When the pandemic hit back in 2020, women’s sport was disproportionally affected. A lot of emphasis in Europe was placed on getting top-tier men’s competitions, particularly in soccer, up and running, whereas women’s seasons were simply called off.
Such a stark contrast in response from the industry highlighted the disparity at that point between the men’s and women’s game and showed again how big an influence broadcast rights – and the need to ensure these did not have to be paid back – have in sport.
However, since the pandemic, there has been a wind of change. In 2021, DAZN and YouTube signed a ground-breaking global deal with Uefa for the Women’s Champions League, with coverage of the final then sub-licensed to free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters across Europe. Fifa announced that it would be unbundling the Women’s Fifa World Cup rights for the first time and Sky Sports and the BBC’s deal with the Women’s Super League (WSL) in the UK meant the competition was bringing in broadcast revenue for the first time since its inception. And those are just positive examples from the world of soccer.
Ampere’s Sport Consumer data shows that 25 per cent of sports fans in selected markets now engage with women’s sport. Interest is highest in the UK, where over a third of sports fans follow it, and lowest in Germany, though even here a fifth of sports fans are engaged. This is still significantly lower than interest in men’s competitions, but it does provide a solid foundation from which to grow the fanbase.
At this stage, monetising that interest directly remains a challenge. While the popularity of women’s sport is growing among sports fans, willingness to pay to watch the competitions remains relatively low across all markets. Again, the UK and Australia are leading the way, with one in ten willing to pay, but this figure is as low as three per cent in Germany.
This shows that while women’s sports competitions are in their infancy, FTA exposure will be crucial to their growth. That exposure helps to explain the higher interest levels in the UK and Australia. In the UK, as well as the WSL, public service broadcaster the BBC has the Women’s Six Nations, the Challenge Cup final and FA Cup, while commercial network ITV showed the final of the Women’s Champions League.
In Australia, several women’s competitions follow a mixed distribution model across both FTA and pay-TV or subscriptiption streaming services. Coverage of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) cricket competition, the most popular league among Australian women’s sport fans, is split across commercial channel Seven, pay-TV network Foxtel and streaming service Kayo, with Seven showing 24 matches across the season.
Making competitions accessible will ensure that fanbases grow and create the opportunity for greater monetisation through broadcast rights in the future. This strategy is already having an impact in the UK, which we can see not only from the interest levels, but also in viewing data. A recent report from the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) showed that 17.9 million people watched women’s sport coverage in the first quarter of 2022 – up 67 per cent from the same period in 2021.
Looking at the sports driving engagement in each market, women’s soccer’s dominance is evident – it is the most popular in all markets bar Australia, where cricket leads. Even in the US, where overall soccer fandom is lower than for local sports, the success of the national team has pushed it into first place.
There has been a myth in the sports industry for years that women’s sport is only watched by women, but if we delve into soccer fandom in the UK in more detail, we can begin to see the distinct opportunities which the women’s game can provide for broadcasters and sponsors.
Women’s soccer fans in the UK skew younger – nearly four in ten are aged 18 to 34, compared to 34 per cent of men’s soccer fans. They’re also more affluent. They’re 25 per cent more likely than average fans to have a household income of more than UK£50,000 (US$61,000) per year, whereas men’s soccer fans are only five per cent more likely to be in this income bracket. And perhaps most crucially, 55 per cent of women’s soccer fans have children in their household, whereas that number drops to less than half among men’s.
Why is this latter point so important? Research shows that sport fandom typically starts between the ages of eight to 12 years, so being able to get the competitions in front of those young eyeballs can help create and cement future fanbases.
The popularity of women’s soccer in the UK bodes well for the Uefa Women’s Euro tournament to be held in the country in July. This will provide an opportunity to build on a successful WSL season which saw the competition enter the UK’s top four overall in domestic sport league viewership and push the women’s game even further into the spotlight. Certainly, if current ticket sales are anything to go by, the future of women’s soccer is bright.
But as women’s sport continues to rise in popularity, there are perhaps wider opportunities for broadcasters and sponsors beyond just monetising a growing fanbase. There is a chance to build something special by telling the stories of female athletes and creating new career pathways for young girls going forward. As the saying goes, if you can see it, you can be it. And with the trajectory of the industry on the up, money is now starting to trickle down to the grassroots.
Maybe the rise in interest in women’s sports has come too late to reap the benefits of the broadcast rights boom of the early noughties, but given the disillusionment among factions of men’s soccer fans – witness many supporters’ negative response to the proposed European Super League in 2021 – this might actually work in the favour of women’s competitions which can be marketed as a ‘purer’ alternative. Recent times have seen a broader societal trend whereby many consumers, particularly younger demographics, demand more authenticity and social consciousness from the brands they engage with.
So whether you are a broadcaster or a sponsor, there is a real opportunity to amplify stories from women’s sport and join this exciting journey. The rewards may be more than purely commercial.