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Study: Women’s sport draws 33m UK viewers in 2021

Women’s Sport Trust study says The Hundred and WSL are key growth drivers.

10 February 2022 Tom Bassam
almost 33 million people in the UK watched domestic women’s sport in 2021

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  • Major mixed events such as Tokyo Paralympics and Wimbledon bring in highest ratio of female viewers
  • 5.9m new WSL viewers had never watched women’s sport before
  • 41% of consumption in 2021 was for women’s cricket, highest for a single sport

A new study has revealed that almost 33 million people in the UK watched domestic women’s sport in 2021, a new British viewership record for dedicated female properties.

The Women’s Sport Trust (WST) study found that the main drivers for this growth were The Hundred cricket tournament and top-flight soccer’s Women’s Super League (WSL), which brought in almost 11 million new women’s sport viewers combined.

In terms of female audience ratios, major mixed events delivered the highest percentages. Wimbledon and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics (57 per cent) scored the highest in that regard, closely followed by the Tokyo Olympics (52 per cent).

That said, domestic properties are certainly generating new audiences, with 5.9 million new WSL viewers having not watched any other women’s sport in 2021 prior to the start of the season. Of the 4.9m new viewers to The Hundred, 71 per cent have gone on to watch other women’s sport, with soccer and tennis the most popular choices.

In terms of consumption volume, The Hundred came out on top during the calendar year, with 41 per cent of total viewing hours, compared to 39 per cent for soccer. However, it should be noted that the WSL’s new domestic broadcast deals with the BBC and Sky Sports only kicked in for the start of 2021/22 season.

The research, conducted by Futures Sport and Entertainment, also revealed that 25 per cent of viewers who watched England women’s cricket or the women’s edition of The Hundred last year did not watch any men’s cricket on TV in 2021.

Perhaps encouraged by the BBC’s free-to-air (FTA) coverage, 6.2 million UK viewers watched live WSL matches in 2021 without watching a Premier League game on TV. Similarly, 1.5 million people in the UK watched live W Series coverage without watching live Formula One.

The research also suggests there will be record-breaking audiences for women’s sport in 2022. Contrary to the current trend of declining TV viewing hours, women’s sport is actually growing across both FTA and pay-TV channels.

FTA coverage makes the biggest impact to the total audiences, as it brought in 19 million new viewers to women’s sport last year and was how 79 per cent of females watched those properties. However, 2.9 million of the viewers who watched women’s sport solely on FTA in 2021 have watched sport pay-TV channels, implying they likely have a subscription.

Tammy Parlour, chief executive and co-founder of the Women’s Sport Trust, said: “The importance of free-to-air, alongside pay-TV coverage, in bringing new audiences to women’s sport should not be underestimated. Domestic competitions such as The Hundred and the Women’s Super League are the perfect gateway to viewing more women’s sport and I look forward to seeing the impact other major international events this year will have on future viewing figures.”

Women’s sport in the UK still needs to build up repeat viewership from fans. In terms of the percentage of viewers watching the competition more than once, the women’s edition of The Hundred (45 per cent) significantly trailed the men’s tournament (55 per cent).

When comparing the WSL to the Premier League, the gap is even greater. The women’s soccer league saw 35 per cent of its audience watch on more than one occasion during the 2020/21 season compared to 87 per cent for the English men’s top tier. That is to be expected given the stark difference in terms of maturity, and the figure is up for WSL so far this season at 35 per cent.

“We know how important these major events are in growing viewership figures but we want this growth to be sustainable, driving greater habit amongst audiences, to ensure women’s sport continues to be visible, viable and unstoppable,” added Parlour.

“This report also highlights the need to consider how decision makers can help facilitate the growth of women’s sport by considering its strategy of how to use digital channels to reach new audiences, as Sky Sports have done with their netball coverage on YouTube, and use social media to build fandom around both athletes and teams.

“And be it enhancing the scheduling of women’s sport, to give more prominent broadcast slots and better onward journeys for viewers, including signposting to other women’s sport content, or reducing some of the barriers faced by the media in trying to tell women’s sport stories, this report highlights significant opportunities for growth in the coming years.”

To Parlour’s point, the audience on Sky Sports’ dedicated netball YouTube channel scored average watch times in excess of 27 minutes. Furthermore, 32 per cent of that audience is aged between 25 and 34 and 74 per cent of viewers are female.

A focus on social is clearly paying off for those who take it seriously, with the Chelsea women’s Instagram account scoring more interactions in 2021 than 12 Premier League men’s teams so far during the 2021/22 season. The reigning WSL champions also achieved a 77 per cent year-over-year (YoY) increase in growth.

Chelsea were not the only success story in that regard, with Arsenal and Manchester United’s WSL teams bringing in more Instagram interactions in 2021 than seven accounts belonging to Premier League teams.

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