Seeing the value of women’s sport
While the growth of women’s elite sport may feel centred in Europe and the US, the upward trajectory has arguably been felt worldwide. Organisations are starting to take notice, realising the value of women’s sport commercially, thus helping women’s elite sport continue to grow.
In November, professional services provider Deloitte predicted that women’s elite sport would generate more than $1bn (£790m/€920m) in revenue in 2024.
This is at least a 300% increase on Deloitte’s previous valuation three years ago, with the main streams of revenue being matchday, broadcast and commercial.
Commercial revenue – including club sponsorships, partnerships and merchandising sales – currently represents the largest share of total revenue at $696m. This is followed by broadcast at $340m and matchday at $240m.
The largest geographical markets in 2024 are forecast to be North America and Europe. But while the revenue boost will large be witnessed in these markets, it is not just felt in the Women’s Super League (WSL) in the UK and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the US, but across the globe.
“The growth in women’s sport is felt worldwide as it continues on a global professionalisation journey,” Jennifer Haskel, Insights Lead in Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, tells Global Sustainable Sport.
“For example, the A-League in Australia is attracting record attendances and revenues following their hosting of the World Cup. The pace of growth can and will vary across geographies, leagues and sports. It will be critical that professionalisation is widespread in order to maintain competitive balance across sports at a global level.”
"The growth in women’s sport is felt worldwide as it continues on a global professionalisation journey."
And while football is still leading the way in terms of generating the most amount of revenue ($555m to be exact), but other sports such as basketball are following close behind.
Additionally, the growth of sports vary from country to country.
“Cricket and rugby are two examples of sports that are seeing increased investment, visibility and interest,” says Haskel. “It also depends by geography, for example, volleyball is growing at a rapid rate in America, but not as quickly in other markets. Women’s sport presents a really unique opportunity for investors, with a relatively low price point and multiple markets to be explored which are ripe for growth, so we will continue to see growth beyond just football.”
Stefano Delfrate/ CC BY-SA 2.0
More recently, Deloitte released its 27th edition of the Football Money League, which included analysis of 15 of the highest revenue generating women’s clubs in European football.
The ranking focused on clubs competing across some of the continent’s key football leagues including England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. This is because the revenues were made available to Deloitte, but other key markets such as Australia, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the US were not available for analysis.
The average revenue garnered by 15 of the highest revenue-generating women’s clubs in Europe during the 2022-23 season equated to €4.3m. This figure represents a 61% increase on the clubs’ 2021-22 average revenues.
Commercial revenue accounted for around 58% of 14 clubs’ total revenue, followed by matchday at 22% and broadcast at 20%. The report added that a significant share of commercial revenue continues to be driven by combined central sponsorship agreements for men’s and women’s clubs (with a value apportioned or separately defined). However, a number of women’s clubs have also reached exclusive partnership agreements, which are expected to drive growth in the future.
In first place, Spain’s FC Barcelona Femení reported a revenue of €13.4m for the 2022-23 season, a year-on-year increase of 74%. A strong performance on the pitch – the club won its second UEFA Women’s Champions League title in three years, as well as its fourth consecutive Liga F title – helped contribute towards its strong financial performance.
"The key to sustainable growth will be the implementation of appropriate governance and regulation."
Manchester United was second in the rankings with a revenue of $8m, but this time driven by strong commercial performance ($6m). The club qualified for the UWCL for the first time following a second-place finish in the WSL in 2022-23.
Real Madrid Femenino reported €7.4m, an increase of 416%, with €5.8m attributed to commercial revenue.
These statistics are not just a one-off phenomenon either, with Haskel explaining: “Our projections indicate that this level of growth will continue in the near to medium term. We believe women’s elite sport is still an underdeveloped market, and as more research, equity, commercial investment and visibility occurs, this growth will continue.
“However, whilst the rate of growth is significant, we must remember we’re starting from a relatively low base. The key to sustainable growth will be the implementation of appropriate governance and regulation, which strike a balance between the need for growth and sustainability in all areas but particularly financially.”
