Women’s football has earned the right this year to be valued as a commercial property in its own right, and we’ve seen concrete evidence of this in multi-million pound rights-holder, media and brand partner deals and a fanbase that continues to grow.
In July this year, 47 per cent of the UK population watched the Fifa Women’s World Cup, and 11.7 million viewers watched the England v USA semi-final. It was the UK’s most watched live broadcast this year (sport and non-sport). What was arguably even more impressive was that we then saw this audience and popularity transfer across to the newly-branded Barclays Women’s Super League. All credit to the clubs, the FA, Barclays and to the League’s media partners, the BBC and BT Sport, for smart scheduling and advance planning.
The opening September weekend attracted 61,000 fans to the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge for the Manchester and London Derbies. This is over two thirds of the 92,000 total audience that went to watch all 110 league games last season. Quite an achievement. In fact, more fans paid to go watch Man City v Man Utd than turned up for free at Stamford Bridge to watch the Chelsea v Spurs game. Ascribing value really matters and now is the time to capitalise on this. With the Uefa Women’s Euro being hosted in England in 2021, we have two important years ahead with the potential for rapid commercial growth.
Remaining with European football for a moment, FC Barcelona is making women’s football the core of its US commercial drive. The club believes that the commercial opportunities in women’s football equal those of the men’s game in the US. And according to their research (via social intelligence software company Shareablee), women account for about a third of sports engagement on social media in the US, with football the third-most common sport they engage with. Whilst North America still leads the way, Europe is now following.
Blue chip brands
This year we have seen more blue-chip brands than ever become involved in women’s sport – and women’s football in particular – buoyed in particular by showcase events and a growing fan base. The deals that have been struck are higher in cash value, longer-term and with much greater committed activation spend. There’s a move away from transactional deals to much stronger strategic partnerships where brand and sport commit to work together to deliver shared value. This is not just a trend in women’s football, but a move across all sports as the market moves towards partnerships with greater emphasis on social purpose and outcomes.
An excellent example of this in action is Mastercard’s deal with Arsenal and Olympic Lyonnais announced in May this year. For Mastercard, it’s about investing in the development of the professional game, and the chance to impact on the lives of athletes and young girls around the world. This desire to engage with purpose, and not simply to drive visibility, will be critical to successful partnerships, particularly in those engaging women and girls. Uefa have had similar success with competitor Visa as a women’s stand-alone partner with a tailored commercial programme and distinct commercial rights.
What needs to happen to increase the commercial sustainability of women’s football in the coming months and years? I would focus on the professional presentation of the sport and its development as an entertainment product on broadcast, digital and social platforms in order to grow mass reach. The recently launched FA Player, the FA’s new OTT service covering the women’s game, allows fans to do this. The Barclays WSL double headers and the up-coming FA Women’s Football weekend, scheduled for November during the men’s international window, also provide great opportunities. Finding space and time to promote the game amidst a busy football and winter calendar is really important.
I’d also build the character and stories around the athletes. The power of the personality is something US promoters understand and do very well, allowing them to secure lucrative commercial endorsements for the athlete – witness US Soccer player Alex Morgan’s reportedly $3m-a-year income, comprised mostly of commercial endorsement deals with major brands such as Nike, Coca Cola, Bank of America, McDonalds, and Bridgestone. We’re seeing more of this now in Europe, but players need to demonstrate confidence and stature in order to command the attention of brands and media platforms.
Women’s football – and indeed women’s sport in its totality – must recognise the need to demonstrate clear commercial value, celebrate success, and shine a spotlight on those commercial partners that help to drive reach, reward and recognition for its fans and customers.