The surge of women’s football
With the Women’s World Cup underway, we took five minutes with Harriet Young, Associate Director, and a member of our Women’s Sport Strategy Team, to discuss the captivating world of women’s football and its remarkable surge in popularity in TV and media. We explore the driving forces behind this growth, its impact on women footballers, and the exciting brand partnerships emerging.
What would you say is behind the recent growth of women’s football – why is this happening now?
Interesting to consider how far back to go when answering this question, as there have been pivotal moments throughout the years that have contributed to growing the game (if we go right back, the starting point really has to be the lifting of the ban on women’s football in 1971, which, if you consider, is still relatively recent history!). However, there are a couple of key, interlinked factors that stand out as crucial to the recent shift change.
The first is the pandemic. We witnessed Covid as a catalyst in the growth of women’s sport, of which women’s football was at the forefront. Initially the most effected – the first to be stopped, the last to return – the discrepancies resulted in vocal support from athletes and key stakeholders (male and female alike) , propelled women’s sport to the top of many boardroom agendas and became the strategic priority, and allowed for increased coverage across broadcast schedules.
The second, is the accessibility of women’s football. The term ‘accessibility’ here has several meanings; (1) the lower price point for women’s football matchday tickets means live action is more accessible for fans and in turn, opening the game up to a more diverse fan base (e.g. families), (2) the openness of the women’s players – in the media and on their own social channels, allowing fans to feel more closely connected to the personalities on-screen and (3) broadcasters making women’s sport more accessible across FTA channels and more regular appointments to view.
This accessibility and increased fandom is leading to countless records being broken in women’s football. For example, the 2022/23 UEFA Women’s Champions League had over 50 million views on DAZN’s YouTube channel, an increase of 17% year-on-year; the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) saw an increase of 9% in viewing figures in 2022/23 season, with 16.5 million people watching 3 minutes or more of live coverage; and, according to BARB, the Lionesses’ stunning Euro 2022 victory had more people in the UK watching than the finals of Love Island, Britain’s Got Talent and I’m A Celebrity combined (total of 17.4 million). Greater accessibility is leading to increased viewership, leading to more investment and an enhanced product on the pitch, attracting more fans – and so the cycle goes on.
And the third key factor is taken from CSM’s yearly proprietary research study, The Weekend Project. Having talked to younger football fans in the UK, US and Australia, they show a craving for a version of the sport that is less commercialised, more inclusive and more civilised. Right now, women’s football is helping to satisfy this hunger.
At present, fans’ perception and experience of women’s football is that it is more accessible, less commercially- driven and, as a result, something they can relate to and feel involved in more easily than the men’s game.
What is the impact of this growth? What kinds of opportunities are opening up for women footballers – eg brand partnerships?
Again multi-faceted, but starting with visibility, it is a virtuous circle that has impact at every level. If young girls see it, they feel they can be it; which increases participation and improves talent development; which improves the on-field product and competitiveness; which makes it appealing to watch and follow; which attracts sponsors, broadcast and media coverage; which ensures more people see it, and so on.
This complete impact cycle is crucial for the long-term sustainability of the game and the players; aside from personal endorsements and increased story-telling at a sport and individual level, the resulting investment will allow for improvements to some of the biggest challenges facing women’s football – from greater research into the effects of training during menstrual cycles or the prevalence of ACL injuries, to improved infrastructure and facilities, for example.
It should be cautioned, however, that whilst all key metrics, such as viewership, attendances, investment and number of sponsors are trending very positively in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.
For the women’s players, more commercial opportunities are also opening up, particularly for the Lionesses off the back of their success at the European Championship. Brands that perhaps see football as a bit ‘risque’ or ‘laddish’ are viewing women’s football and commercial deals with women’s players as safer, more wholesome, less tribal and more inclusive. For brands that really value diversity and inclusion, then women’s football offers something that in some cases, men’s football can’t. Take adidas’s new campaign featuring Alessia Russo for the Women’s World Cup that celebrates the “next-generation icons” of the game. This additional income through advertising streams is an important revenue driver for the women’s players, where salaries in the WSL still have a long way to go to catch up with the men’s equivalents in the Premier League.
What can be done to capitalise on the success and grow the fanbase even more?
