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Is women’s sport sustainable, and will it help drive sustainability?

August 24 2023

Women’s sport has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, and this summer has seen another run of records broken and new audiences reached.

But how can the women’s sports industry make sure that it grows sustainably, and will it help drive sustainability through sport?

Deloitte’s Sports Business Group

Deloitte’s Sports Business Group is one of many organisations working to understand the growth of the women’s sport industry.

Just this year the organisation has published several reports focusing on different aspects of the women’s industry, including the Women’s Deloitte Football Money League, the Women’s Annual Review of Football Finance, and the Future of Sport report. These reports highlight some important insights into the growth of the industry.

The Deloitte Football Money League 2023 analysed the revenue for affiliated women’s teams for the first time. It found that women’s teams of Money League clubs had an average revenue of €2.4m in the 2021-22 season.

However, the report also found that there was significant disparity between clubs in the same leagues: while FC Barcelona generated €7.7m in revenue, in the same season Atlético de Madrid generated €0.1m. The report’s findings underline the need to avoid revenue polarisation: it argues that ‘to maximise the future growth of the women’s game, leagues must focus on designing governance that will help all teams to compete on as equal a footing as possible’.

Meanwhile, the 2023 Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance analysed clubs in the Women’s Super League and found that broadcast and commercial deals had driven an impressive 60% growth in aggregate revenue. It highlighted how women’s clubs were now generating their own distinguished partnership deals—and argued that the industry is now ‘reaching the point where clubs can maximise the value associated with the women’s game and its unique fanbase’.

The Future of Sport Report identified six ‘forces of change’ that are shaping the future of the broader sports industry. Within this, the report argued that investors increasingly looking to women’s sport: the industry is projected to be worth €200 billion within the next decade. The report also highlighted how a significant proportion of women’s sport fans consume sports content digitally, while fans also tend to be more purpose orientated.

Beyond its reports, Deloitte’s Sports Business Group also acts to connect industry players and host discussions on key topics. In May, the organisation hosted its first in-person women’s sport event, which focused on ‘Supercharging the growth of women’s sport’.

‘We know the impact that sport can have on society and on individuals,’ says Amy Clarke, Manager in Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. ‘Especially at the moment, women’s sport is definitely front and centre in the conversation. I think the focus now is how we take that momentum forward.’

Clarke says that one way to understand growth in the industry is through the ‘virtuous circle of women’s sport’.

‘We talk a lot about the virtuous circle of women’s sport: investment feeds high wages and greater professionalisation,’ says Clarke. This way, investment at the grassroots level leads to a stronger industry at the elite level, which in turn attracts greater investment.

Understanding and connecting with fans, ensuring financial sustainability, driving participation, and using data will all be crucial pieces of the puzzle as the women’s sport industry builds a sustainable future.

A pivotal point for women’s sport

The growing appeal of women’s sport was evident as England faced Spain at the FIFA Women’s World Cup final last weekend, with 14.4 million viewers tuning in to watch the game in the UK alone. This was higher than viewers for the men’s Wimbledon final in July, which peaked at 11.3 million.

The tournament itself has shattered records: the tournament sold a milestone 1.5 million tickets; the opening game was relocated to a higher-capacity stadium to meet record demand for seats; and Australia’s semi-final defeat to England was the most-watched TV programme in Australia since 2001.

But the growth of the women’s sport industry goes beyond football: sports including tennis, netball, basketball, rugby, and e-sports are also driving the industry’s growth.

And growth isn’t restricted to major international tournaments. Domestic audiences, sponsorship and revenue have also increased. Since July 2022, the average number of attendees for the Women’s Super League has increased by almost 200%. Meanwhile, sponsorship for women’s sport has increased by 24% since 2018.

Grassroots participation is also growing. Over the past five years, the number of adult women playing rugby increased from 25,000 to 40,000 in England, while the FA saw a 12.5% rise in the number of registered female football players in England after the Women’s Euros last summer.

More and more people are becoming aware of women’s sport as an industry with vast potential. In June, Netflix released a documentary, Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport, charting the recent surge of growth as well as some of the sector’s ongoing challenges.

The growth of women’s sport is significant: as well as providing commercial opportunities, it also provides the opportunity to help to create a more sustainable sports industry.

Profile and People: Understanding the fans

Women’s sport is connecting with new audiences, and this is an opportunity to engage fans on sustainability issues.

The figures are impressive: research by the Women’s Sport Trust found that the average viewing time per person for women’s sport on TV in the UK increased by 131% year-on-year in 2022.

Another survey across the US, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand found that 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sport, and 45% would consider attending a live event.

Importantly, the audience for women’s sport has an almost 50/50 gender split, with 49% female and 51% male fans.

Audiences don’t necessarily come directly from men’s equivalents: there are audiences who watch and engage with women’s sport, but don’t watch men’s. 1.8 million viewers watched the Women’s Euros but not the men’s football World Cup, while 1.5 million viewers watched the Women’s Hundred and not the men’s.

