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Chris Hurst | Women’s sport more visible than ever, but it still needs to build repeat viewership

With 2022 promising one of the most exciting women’s sports calendars in history, Chris Hurst, trustee of the Women’s Sport Trust, examines where the growth opportunities are for the industry.

A recent Women’s Sport Trust report found almost 33 million people watched women’s domestic sport in 2021, with the Hundred and the Women’s Super League bringing in 11 million new viewers to women’s events. Of the 4.9 million new viewers to the Women’s Hundred, 71 per cent went  on to watch other women’s sports. Parts of the these audiences were only there for female competitions, with 25 per cent of viewers who watched England women’s cricket or the Women’s Hundred last year not watching any men’s cricket on TV in 2021.

The 2022 sporting calendar presents an incredible opportunity, especially around headline events happening on UK soil, such as the Uefa Women’s Euros or Rugby League World Cup, alongside annual competitions and events such as the Wimbledon Championships, The Hundred and the WSL, to bring new audiences into women’s sport and signpost them to other events. This needs a joined-up approach from sports working together to collectively grow audiences.

Women’s sport typically sees its biggest stars come from individual sports, as shown by the astonishing levels of search interest for Emma Raducanu around her US Open victory last year. There is an opportunity to use a cross-platform approach, especially on social media, to create big individual stars in team sports, that will drive affinity with players and teams to build habit around women’s sport. This in turn will create the brand opportunities needed to make women’s sport visible and commercially viable, especially for those sponsors looking to align profit and purpose.

The importance of a cross-platform approach 

Digital media is playing a key role in profiling women’s sport, and also attracting a different fanbase.

A perfect example of this is netball where broadcaster Sky has taken a two-pronged approach to the sport, complementing its TV coverage by posting content on YouTube.While 26 per cent of Sky Sports’ TV viewership for netball last year was female, 74 per cent of Sky Sports’ live YouTube audience for netball were women. This YouTube viewership, which is achieving average watch times of over 27 minutes, is very different to the usual Sky Sports YouTube live audience which is normally predominantly male. The audience also skews young with almost 57 per cent of netball viewers on YouTube under the age of 34.

Events in 2022 like the Women’s Six Nations, which is partnering with TikTok, provide a platform to maximise live broadcast viewership on free-to-air TV, but build a digital ecosystem alongside it, where fans follow and engage with teams and players on TikTok accounts.

Translating digital engagement into attendance 

The Women’s Sport Trust study showed that Chelsea’s FC Women’s Instagram interactions in 2021 were higher than 12 of the men’s teams that play in the Premier League in the 2021-22 season, yet they, along with other WSL teams, have struggled to consistently drive full occupancy rates in their stadia, or even make the business case that they need to play more of their matches in the main stadiums which hold men’s matches.

It was positive to see both the Chelsea-Arsenal and Manchester City-Manchester United matches sold out at the weekend, although only in their relatively small capacity grounds. But some clubs still struggle to attract even 1,000 spectators to WSL matches. The Football Association has set a three-year strategy for the women’s professional game that includes an average match attendance of 6,000. Translating rising digital engagement into increased attendance, which in turn will enhance the commercial attractiveness of women’s sport, is absolutely key.

The industry also needs to turn this rise in digital engagement on third-party channels into first party data. Across sports played separately by men and women, the average gap between the percentage of known men’s and women’s ticket purchasers is 23 per cent according to digital marketing agency Two Circles, which suggests sporting stakeholders are failing to fully capture available data on women’s sports fans.

The need to build greater habit 

The Women’s Sport Trust research highlighted that women’s sport still needs to address building greater habit and repeat viewership. When looking at the percentage of viewers, based on 3-minute reach, that watched a property on more than one occasion, our findings shows that women’s events lag behind men’s events at present.

45 per cent of the Women’s Hundred audience watched the competition on television on more than one occasion, in comparison to 35 per cent during the 2021/2022 WSL season so far (vs 31 per cent during the WSL season in 2020/21). This compares to 55 per cent for the Men’s Hundred, 57 per cent for Premiership Rugby during the 2020/21 season and 87 per cent for the Premier League last season.

Women’s sport needs to be brave enough to reimagine what a five-star customer experience is to build habit, and this doesn’t have to be dictated by just looking at the way in which men’s sport has been delivered previously. What inspiration can it take from beyond the sporting world, from businesses like Amazon, Deliveroo, Cazoo or John Lewis, that drive repeat behaviours, positive sentiment and high average revenue per user?

Introducing measurement around gender parity 

Back in April 2021, the Women’s Sport Trust published the Closing the Visibility Gap report,  based on data from 2019-20, which highlighted that governing bodies were not achieving gender parity of coverage on their own channels. One of the report recommendations was that organisations should monitor their own parity of coverage on an ongoing basis.

The Lawn Tennis Association is a positive example of a governing body that has introduced gender parity of coverage as a metric that is monitored monthly as part of the organisation’s inclusion strategy. This has led to an improvement in a 12-month period of how the women’s game is covered on the LTA’s own channels, and this remains an ongoing focus for the organisation.

It is also important to note that even before the success of Raducanu at Wimbledon, the LTA was investing in content about some of the top British female players. This meant that when Raducanu achieved unexpected success in the summer, existing content could be repackaged and distributed to users to take advantage of the surge of interest in her and helped contribute to a record-breaking year of social growth for the organisation.

Organisations need to think about setting targets that will drive ambitious growth around women’s sport. The Women’s Sport Trust will also continue to play its role in monitoring the visibility of the industry, drawing attention to where change is needed and opportunity exists, so that women’s sport in the UK continues to go from strength to strength.

 

Chris Hurst recently took part in a SportBusiness webinar: How safeguarding and storytelling can help women’s sport to fulfil its commercial promise. The event was produced in association with legal practice Withersworldwide. To watch a recording of the webinar, click here.  

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