Specifically in the context of the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup, there’s a few interesting considerations and learnings on how to grow further.
The first is make more noise. There have been some fantastic brand campaigns released in recent weeks, but seemingly the number has been comparatively low than in the build up to a men’s tournament.
The second is have some fun. CSM’s Fan Survey research shows that there are 699 million people who are fans of both World Cup, and 46 million who are fans of the Women’s World Cup only, and how that audience skews younger. Therefore broadcasters and brands have the opportunity – and permission from audiences – to try different things. Be that different formats and styles of content, campaigns that converge multiple passion points or use of different talent, for example.
Outside of major tournaments, one of the single most important considerations is the need to create a regular appointment to view. Given the importance of accessibility and the proof points that if you show it, they will watch it, there is a compelling case for needing to allow women’s football to have regular, prime time scheduling spot; and further enhancing the virtuous circle.
Insights from CSM’s Weekend Project Survey also found that fans’ consumption habits around women’s football is evolving – success will come from adapting to these changing habits and expectations, rather than rigidly sticking to the historic blueprint. Fans don’t want to see women’s football becoming over-commercialised, instead they want brands/clubs/organisations to use their huge media platforms to advocate for causes they care about.
How can we use the success of women’s football to increase the growth of women’s sport more generally?
As the national sport in the UK, football has been a vehicle to propel the conversation around women’s sport more broadly. Data from the Women’s Sport Trust released at the end of 2022 found that the positive impact of the women’s Euros had impacted not just football, but broader women’s sport consumption. 27% of the 15.8 million new viewers to women’s sport in 2022 (based on not watching any other women’s sport in 2022) from the Women’s Euros, went on to watch more women’s sport in August and September, with 46% of those going onto watch women’s cricket and a further 46% watching more women’s football.
Major events like the Euros and ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup are not only inspiring new fans, many of whom are young and are women, to watch more football, but also consume other women’s sport, provides a valuable opportunity for brands and broadcasters to invest in women’s sport and engage with these commercially valuable audiences
It should be noted that while football is leading the way, it is not the only way – notably golf, tennis, cricket are also experiencing unprecedented growth. These sports – while each has their own unique challenges, and strengths to lean into – can apply the same principles; create access to generate visibility, leading to increased investment, bettering the product and development pathway, leading to more fandom, engagement, and so on.
Are there any factors holding women’s football back? How can we overcome them?
Some of the biggest challenges holding women’s football back have been identified in the recent major independent review into the future of women’s football – led by former England footballer Karen Carney.
One of the most fundamental factors is creating the regular appointment to view in a cluttered broadcast and scheduling landscape. The FA, Premier League, EFL and broadcasters need to work together to carve out a new dedicated broadcast slot for women’s football (last season most WSL matches kicked off at 11.30am on Saturdays and 6.45pm on Sundays). Broadcasters need to continue to apportion budget to signpost women’s sport, and ensure it is positioned as the unmissable, show-stopping spectacle that it is.
The packaging and narrative around women’s sport needs to improve, also. Not speaking to women’s sport always in direct comparison to men’s sport, as if women’s sport is playing a game of catch-up. But instead, packaged, marketed and celebrated in its own right – as an entirely different, standalone product to the men’s game.
Media discrepancies, inaccuracies and men’s bias in reporting also needs to be addressed. Take, for example, a FIFA report spotlighting Lionel Messi’s World Cup records which stated how he “is the only player to score in the World Cup in his teens, 20s and 30s”, failing to mention how Mia Hamm of the US and Marta of Brazil had both already achieved that feat.
Linking to an earlier consideration in how to grow by making more noise, a key component to that is to commit early. For example, FOX Sports committed early to broadcasting the Women’s World Cup domestically in the US and reaped the benefits; selling 90% of ad inventory a month before the tournament starts and increasing revenue by 50% on 2019.
There is a collective responsibility across all stakeholders to ensure we arrive at a place where women’s football can thrive and reap its own commercial rewards independently, free from the confines of being constantly assessed and judged within the confines of men’s football.
If you are interested in hearing more about our work in women’s sport or are looking to start your journey, please get in touch with Victoria Monk (firstname.lastname@example.org).