A decade of progression
Exposure and investment – historically, the two most prominent issues that women’s sport has faced in it’s challenge to be viewed on parity with men’s sport. These two factors are intrinsically linked when it comes to the commercialisation of a sport, snowballing into investment, funding and a wider audience.
After a decade of progress for women’s football – the launch of professionalism, rise in sponsorship deals, and increased interest – the drive for change has come first and foremost from the women’s international game. At the 2019 Women’s World Cup, 11.7million saw the Lionesses’s Semi-Final defeat to the USA, a huge 192.5% increase on their 2017 Euros exit to the Netherlands.
The pandemic, however, exposed the continued inequalities in Women’s football, and sport, compared to men’s – with young female footballers told they were not able to play, whilst their male counterparts could continue. Highlighting the need for consistent exposure and investment in the game. Before now, domestic women’s football had not been broadcast on any flagship channels; matches could be found on iPlayer, or the likes of BT Sport 3. Fans had to seek out women’s football, and for that they had to know: a) that it was there, and b) the possible places to find it.
But this evening [Friday 3rd September] marks a new era for women’s domestic football when Manchester United Women kick off this season’s Women’s Super League (WSL) vs Reading Women on Sky Sports. Followed by Everton Womens v Manchester City Women shown live on BBC 1 tomorrow. These will be the first of many WSL games to be shown live on either Sky Sports or the BBC, thanks to the recent multi-million landmark broadcasting deal.
A new deal to transform women’s football
This landmark broadcasting deal of £7million-a-year, over 3 years, agreed between the WSL, BBC and Sky Sports is believed to be the largest commercial deal to date for any women’s football division in the world. Creating the potential for the WSL to become the world’s most-watched women’s sport league.
“This is a watershed moment. It’s a step-change in the value of women’s football,” said Kathryn Swarbrick, the FA’s director of commercial and marketing. “Bringing in more revenue than any other women’s domestic league in the world, [plus] an incredible step forward in terms of the unprecedented level of exposure, the partnership across those two broadcasters is the ultimate combination.”
Women’s football in England will now receive a “show” familiar to regular Premier League and Championship viewing fans; matches will be dramatized, analysed and displayed on the same pedestal as men’s football. The same emotional investments will also apply: the highs, the lows, the stress, and the tension of professional sport. The same hype in the lead-up to Manchester United against Liverpool in the men’s Premier League, will be reproduced for Manchester City against Chelsea, two of the biggest teams in the WSL.
The impact on female sport
With this deal Sky and the BBC are making a commitment to domestic women’s football:
“It’s a new age for elite women’s football in England,” said Dr Beth Clarkson, senior lecturer in sport management and development at the University of Portsmouth. “This marks a big shift. The importance of those regular fixtures on free-to-air television shouldn’t be understated. The monetary figure of the deal is not the most important factor here, it’s the enormous potential for immediate and long-lasting impact on the game.”
The increased investment demonstrates to those clubs that have been hesitant or have boards that have struggled to see the worth of women’s football, that the game is growing and there’s a tangible value to it. Having two of the biggest broadcasters in the sport, make a decision, as Kathryn Swarbrick, put it, to “monster up” women’s football.
Of course, money is not the only way to measure the worth of something. Women’s football has always had social value. This deal spotlights women’s football into the mainstream which, no doubt, will help improve the quality of the product and drive future participation at grassroot and junior level. Whilst also improving awareness and education in wider society.
A recent example of how increased exposure and investment can have such a positive effect is through this summer’s inaugural Hundred Women’s cricket tournament. Ex-England captain Charlotte Edwards believes that the Hundred “single-handedly changed women’s cricket in this country”. Viewing figures of the women’s final peaked at 1.4 million across the BBC and Sky Sports (the men’s final peaked at 2.4 million as a comparison). Plus, the final was played in front of a 17,116-strong crowd – showcasing the effect increased exposure can have.
The WSL will hope that this season’s league will capture the imagination of the public in the way that the Hundred managed to this summer. Whilst here at MTM Sport we will be keenly following how the new season progresses, and the new audiences it attracts.
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