Research has also found that fans of women’s sport are more diverse, and are more socially conscious and engaged with issues including gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. 50% of women’s sport fans strongly agree that ‘brands should act with purpose’, compared with 20% of men’s sport fans.

‘Purpose is really important—fans of women’s sport are more purpose-driven,’ says Clarke.

This means that women’s sport has a distinct audience, and there is a clear opportunity to use the growing profile of women’s sport to promote sustainability to audiences who are already more concerned with social issues.

‘How we understand the future women’s sport fan and what they want is going to be really important to make sure that we learn from men’s equivalents, but don’t just copy it—that we really tailor women’s sport experiences to the fandom,’ says Clarke.

Partnerships and Profit: Making sponsorships and revenue sustainable

Sponsorships in women’s sport are another important area of growth. Overall sponsorships increased 22% in 2022. FIFA’s second annual Women’s Football Benchmarking Report found that 77% of women’s football leagues had a title sponsor in 2022, up 11% from 2021. Meanwhile, the FA now has 17 commercial partners for the women’s game, up from six in 2017.

The ’unbundling’ of commercial rights from the men’s games has also increased, and more and more women’s sports are selling the rights to women’s sports separately. In France, Germany, the UK and the US, 60% of women’s football teams have a different front-of-shirt sponsor to the men’s team.

This unbundling can mean opportunities for new sponsors, a greater focus and investment in women’s sport and its fans, and can help ensure long-term financial sustainability.

Revenue is also growing: WSL clubs generated £32m in aggregate revenue in 2021/22, up from £20m in the previous financial year. One study predicted that women’s sport revenue will grow more than 15% over the next three to five years.

While increased revenue and investment is positive, women’s sport will need to work to ensure financial sustainability across all sports and all levels, including the grassroots.

‘The growth of finances and explosion of opportunities is amazing, but how do we balance that with financial sustainability?’ says Clarke.

For example, while the reported record levels of revenue in elite women’s football is positive for the growth of the sport, the industry must ensure that the ecosystem is balanced. ‘We need to ensure that sponsors are investing at all levels of the league,’ says Clarke.

Participation: Investing in the grassroots and ensuring a positive legacy

One huge area of potential for women’s sport is the opportunity to increase participation at the grassroots level. This has huge social and health benefits as well as improving the pipeline of talent for professional sport.

As Global Sustainable Sport reported last week, legacy programmes following major tournaments are one opportunity to increase participation.

Plans laid out by Football Australia and Football New Zealand focus on raising participation levels, improving facilities, leadership development, and improving First Nations and Indigenous representation among coaches, referees, and administrators.

These plans map on to FIFA’s own Women’s Development Programme, which launched in 2022 and aims to have 60 million women and girls playing football by 2026.

Meanwhile, this summer’s Netball World Cup in South Africa also recently laid out its legacy plan, which includes coaching and officiating courses and the provision of netball facilities and equipment.

Legacy plans are only one way of driving participation. Many other sports have participation campaigns and programmes: England Rugby’s Every Rose campaign, for example, aims to increase the number of female players to 100,000 by 2027, and to reinvest profits from the women’s game into grassroots programmes.

Because of its potential to engage women and girls, women’s sport has a huge role to play in driving the People and Participation pillars of sustainable sport. Making sure that elite investment reaches the grassroots level, and that major tournaments leave a positive legacy, will be key.

Still challenges ahead

Despite all the opportunities for growth and positive success stories, women’s sport still faces some challenges.

Major issues include equal pay, grassroots investment and infrastructure, and ingrained sexism and discrimination.

This year’s Women’s World Cup highlighted many of these issues in action, including a lack of replica kits; unacceptable behaviour by male officials; and teams with limited funding and resources using crowdfunding to attend the event.

These long-term challenges are yet to be resolved, but a sustainable, focused approach on developing the industry should help to address some of these deeply ingrained inequalities.

The future is bright for women’s sport, but is it sustainable?

 As women’s sport grows, the industry has the opportunity to shape its future in a sustainable way.

Research has shown that fans of women’s sport are increasingly engaged with sustainability. ‘Broader sustainability is top of the agenda,’ says Clarke. ‘There’s definitely a link there, with fans being more sustainability conscious.’

This means that the exciting period of growth for the industry is also an opportunity to develop all of Global Sustainable Sport’s seven sustainable pillars of sport.

Along the way, engaging with data, research and insights from organisations like Deloitte will also be important. This will enable women’s sport to understand their fans, develop financial sustainability, drive participation, and identify key areas and opportunities for growth.

Importantly, applying the same lessons from men’s sport won’t be enough. ‘It’s not just one size fits all,’ says Clarke.

This summer has shown that women’s sport is on an upward trajectory, but is it sustainable and will it help to drive sustainability in the global sports industry?

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