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Study: WSL set to enter UK’s top four in domestic sports league viewership

Women’s soccer league could attract a TV audience of 14.5m this season, according to Nielsen.

4 November 2021 Ed Dixon

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  • WSL currently averaging 114k viewers on Sky Sports and 501k on BBC
  • Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United women’s teams see 22% growth rate across Facebook and Instagram since start of 2020/21 season
  • 35% of WSL fans aged 16 to 30, compared to Premier League’s 26%

The new domestic broadcast deals with the BBC and Sky Sports could see the Women’s Super League (WSL) attract a total season audience of 14.5 million in the UK, according to a study from Nielsen Sports.

That figure would see the English women’s soccer top flight become the fourth highest viewed domestic league in the UK. Only the Premier League and the Championship, the top two tiers of English men’s soccer, plus the men’s The Hundred cricket competition, would have a higher audience if the WSL keeps up its current pace, according to Nielsen.

The data specialist’s figures show that the WSL is seeing an average of 114,000 viewers tuning in per match on pay-TV network Sky Sports so far this season. During the 2020/21 campaign, when the league was broadcast by Sky’s pay-TV rival BT Sport, WSL matches managed just 37,000 viewers.

In addition, Nielsen says that audiences of live matches on public service broadcaster the BBC have averaged 501,000.

Should those audiences figures continue to hold for the remainder of the 2021/22 season, the WSL is on track to surpass the total audience figures for the likes of Premiership Rugby, rugby league’s Super League, the women’s Hundred and Super League Netball.

Nielsen notes that, previously, almost 90 per cent of the audiences for the WSL came through free-to-air (FTA) highlights.

The uptick in audience for the WSL comes in the first season of its three-year rights deal with the BBC and Sky, which is reportedly worth around UK£15 million (US$20.3 million) annually.

The extra broadcast eyeballs have also helped WSL clubs achieve significant growth on social media, Nielsen says. Across Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United women’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram, the growth rate has been 22 per cent since the beginning of the 2020/2021 season, amounting to 14.4 million total followers.

Nielsen consumer data also shows that the existing fan base of men’s soccer teams are a ‘captive audience’ for the women’s equivalents. Ahead of the 2021/22 WSL season, over half (56 per cent) of fans claimed their interest in the WSL team was driven by the men’s side.

While a club’s men’s team has a big impact on a WSL team’s following, Nielsen states there is still a significant proportion (24 per cent) who do not claim to follow a particular club, which means these fans could be converted to being a fan of a particular club.

In addition, the WSL has a younger age profile relative to the established men’s competition the Premier League, according to Nielsen. Thirty-five per cent of fans of the WSL are aged 16 to 30, higher than the 26 per cent of Premier League fans in the same age group. Seventy-two per cent of WSL fans are also aged 45 and under.

Nielsen’s data also shows that, currently, 32 per cent of UK soccer fans follow either both men’s and women’s, or only women’s soccer, suggesting there is a large fanbase who could be potential fans of the women’s game.

Furthermore, Nielsen’s findings reveal that almost three quarters of the UK general population believe that female athletes can be societal role models. This rises to 84 per cent among women aged 35 to 44.

From a brand partnerships perspective, Nielsen says that fans of women’s soccer represent an extremely attractive audience to commercial sponsors. Nilsen’s research states that 47 per cent of fans of both men’s and women’s soccer claim they would choose a sponsor’s product rather than a rival brand’s if price and quality were the same. This compares to just 34 per cent of fans of only men’s soccer.

“It’s an exciting time for players, brands and fans involved in women’s football. For clubs it’s key to understand your fans and create a strategy to engage new fans with the women’s team,” said Lynsey Douglas, Nielsen Sports global leader of women’s sport and head of brands (UK).

“Clubs are starting to capitalise on the opportunity that exists to generate new exposure, and marketing themselves in the right way will be crucial to reaching those ‘untapped’ fans. Targeting younger fans, engaging with fans of men’s football and continuing to promote positive female role models will all be important considerations for long-term growth.”

Douglas added: “Fans of women’s football are open to engaging with brands, and with higher audiences and growing social media profiles there is a unique opportunity to invest in and activate around the WSL.”

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