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Cameron Scott | Is pay-TV the best home for women’s sport?

Cameron Scott, senior account executive, CSM, examines whether all-female motorsport, the W Series, was right to strike a three-year media rights deal with UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky

Cameron Scott.

Since Sky Sports launched in 1991, the way people consume sport in the UK has changed dramatically. It was a jumping-off point, ushering in an era where huge sums of money are now spent acquiring the rights to show sport on TV channels.

In the intervening years, the likes of BT and Amazon have joined the party and are recognising the value of live action as they look to bolster their sports offering. The result? More and more events are disappearing behind paywalls as rights-holders look to maximise revenues.

Women’s sports are not excluded from this trend, and many are beginning to partner with pay-TV broadcasters. Some stakeholders fear that this could have a detrimental impact on female sport as it may reduce visibility, while others are attracted by the additional investment.

The W Series became the latest women’s sport property to partner with Sky earlier this year. The three-year deal represents W Series’ largest ever media deal and includes distribution of content across Sky’s linear, digital, and social channels. But what impact will moving behind a paywall have on the Series?

Over the years, several sports properties have disappeared behind paywalls, including Test cricket, the Ryder Cup, the Premier League and England’s home rugby matches, each with varying success.

Success stories

The biggest success story has been the Premier League, which was Sky’s first notable broadcast deal, signed in 1992. The £304m ($365.4m/€356.3m), five-year contract took Premier League football away from free-to-air for the first time. This led to unprecedented investment into English football which has enabled the game to grow emphatically, on and off the pitch.

There have been success stories in women’s sport, too, and the Women’s Super League (WSL) has been on a meteoric rise ever since signing a £24m, three-year deal with Sky Sports and the BBC ahead of the 2021-22 season.

It’s not just cash investment that pay-TV giants such as Sky can offer. Huge marketing spend can be deployed to promote the sport, alongside large production budgets that provide improved coverage.

This emphasis on high-quality marketing and high-end production enables Sky to take sports to the next level. The best example of this in women’s sport is the Vitality Netball Superleague, which has seen dramatic audience growth since partnering with Sky. The Hundred is another recent example, and Sky’s investment in promoting the women’s competition across all channels resulted in fans engaging with women’s cricket more than ever before.

It’s not all positive, though, and there are some properties that have suffered after partnering with a pay-TV broadcaster, including the men’s Uefa Champions League which saw a decline in viewership figures as a result. However, Uefa’s recent awarding of rights to Amazon and BT, with highlights on BBC, should help reverse this trend.

So, will the landmark Sky deal take the W Series to the next level, or will it propel the championship into obscurity?

Undoubtedly, the W Series is already benefiting from marketing across Sky’s linear, digital and social channels. This will allow the championship to reach new audiences and encourage more people to follow the sport. If the series can also invest its own resources into amplifying the product and work alongside Sky with a coordinated marketing approach, then this could have huge positive implications for the sport.

As well as reaching new fans, Sky will also enable the W Series to deepen connections with a core motorsport following. The broadcaster already has an engaged motorsport audience and a dedicated motorsport channel, which the W Series will now be able to access.

Sky’s history of best-in-class production and extensive experience also allows for dedicated W Series programmes, providing an added layer of coverage and storytelling to give extra colour to the championship.

This improved coverage will help the W Series overcome one of the challenges it has faced since inception – that its drivers are relatively unknown. This has created a barrier of growth for the sport, as fans find it more difficult to follow. Sky can redress this issue by emulating Formula One, which used the Netflix Drive To Survive series to humanise the drivers, showcase rivalries and build storylines. By broadcasting more W Series programmes than ever before, Sky can build the profile of the championship’s drivers, and in turn encourage fan engagement with the sport.

So far, so good then? Well, not quite. While Sky will certainly elevate the quality of W Series coverage, it may also lead to reduced visibility of the sport which could have a negative impact on both participation and commercialisation.

Reduced visibility could mean the W Series finds it more difficult to inspire a new generation of female drivers, engineers and team principals. By taking the sport away from free-to-air TV, the Championship is perhaps missing out on an opportunity to attract the future participants of the sport.

It is also potentially missing out on an opportunity to engage a different, younger demographic. Most motorsports are still seen as a middle-class sports, and participation still typically comes from people from wealthier backgrounds. This problem is unlikely to be helped by moving behind a paywall.

Younger people might be excluded too, as not only are they less likely to be able to afford subscription TV channels, they also are far less likely to consume linear TV at all. The consumption habits of Gen Z suggest they prefer to consume sport on social and digital and are unlikely to watch full races on Sky.

If this results in lower viewership figures then there could be a loss of sponsorship income, as brands see less value in a series with diminished reach. This could negate the additional income the W Series receives from the broadcast deal.

The ongoing 2022 Uefa European Women’s Football Championships has been a great example of the importance of free-to-air coverage of women’s sport. Fans have been tuning in in their millions and broadcast viewership records are on course to be shattered. Almost five million Brits watched England’s 8-0 victory over Norway live on BBC1 and the broadcaster’s digital platforms demonstrate the immense reach of terrestrial TV. The W Series could miss out on such high numbers by not offering free-to-air coverage.

Effective reinvestment

The deal with Sky has the potential to grow the sport, but it is vital that the increased income it receives is reinvested effectively. The level of the broadcaster’s involvement will also determine whether it propels the sport forwards. If the broadcaster puts time, effort and resources into growing the Series then it could take it to the next level. Conversely, if Sky decides to merely act as a passive platform to broadcast the races and nothing more, then it may not have the positive impact that W Series bosses are hoping for. Of course, it is also vital that the W Series markets the sport itself and doesn’t simply rely on Sky. The Series must put its own resources into marketing the sport and work alongside the broadcaster to promote the sport if the deal is to be a success.

Recent case studies, such as the WSL and The Hundred, suggest that a hybrid broadcast model (some matches on pay-TV and others on free-to-air) could be the way forward. It appears that this model could work for the W Series, as demonstrated by the recent British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The race was shown on both Sky and Channel 4 and attracted a peak UK TV audience of one million viewers, its highest-ever figure since the Series’ launch in 2018. Silverstone is the only race that Channel 4 has the rights to show live, and perhaps the W Series should be looking to operate the hybrid model for more races.

The W Series won’t be the only rights-holder in women’s sport that will have to decide on pay-TV versus free-to-air in the near future. Those that are presented with the decision will have to weigh up whether to prioritise the visibility of free-to-air coverage or the investment of pay-TV broadcasters, among other factors.

Ultimately, pay-TV can be a good option for women’s sport properties if the additional revenue is reinvested effectively and is used to amplify the product. Perhaps an even better option, though, would be to follow in the footsteps of the WSL and The Hundred and operate a hybrid model

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