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Women’s professional sport: Two steps forward, one step back?

October 12 2023

New Zealand and Australia recently provided the backdrop for two major events in women’s sport: the Women’s Rugby World Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup. Both were well attended, with the Women’s Rugby World Cup final attracting 42,579 attendees to Auckland’s Eden Park, while Sydney’s Accor Stadium saw 75,784 watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup final between Spain and England.

Women’s professional sport: Two steps forward, one step back?

The FIFA Women’s World Cup final was marred by well-documented controversy relating to an incident involving Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President Luis Rubiales, while less than a year on, Women’s England rugby side is battling for television coverage despite a scintillating World Cup.

It seems that even with major growth, there are numerous barriers preventing women’s sport from reaching the heady heights associated with men’s sport.

Women’s sport has enjoyed a major resurgence globally, inspired by events such as the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022, the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup and the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. 

In particular, England has witnessed football fans move to support its women’s teams following a victory at the 2022 Women’s Euro final at Wembley Stadium in London. A sold-out crowd of 87,192 – a record attendance for a women’s international match in Europe and for any European Championship finals fixture – watched the Lionesses defeat Germany 2-1. From then on, a domino effect was felt as Women’s Super League (WSL) football match attendances increased in the UK. 

Similarly, the Red Roses – as England’s national women’s rugby team are known – also experienced a positive impact, with a boost in support that followed the side to the postponed 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year. 

Despite narrowly losing in the final to host New Zealand, England’s popularity remained in 2023. The Red Roses clinched the Six Nations title against France in April this year at Twickenham, the home of English rugby, where almost 60,000 rugby fans flocked to back the women. 

At the time, England’s captain Marlie Packer told the Guardian: “I want to sell out Twickenham. I believe we can do it and I believe we can do it before 2025 for the World Cup final. Look at today. We weren’t no curtain-raiser. It was all about us. I don’t think any of us have played in front of a crowd like that and I’ve been knocking around for a while now. Everything is on the rise so more tickets will be sold and more stadiums will sell out.” 

Fast forward just six months, and that optimism has been dented. England recently featured in a two-Test series against Canada at Saracens’ StoneX Stadium in London. Neither game was broadcast on terrestrial TV, with coverage only available via video-sharing platform YouTube. 

Red Roses full-back Ellie Kildunne told the BBC: “It was really disappointing. I thought it was a joke when I heard someone say it. The women’s game is on the up. It is almost a golden age for women’s sport. I think it’s really damaging not to be able to flick it on [TV] for people out there.

“There might be people out there who don’t know how to use YouTube, no matter what age you are it’s not as accessible as flicking on the BBC and seeing it’s there.”

The view that women’s sport should be accessible on broadcast channels, while also being available across digital platforms, is shared by Women’s Sport Trust Chief Executive, Tammy Parlour.

“There’s a lot that still needs to be done to make women’s sport reach its potential. The Karen Carney review of football, for instance, points to many structural issues that need to be tackled. Research that we did in 2021 also showed the importance of visibility in driving engagement of women’s sport,” Parlour tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“We want women’s sport to be easily found on broadcast channels, digital channels and within media outlets. Women’s Sport Trust – with data and insights from Futures Sport and Entertainment – actively monitors visibility, and we have reported that people in the UK are watching more women’s sport than ever before on TV with total viewing hours increasing by 19%, year on year.

“Broadcasters such as BBC and Sky have made live women’s sport easier to access on TV and have been rewarded with record-breaking viewing figures this year. We know that there is an audience for women’s sport. We now need to ensure that a greater range of digital experiences are available to fans to satisfy the growing audience interest, and that brand sponsors understand their role in driving value.”

Women’s Sport Trust was founded in 2012 with the goal of raising the visibility and increasing the impact of women’s sport.

The review mentioned by Parlour saw former footballer Karen Carney appointed by the UK Government to lead a review of domestic women’s football in 2022. Earlier this year, Carney appointed an expert panel to help support this review, which will aim to boost participation and strengthen the commercial standing of women’s football in the UK.

With the success of the Lionesses over the last couple of years, domestic football in the UK has reached larger audiences and taken over major stadiums utilised within the men’s game. Last season was a record-breaking year in the WSL and the figures have continued to build in the current campaign.

