News & Thinking

Beyond the Game: Tracking the Growing Commercialisation of Women’s Sport

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News 27 Mar

In January, the Adani Group acquired the Women’s Indian Premier League (IPL) Ahmedabad team for $158 million – the largest investment to date in a women’s sports team. It was one of five winning bids for franchise ownership rights in the inaugural 2023 season of the Women’s Premier League. Together, the bids amount to an investment of over $572 million, a figure much closer to its equivalent in the men’s IPL than many had anticipated. However, this is far from an anomaly for women’s sport more widely. Whilst perceptions of it being less entertaining, competitive or popular are being categorically dispeled, its commercial potential is still chronically underestimated.

Surge in audience numbers

In 2022, a study commissioned by the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) projected that revenue from women’s sport in the UK would reach £1 billion in 2030, nearly trebling its value from 2021. Much of this expansion hinges on the sports’ rapidly growing viewership. Research found that almost one third of the UK population watched women’s sport last year, and viewing hours for the Women’s Super League (WSL) had increased nearly fourfold between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons. This momentum is felt across the game, but particularly at big tournaments. The CEO of Football Australia has even suggested that doubling the broadcast audience of the previous women’s world cup (1.12 billion) at this year’s tournament is an ‘achievable’ target. 

Corporate interest drives investment

Increased audience attention is driving commercial interest in partnership and sponsorship deals, with finance brands often among the trailblazing investors. In the UK, women’s football has recently captured the attention of high-profile corporate sponsors, as demonstrated by Barclays doubling their existing investment in women’s football and extending their previous commitment to also become the headline sponsor of the FA Women’s Championship in 2022. Elsewhere, sports like basketball, tennis and golf have proven the long-term viability of these partnerships, with the value and quantity of deals increasing over time. In its 26th season, for example, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has secured a record-breaking 38 sponsorships from the likes of Deloitte, Google, and PepsiCo. Partnerships in women’s golf, (already the most prolific women’s sport for brand deals) are also on the rise: in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), Ad Age reported an 18% increase in new brand partnerships between 2021 and 2022.

Unbundling investment in the women’s and men’s game

For the first time, many of these investments (including Barclays’ title sponsorship for the WSL) are being made independently of men’s teams or organisations. Ground-breaking deals, such as FIFA’s decision to ‘unbundle’ broadcast and sponsorship rights for this year’s Women’s World Cup from men’s, affirm the commercial value of women’s sports as separate to men’s institutions. Perhaps, once again, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. In February, the WST reported that of 16 million Barclays WSL viewers in 2022, 8.4m didn’t watch Premier League football: women’s sports offer incremental reach and untapped commercial opportunity. Determining the commercial value of this market through extensive research and analysis is an important step to enable both businesses and sports teams to build cases for investment. 

The professionalisation problem

Of course, the pace of the industry’s development brings its challenges. Professionalisation unlocks success which can propel a sport into the mainstream and ultimately drive revenue, but the cost can be prohibitive. Historically, many of the largest women’s football teams have had to operate at a significant loss to support wages, and bank on their investors’ trust in eventual returns. Professionalising the game has reaped rewards, though, in football and elsewhere. England’s rugby union team was the first internationally to be offered professional contracts in 2019, and with the ranking of the Six Nations table in 2022 almost directly correlated to the number of professional players in the squad, it is easy to understand the impact that investment into facilities, training and salaries can have on performance. Defining the point of viability for (much needed) professionalisation is a delicate task, of critical importance to accelerating the popular and thereby commercial profile of many women’s sports.

Infrastructural failings hinder progress

Meanwhile, sporting infrastructure continues to lag behind commercial potential. Grassroots investment is critical to a sustainable game, and has been the focus of sports like rugby in the UK, where girls historically haven’t started playing until late teens or adulthood. The RFU reports that girls’ participation in the UK has risen by 17% year on year, bolstered by initiatives like its “Give It A Try” campaign between the IRFU and Canterbury. The drive for equal access to grassroots sports was taken up by the Lionesses’, whose successful campaign ensures that schools in England offer equal access to sports, regardless of gender, and secured £600m of government funding over two years. However, the impact of these initiatives is diminished for as long as infrastructural failings at the top end of women’s sport persist. Only in January, matches in the WSL hit headlines for being called off due to frozen pitches – men’s facilities at the highest level are all heated to prevent this happening. Even the kit women rely on is inadequate: Sky recently reported that women footballers have a two to five times higher chance of ACL injuries, because boots are still designed for men’s feet.  

Broadcast TV is slow to catch up

It is perhaps television broadcasting which holds back the growth of women’s sports the most. The renewal of Sky Sports and BBC contracts for rights to broadcast WSL matches in the 2022/2023 season demonstrates the mass-market appeal of coverage, but WST-commissioned research also revealed that over a third of women’s sports in 2021 leveraged only digital channels to broadcast their sport, missing the mass audiences of televised viewing. The industry has reached a crucial juncture, and investment into licensing and content rights is set to skyrocket. The Women’s IPL is a pioneer in this movement – the competition has become one of the most valuable in women’s sport, and in world cricket more generally: broadcast rights for the next five years sold to Viacom for ground-breaking fees of over $870k per match.

MTM has worked with some of the largest names in sports to deliver commercial strategy projects to inform licensing decisions and content acquisition strategies. We use a range of techniques, including audience data and expert interviews, to provide a perspective on the future evolution of sports consumption and the associated revenue and engagement opportunities. Our research team works across the sporting industry, with extensive experience in women’s football. Later in 2023, MTM will be speaking at a European Club Association (ECA) event, where we will be presenting our women’s football report, which examines fan attitudes towards the game.

If you are interested in our strategy or research work in this space, please reach out to or for more information.

Emily Harrison
27 March, 2023