Renith R on Unsplash
A point that is worth noting from Deloitte’s report, however, is that other data made available by the 15 participants showed that no clubs were profitable in 2022-23. This was to be expected as clubs were currently in the growth phase.
Haskel believes that maintaining and encouraging this growth will also come from “effective competition structures” and allowing women’s sport to stand on its own two feet.
“Developing women’s sport as a distinct product in terms of advertising, scheduling and content will also be key to maintaining growth,” she says.
“There need to be good pathways for athletes which include investment in a pipeline of talent from grassroots and academy programme levels upwards, with safeguarding measures in place.”
Change can already be seen within the WSL in the UK, where clubs voted – alongside those in the second tier Championship – to act as shareholders in a new independent organisation away from the Football Association (FA).
The WSL has been run by the FA since its inception in 2010, but a takeover has been on the table since 2018. It is hoped that forming an independent organisation will help to capitalise on the upward trajectory of women’s football. This move is similar to the formation of the men’s Premier League in 1992, where it broke away from the English Football League’s First Division.
Additionally, the takeover has been planned for the 2024-25 season, and will be led by former Nike director Nikki Doucet, who has been appointed as Chief Executive.
Representation in key roles is another key building block, according to Haskel.
“Women’s sport has a really crucial storytelling opportunity – championing voices and stories of athletes and women in sport increases visibility and inclusive perspectives."
“Improving representation at a leadership level also remains important – championing female voices and women’s sport leaders on boards builds the right culture,” says Haskel.
“Women’s sport has a really crucial storytelling opportunity – championing voices and stories of athletes and women in sport increases visibility and inclusive perspectives. The key to maintaining growth is greater professionalisation, which will allow all of these factors to happen.”
Deloitte expects the valuations of both teams and leagues to continue to rise, with a number of teams’ values projected to exceed $100m in 2024. Additionally, major events and competitions such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Women’s Tennis Association tour are expected to contribute $425m to Deloitte’s $1bn revenue projection.
The value of women’s sport has been further demonstrated by the increase in players’ wages over the last few years, as well as the awarding of central contracts. For example, in 2019, England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) awarded professional contracts to members of its women’s team – the first to do so. A number of other unions globally have since followed suit.
Last year, it was also announced that England’s women’s rugby players were set to receive ‘enhanced’ three-year contracts, with 32 recipients, up from the previous 30. A further six transition contracts went to younger players, while two that were currently on maternity leave also remained contracted.
In cricket, 2023 also saw the announcement that England Women would be paid the same match fees as the men’s side, following the success of both Ashes series. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) made the decision following the surge in popularity for women’s sport, as well as recommendation from a landmark report published by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket.
A similar move was seen in The Hundred cricket competition, where the top women’s players will earn £50,000 in 2024, an increase on the top salary of £31,250 in 2023.
Elsewhere, last summer saw an end brought to a dispute between the England women’s national football team and the FA over pay and bonuses. The negotiations were paused during the Women’s World Cup, where England went on to lose the final to Spain.
The players believed they should be rewarded for their achievements from the FA directly, rather than relying on the FIFA bonus payments that were agreed prior to the World Cup.
“Improving representation at a leadership level also remains important – championing female voices and women’s sport leaders on boards builds the right culture."
Organisations have started to realise the value of women’s professional sport over the last four or five years. During the 2018-19 season, Barcelona Femení struck a shirt sponsorship deal with tools company Stanley Black & Decker, the first specific to the women’s team.
FC Barcelona Femení then went on to sign a new shirt sponsorship agreement with skincare brand Rilastil in 2023, a deal that also incorporated the women’s basketball team.
A number of football clubs went on to sign shirt sponsors exclusive to the women’s side, demonstrating the growing interest in the commercialisation of women’s sport.
Though to maintain the growth of women’s elite sport, Haskel concludes that it will need collaboration from all areas of sport.
“As the demand for women’s elite sport continues to grow, it will require careful planning and strategy from organisations, rightsholders, broadcasters, and government. Creating strong governance standards builds the foundation to supercharge investment in women’s sport and set a distinct path to attract further commercialisation opportunities.”