Arsenal Women’s match against Liverpool at Emirates Stadium earlier this month attracted a WSL record attendance of 54,115, with the venue set to host five of Arsenal Women’s 11 home games this campaign.

Elsewhere, English Championship clubs Leicester City and Bristol City have made their King Power Stadium and Ashton Gate permanent homes for the women’s teams, while other clubs have increased the number of games played at stadiums traditionally reserved for the men’s teams.

While this boost may seem like it has only taken place over the last couple of years, Parlour says that women’s sport has been on an upward trajectory for quite some time.

“Since the Lionesses’ success at the Euros last year, it might feel like we have been catapulted into a new era for women’s sport, but the reality is that this momentum has been building for a long time. Events like the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019, the launch of The Hundred in 2021 and the Women’s Six Nations have all played a role in getting us to this position,” explains Parlour.

“We know the importance of creating habitual behaviour around women’s sport and the broadcast deals agreed with BBC and Sky across a range of sports have been hugely important in bringing new audiences to women’s sport.

“Our latest visibility research shows that women’s sport is attracting its own unique audiences – 11.5 million of the 29.9 million people who watched the FIFA Women’s World Cup on TV did not watch the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 on TV.”

Tammy Parlour, Women’s Sport Trust Chief Executive

Tammy Parlour, Women’s Sport Trust Chief Executive

Two steps forward, one step back?

The FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 saw over 1.1 million football fans attend in France, with the tournament also setting new viewership records at the time. A total of 1.12 billion people watched matches globally, with the final attracting more than 82 million viewers.

Australia and New Zealand’s turn as hosts of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 saw almost two million fans descend on stadiums. The average attendance was 30,911 for each game, an increase of the 21,756 posted in France, though this was partly thanks to the increase in games from 52 to 64. The final saw a crowd of 75,784 pack into Accor Stadium in Sydney to watch Spain beat England 1-0.

However, these happy moments for the Spanish team’s inaugural Women’s World Cup triumph were overshadowed by an event that demonstrated how far women’s sport has to go to be seen as equal.

Without having been given consent to do so, Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President Luis Rubiales kissed Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the medal presentation after the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. After initial resistance from Rubiales, he eventually resigned from his role after FIFA intervened in the matter.

Earlier this week, Hermoso’s statement to prosecutors over the kiss in September was broadcast on Spanish television. An investigating judge is currently carrying out a preliminary investigation to decide if the accusations should go to trial, with the National Court increasing the scope of its inquiry to include other RFEF officials.

The 33-year-old footballer has said that her image has been tarnished by the RFEF and that she had not been “protected”. She also discussed being asked to sign a press statement for global media to say that the kiss was mutual.

As reported by the BBC, Hermoso said: “I didn’t say a single word of that text. I felt coerced again.”

"What is also encouraging is that this growth is being seen across many different sports, not just football." Tammy Parlour, Chief Executive of The Women’s Sport Trust

Elsewhere, some progress has been made in motorsport when it comes to female racing drivers. Jessica Hawkins completed her first Formula 1 test for the Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant Formula 1 Team in September, at the Hungaroring in Hungary.

Hawkins joined the Aston Martin F1 Team as a Driver Ambassador in 2021, and has raced in the W Series, an all-women racing competition that was unable to finish its 2022 season due to a lack of funding. She became the first woman to drive a modern F1 car in almost five years, since Tatania Calderon at an event in Mexico ahead of the country’s 2018 race.

While Hawkins’ driving of the 2021 Aston Martin car comes as a step forward, though, it is an extremely small step towards having a woman race in Formula 1.

The all-female F1 Academy was launched by Formula 1 this year to help female drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 progress up the motorsport ladder. The inaugural season featured five teams with 15 drivers, and the final three races (taking place as part of next week’s United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas) are set to be broadcast on Sky Sports F1.

