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Year of progress: Can sport build on a year of successful women’s events?

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 16: Kelly Brazier of New Zealand in action during the IRB Womens Sevens match between New Zealand and Spain on May 16, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

  • The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup saw a 53:47 gender split in ITV audiences in the UK·
  • Crowds of 50,000 attended the first few games of the new AFL Women’s Australian Rules tournament
  • Women’s sport still makes up only 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK

The well-worn maxim that women’s sport only has a 16-day window every four years to inspire generations of girls to play sport was blown out of the water in the summer of 2017, when millions watched the Women’s Rugby World Cup, ICC Women’s World Cup of cricket and Uefa Women’s Championship in football.

The BBC, Eurosport, NBC, ARD and PTV Sports were among a multitude of global broadcasters that showcased the performances of stars such as England’s Anya Shrubsole, the Netherlands’ Anouk Dekker and the US’s Naya Tapper, while new sponsors helped finance the summer spectacles which enticed legions of new female and male fans.

These big global competitions may have snatched the headlines over 2017 – a period shorn of an Olympics or major men’s football tournament – but observers believe there has been a steady “drumbeat” powering women’s sport for many years, both on and off the field.

Australian rules football has launched a professional women’s league, teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) have appointed female coaches and female sports journalists around the world are becoming more prominent. In the UK, the Football Association (FA) and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have made bold statements about investing in women’s sport.

“It feels like there is one big tell-tale sign after another that we are getting there,” says Laura Gentile, ESPN’s senior vice president of espnW & Women’s Initiatives. “We are not there; we are still quite a way from being equal [to men]. But it feels like it’s at the strongest and most consistent level than ever before.”

Women’s sport is clearly on the up, but sponsorship spend, broadcast hours and media coverage are still so heavily skewed towards male sport that a summer of triumph could soon become a mere footnote unless stakeholders build upon this momentum.

Andy Kenny, managing director, CAA Sports Consulting, says: “It’s obviously great momentum. But you need to put it in context with where it’s at with men’s sport. Between seven and ten per cent of media coverage is on women’s sport. And at the end of the day, brands are looking for profile and media coverage.”

Gender split

Securing a primetime UK broadcast slot on ITV for the Women’s Rugby World Cup final – which attracted an average audience of two million, which is double the ratings of many Premier League matches on pay-TV channels – may have been a coup, but for World Rugby’s general manager for the women’s game, it was just one of a number of achievements.

Katie Sadleir, general manager, says: “There was a 53:47 split for most of the games between men and women watching. So men are watching women’s rugby.”
Such a near gender split, says Sadleir, would factor heavily into conversations World Rugby will have with new prospective sponsors for the women’s game.

The big appeal for sponsors, like accountancy firm EY, which was lured in to sponsor the World Cup, is that women’s rugby gives brands a reach into a demographic who are a household’s key purchasers.

There has been a buzz around women’s rugby for a numbers of years, helping it raise the profile level of sponsors for last year’s World Cup. Now Sadleir believes it can up the ante.

“Given the rise in talent and the number of viewers, we believe we can sit down with corporates where there is a close alignment in brand values,” Sadleir says. “We are definitely looking to stretch that commercial programme.”

The triumph of the World Cup, observers say, has helped shift the perception of rugby as an elitist, male-dominated sport into one which can be played by women and girls across the world, aided by encouraging words by their male counterparts.

Dylan Hartley, England’s men’s rugby captain, paid tribute as the women’s team prepared to face New Zealand in the final in Belfast. “They’ve got their own story, we’re writing ours,” said Hartley. “I’m envious that they get to play a World Cup final. I will be watching because I won’t actually be playing.”

Sadleir, who represented New Zealand at the 1984 Olympic Games and won a medal at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in synchronised swimming, says the fervour around women’s rugby is here to stay.

It’s not just the razzmatazz around the World Cup, she says, but rugby training programmes taking place in non-traditional heartlands, including India, Vietnam and the Caribbean, which indicate its rude health.

Future survival

“It’s been a fantastic year for women’s sport,” says Mark Lichtenhein, chairman of golf’s Ladies European Tour (LET). “There is a general tailwind behind the sport which I would like to think we are very much part of.”

Record crowds gathered at Des Moines Golf and Country Club for the 2017 Solheim Cup, while star names competed in the Ladies Scottish Open. But women’s golf is still reeling from the economic crash of 2008, with some reports suggesting that the tour is close to collapsing.

“We did lose a number of tournaments in the financial crisis. This is clearly the weakness we have at the moment,” says Lichtenhein. “We have rebuilt a little outside Europe but we need to rebuild within Europe particularly at the beginning part of the schedule. This is our absolute number one priority.”

To bolster its position, the LET is considering tie-ups with the men’s European Tour and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), its US equivalent.

“It’s a blank canvass in terms of the best way to do it. It’s in everybody’s interests that we have as competitive a European tour as possible,” says Lichtenhein.
“We will explore the ways that can be done. If it means blooding more tournaments that’s obviously what we need to do. That is our primary objective in the short term.”

