Report | Can women’s sport build on a year of promise?

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Long before it was over, 2017 was being hailed as a landmark year for women’s sport.

It was 12 months which featured showpieces for two globally popular sports, in the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup and the Women’s Rugby World Cup, while some of the best women’s football teams in the world demonstrated their talents at the Uefa Women’s Championship in the Netherlands.

More than the on-field events, 2017 was a crucial moment in the commercialisation of women’s sport. In England – which played host to the cricket and rugby union – these events were impossible to miss, covered as mass-media moments for the first time in the history of the tournaments.

As this report will show, however, while the gap between women’s and men’s sport is narrowing, the pace of change has been glacial. In almost every aspect – media coverage, commercial revenues, attendance, participation – men’s sport remains streets ahead, even in territories in which women’s sport has progressed rapidly over the last decade.

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The acid test may come in America. While the Women’s National Basketball Association celebrated its 21st birthday last year with record-breaking crowds, it remains the only women’s competition operated by any of the country’s four traditional major leagues. Should any one of those sports receive major backing and catch fire – with recent attempts at professional women’s football, soccer and ice hockey leagues all having foundered – it could usher in a new era of interest in women’s sport in the world’s biggest market.

While lip service must be paid to the benefits of sport for sport’s sake, progress will ultimately be driven by commercial imperative. In Europe, for instance, the professionalisation of both France’s Division 1 Féminine and England’s Women’s Super League football competitions is showing the way for other countries whose investment into the women’s game has lagged behind.

The application of Manchester United to enter the WSL2 from the start of the 2018/19 season is a major development. The English giants have long resisted calls to revive their women’s team, with speculation that senior figures in the club worried about their brand being devalued should the team fail to replicate the success of the men’s side. This is likely to be what it will take across the world to bring women’s sport to its full potential: top-level involvement from the biggest clubs and rights-holders in men’s sport.

The theme that emerges from the articles in this report – some new, some updated and refreshed pieces from the SportBusiness archive – is that there is undoubtedly a boom waiting to happen. There is a huge audience, of both women and men, with an appetite to consume women’s sport, and there is an ever-increasing range of professionalised clubs, leagues and tournaments owned by some of the world’s biggest rights-holders. The challenge for the next few years will be to marry those two things together commercially.

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