the easy bit,” says Thompson. “There’s all this amazing sport, we’re falling over ourselves to cover it, but it is what happens after that to make sure it doesn’t go off the radar.

I think that media, our rights licensees and broadcasters have a massive part to play.

Sarai Bareman, chief women's football officer, Fifa

“At the moment we’re having chats about what can we do to the WSL to really boost that coverage. We have digital rights for that, and in the past we might have streamed a game and might put a few goals up [online], but could we do match edits on all the games if we’ve got the rights? So it’s looking at what we’ve got and how we can boost what we’re already doing.

“You’ll see a lot of subtle things like that starting to happen, but we will be having a lot more discussions to decide what our pledges are going to be going forward and what kind of timeline we want to be doing things. 

“Ultimately we want everything to be equal, but we know it’s not as simple as making that statement – we’ve got to put those things in place to get to that stage, but that is definitely an ambition to be making sure we’re covering everything as equally as we can do.”

For women’s sport to genuinely become part of the vernacular, though, the conversation has to move forward once more. The narrative must now shift from simply celebrating female athletes and the empowerment of women to analysing their technical skill and performances, just as pundits and columnists do with men.

“That’s when you’ll really know the success has happened,” declares Steve Martin, global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. “At the moment we’re still talking about it a little bit that it’s part of a movement – there’s a lot of tiptoeing around.

“When it will be fully accepted and genuinely part of the norm is when they can be knocked and their performances can be really criticised within the media. That, again, will be a major tipping point.”

And as some of the misconceptions around women's sport continue to disappear, it feels as though that is already starting to happen.

“It’s slightly different storytelling, but we don’t want to be patronising,” Thompson adds. “We’re not just cheerleaders – we will call them up if they’re not playing well. It’s about treating them equally but also making sure we get it right with our audience in terms of what they want to read and watch.”

Getty Images

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