Crucial for the LET’s future survival is luring in sponsors in a cluttered, male-dominated sports market.

It’s a “tough market,” adds Lichtenhein, but he believes there are reasons to be optimistic, pointing to the example of left-of-field sponsor Estrella Damm, the beer brand, backing the recent Mediterranean Open.

Record crowds

While less noted on a global stage, there were record crowds in attendance last year for the first games of the inaugural AFL Women’s (AFLW) Australian Rules football season.

The launch bought the game onto a professional footing and elevated it on to the same level as soccer and cricket in Australia.

Crowds of 50,000 attended the first few games and Australians from all corners of the country were glued to their television screens.

Domestic broadcasters Foxtel and Seven Network signed up as partners while National Australia Bank inked a naming rights deal said to be worth between A$2m and A$3m (€2.0m/$2.4m) a year.

All the signs are pointing towards AFLW being a success, but its boss is remaining circumspect.

“I’d like to remind everyone this is year one [and] 176 women making their debut this weekend carry an extraordinary amount on their shoulders,” said Gillon McLachlan, chief executive of the AFL, ahead of the launch.

Significant sea change

For women’s sport to flourish, rights holders and associations, sponsors, and broadcasters must be on the same page.

In 2014, ESPN faced embarrassment when it was revealed that its flagship programme SportsCenter dedicated just 2% of its airtime to women’s sport, part of a wider investigation into women’s sport which painted the network in a damning light.

ESPN might argue it was unfairly singled out and, in its defence, can point to its dedicated women’s sport channel, espnW, and the screening of a raft of college and professional women’s sport.

Gentile believes there is a significant sea change afoot, and that women’s sport is more part of the “sports conversation” than ever before, a momentum which she thinks harks back to the women’s 2011 Fifa Women’s World Cup in Germany.

This momentum is beyond the playing field, she says, pointing to Becky Hammon becoming the first full-time assistance coach in the NBA and Jennifer Welter becoming the first female coach in the NFL.

“There has been this steady drumbeat of momentum,” Gentile says. “There have been big female accomplishments and quite a lot of discussion about women’s roles within sports media.”

She points to a flurry of women’s sports which are generating strong audience numbers on ESPN.

“Women’s college softball, volleyball and basketball have grown for us. International soccer for women and our US national team always rate strongly when there is a marquee event. And then the tennis grand slams are a winner,” she says.

New audiences

In recent years, Gatorade, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Toyota have been among the brands that have made significant investments in backing women’s sports teams or individuals, realising that they can reach new audiences.

On a more local level, women’s cycling in the UK may not be a sporting colossus but for the UK energy supplier Ovo Energy it represents a good fit as part of a foray into cycling sponsorship. The company, which focuses on sustainability and smart technology, is the sponsor of the 2017 Women’s Tour and the Tour of Britain.

It comes at a time when cycling in the UK is growing, particularly among women, with more than two million people across the country now cycling at least once a week, according to British Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the UK.

“When you look at cyclists it’s clear that they are more likely to be early adopters; progressives with a green mindset,” Adam Rostom, chief marketing officer at Ovo Energy, says. “The fit between cyclists and our proposition is clear, so our sponsorship of cycling makes great sense.”

Furthermore, Rostom says that sponsoring men’s and women’s cycling helps underscore the values of inclusivity and diversity that the company likes to be associated with.

Gauging the success of the sponsorship will reveal itself over time, but Rostom says the early indications are that it has been a success.

Crucial juncture

Women’s sport, both for individuals and teams, is at a crucial juncture. The highs enjoyed this summer have undoubtedly taken women’s sports such as cricket, rugby and football to a new level, but whether that momentum can continue remains to be seen.

It needs buy-in from the sporting ecosystem, and observers believe it would be helped by improved gender equality in the higher echelons of sporting bodies.

A spokesperson for UK-based campaign group Women In Sport, told SportBusiness: “Half of sport’s governing bodies [in the UK] are failing to meet the target of 30% women on their boards, and nine have no female representation at all.”

Broadcasters are making inroads into showcasing more women’s sport, but the startling fact remains it makes up only 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK.

That said, the days of media coverage, be it in the press or TV, driving audiences and dictating the fortunes of individual sports are long gone as Lewis Wiltshire, consulting partner at digital consultancy Seven League, points out.

“What matters most is that organisations now have control over their own messaging and are able to broadcast directly to their own audiences and fans,” says Wiltshire. “They can do that via their own websites, apps and social media accounts. If you are a fan of England Netball and interested in tickets for the World Cup you can have that conversation with England Netball independently of traditional media.”

Sporting organisations may be able to bypass the media but they can’t bypass other stakeholders, such as sponsors and governing bodies, whose support they will need to ensure a buoyant future for women’s sport.

2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup stats

  • TV audience peak: 3.2m – France v England (semi-final)
  • TV audience peak for final: 2.65m – England v New Zealand
  • The US, UK, France and Ireland all reported record viewing figures
  • 73% of social media users under the age of 24
  • 63,000 users of #WRWC2017
  • 600,000 unique users visited www.rwcwomens.com

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