A female Formula 1 driver has not competed in the sport since Lella Lombardi in 1976, who participated in 17 F1 World Championship Grands Prix. She was also only one of two female drivers to ever qualify for F1 and the only one to have scored points. Scottish racing driver Susie Wolff, who is now the managing director of the F1 Academy, arguably came the closest when she participated in practice sessions at the British and German Grand Prix in 2014 with Williams. Wolff went on to drive in practice sessions at the Spanish Grand Prix and the British Grand Prix in 2015, before announcing her retirement that same year.

Wolff had become the first woman to participate in a F1 weekend since 1992, when Giovanna Amati made three unsuccessful attempts with Brabham to qualify for a Grand Prix.

Formula 1 bosses and F1 Academy also announced this year that, as of 2024, all teams currently competing in Formula 1 will have one driver and their livery on one car competing in the all-female series.

While the sport seems to be making all the right noises, its own chief executive Stefano Domenicali admitted last year that F1 was unlikely to see a female driver any time soon.

As reported by ESPN, Domenicali said: “I don’t see – unless there will be something that will be like some sort of meteorite com into the Earth – a girl coming into Formula 1 in the next five years. That is very unlikely, I need to be realistic.”

He added: “But we want to build up the right pyramid with the right approach, step-by-step, in order for them to start to race against the guys at the right age, with the right car. That’s really what we are working on.”

Not just football

England provided the backdrop to a thrilling Men’s Ashes against Australia this summer, while also hosting the equally entertaining Women’s Ashes simultaneously.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirmed that crowds of 110,00 watched the Women’s Ashes series over the summer. Following the news, the ECB also announced that it would be increasing match fees for England Women to bring them in line with England Men’s match fees.

England set new women’s international attendance records at grounds across the country, including Edgbaston, the Kia Oval and Lord’s, while also selling out matches in Taunton, Bristol and Hampshire.

The excitement around the Women’s Ashes translated into television audiences.

“What is also encouraging is that this growth is being seen across many different sports, not just football,” says Parlour. “For example, 6.5 million people watched at least three minutes of the Metro Bank Women’s Ashes Series 2023 – whether it was live or highlights on free-to-air TV, compared to 3.8 million for the Ashes Series in 2019.”

Maintaining the momentum

Parlour explains that brands and athletes will have a role to play in maintaining the push for the equal representation of professional women’s sport.

A reported published with golf body The R&A, and research partner Gemba, demonstrated that fans of women’s sport are looking for content that engages with personalities and rivalries that drive passion.

“We know that athletes can inspire fans and influence fan behaviour towards brands driving high levels of brand affinity and consideration,” says Parlour.

“As this increases, the opportunities will be plenty, but we also need to continue to professionalise the structures that sit around the athletes; things like adequate training provision, mental and physical support, and athlete transition.”

The most recent report Women’s Sport Trust, with Onside as its research partner, demonstrated that brands can benefit from sponsoring women’s sports teams and athletes.

Some 29% of consumers think more favourably of companies or brands that support women’s sport through sponsorship, compared to 17% that support men’s sport, while 16% of the UK population are more likely to buy from a brand that sponsors women’s sport, compared to 13% that sponsor a men’s sport.

Parlour adds: “Other research from the Women’s Sport Trust to support Google Pixel’s commitment to improving the media visibility of women’s football revealed that despite record-breaking broadcast audiences and media coverage for women’s football in the 2022-23 season, there are still strides be to made to achieve parity with the men’s game, with 2% of print media football coverage and 6% of television football news mentions in the UK dedicated to the women’s game compared to 98% and 94% achieved by the men’s game respectively.”

A journey

While there have been some well-publicised setbacks for women’s sport, the last five years appear to have represented a major turning point. The move to major stadiums, season ticket and single-match ticket sales for women’s games in numerous sports, and viewership and attendance records have demonstrated the commercial potential of women’s sport.

“Change doesn’t follow a clear path,” Parlour concludes. “The growth of women’s sport is a long-term project. There may be losses in the short term but the long-term potential is huge.”

Women’s Sport Trust is aiming to establish a women’s sport ecosystem that is bold, unapologetic and independently successful on its own terms.

It publishes its own research which shows the growing visibility and commercial viability of women’s sport. It also works with rights-holders, broadcasters and brands to provide insight into the industry.

Additionally, it supports a range of elite athletes through its Unlocked programmes, helping them turbo-charge their influence.

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