The start of a revolution in women’s sport?

The hotly anticipated UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 got underway on 6th July and we marked the occasion with a kick-off celebration that began with a panel discussion and ended with a special screening of the tournament’s curtain-raising contest, in which England triumphed over Austria.

Hosted by the Managing Director of our Brands team, Sarah Dawson, we were privileged to be joined for the panel by Arsenal defender, Anna Patten, CEO of PCP Capital Partners and Co-Owner of Newcastle United FC, Amanda Staveley, and CEO of Women in Sport, Stephanie Hilborne. In an engaging session, our guests explored the potential impact of a landmark tournament being staged in England, and how the industry can continue to build on the irrepressible growth of women’s football in the new era for women’s sport.

Anna Patten began with some reflections on the 2015 World Cup in Canada which, when compared to the coverage surrounding this summer’s tournament, can feel like a parallel universe. Beyond the media attention, there is significant brand activity around this tournament too, with more and more brands championing the female players. As Anna put it, “There’s Lionesses faces everywhere, which is amazing… It’s so good to see. We need to use the momentum of the tournament going forward.”

So, what’s the key to building on that impetus? For Amanda, it all starts with visibility and ensuring women’s teams are ‘given the stage to play on, and opening up stadiums. We know they can cope with that pressure.’

Back in May, an incredible 22,500 fans watched as fourth-tier Newcastle United Women played at St. James Park for the first time, and Amanda’s point was quickly taken up by Stephanie. She agreed that increased access is transformational for women’s sport, reflecting on how the crowds at the inaugural season of The Hundred also pushed women’s cricket to new heights in the UK.

The conversation then turned to broadcasting, because whilst in-person attendance is rising, there are still questions over whether more can be done to get women’s football in front of a wider TV audience. Amanda spoke of the need for more free-to-air coverage, and touched on the as-of-yet untapped value in broadcast rights around women’s football: “What broadcasters will soon realise is that… they can attract a younger audience by showing the women’s game. That’s a huge opportunity for growth.”

Anna, though, was keen to praise the high-quality coverage provided by pay-TV channels such as Sky Sports, noting that having a WSL fixture follow a Premier League game can bring in a strong residual audience: “I think the WSL following Super Sunday is actually beneficial for our game. It gives people who wouldn’t usually watch an opportunity to see it, with good quality analysis and production.”

For Stephanie, the key to better broadcasting was not just about volume, but also required a change in the narrative around how women’s sport is covered. It’s a point that has been brought into sharp focus at Wimbledon in recent days: “Our stereotypes are alive and well. I saw that in the Wimbledon coverage yesterday, when most of the coverage of Tatjana Maria was about her eight year old daughter… That’s not what the story should be about. The focus should be on what she is achieving on the court.”

The key, perhaps, is to have more women feature as part of broadcasting teams. As Stephanie argued: “The punditry has been transformational. Seeing women on TV talking about sport, and being respected as analysts… that is massive in terms of changing attitudes.”

The panel also reflected on how women’s sport has carved out a unique position for itself within the wider sports landscape, defined by a distinctive set of characteristics that offers something different to men’s sport. That’s a commercially appealing proposition to prospective partners.

For a player, like Anna, that can be as simple as having the freedom on social media “to show your personality, to show your human side… It helps bring engagement and gets more girls involved in sport.”

Whilst for Steph, it’s the demographic that sets it apart: “I actually felt really emotional. Walking around Wembley, and at The Hundred last year, amongst that multi-generational, multi-ethnic demographic. It was a celebration of who we are as a nation.”

The implication being that women’s sport can stand confidently on its own two feet, and need not define itself in comparison with men’s sport. The WSL provided the perfect case study. As Amanda noted: “We now have an incredible league in the WSL, which is an exciting product to consume in its own right.”

As the panel discussion drew to a close, Sarah invited thoughts on what the future might hold. Stephanie and Anna talked of a revolution to get where we are today. But it was left to Amanda to provide the most aspirational thinking: “I want to see NUFC in the WSL, and I want to see women’s sport at the same level as the men’s.”

She’d ended on a salient note. Women’s sport is no longer an afterthought. Instead, it has taken its rightful place at the heart of the industry and only a failure of imagination can limit its continued growth.

To watch the session back in full, click here.