Sunday’s match drew the biggest stadium crowd in the history of the Championship, as well as a TV audience of 17.4million, making it the most-watched women’s football match on British television. It ended a 56-year drought – the last victory on this scale was when England beat (West) Germany to win the 1966 World Cup. iconic cultural moments, particularly when winning goalscorer Chloe Kelly took off her England shirt in celebration, echoing former USA star Brandi Chastain in 1999. Both revealed Nike sports bras.
Translating all of this into business success, however, is not straightforward. Comparisons to men’s soccer or the USA women’s team can be misleading.
It’s true, for example, that the United States women’s team recently reached a landmark $24 million settlement during a six-year legal battle to get a pay rate equal to the team’s. men’s national and World Cup prize money parity – a feat reminiscent of Billie Jean King’s campaign for prize money parity in women’s tennis. But that doesn’t mean there’s likely to be equal pay in the UK game. One big difference is that Major League Soccer players in the United States pull nothing like the stratospheric packages that Premier League stars get.
Cultural differences also make it more difficult to level up in the sport. Women’s football is ubiquitous in the United States but is barely available in much of Britain, a point the Lionesses made in a letter Wednesday to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, urging the two candidates to leadership of the Conservatives to address the lack of opportunities for girls to play football. and participate in sport in general.
There will be substantial benefits for individual players, of course, but even those comparisons are tricky. After Emma Raducanu, a little-known 18-year-old tennis player, made history by winning the US Open championship in 2021, deals with Nike, British Airways, Evian, Dior, Tiffany’s and Vodafone have boosted his net worth to around £10 million ($12.2 million).
But this is tennis, where there is roughly equal broadcast coverage between men and women and equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments. Half of the 10 highest paid athletes in the world come from the sport.
Football is different. The question is not just how fast it can close the gap, but where the growth will come from. Since the Lionesses’ victory, there have been further tie-ups involving Nike, Pepsi, Visa, Gucci and others – and more deals will come. But sponsors will be looking to see if the national team’s win sparks more fan interest in the main women’s league.
So far it looks like it. Searches for ‘women’s football tickets’ have spiked, with interest in Chloe Kelly’s Manchester City side up 3,000% after the Lionesses win. Previously, he had often struggled to fill the 7,000-capacity Academy Stadium where the women play. Nine Women’s Super League clubs have told the Guardian they have seen a surge in interest since the match, with Brighton claiming to have sold more tickets since Saturday than all of last season. The website selling tickets for the Lionesses’ friendly match against the USA women’s team in October crashed on Tuesday due to high demand.
Even if a wider audience promises more prizes and sponsorships, comparisons to the men’s game (and salary) will continue to be pointless. Some 3.2 billion people around the world watched the Premier League on TV during the 2018-19 season, with the league generating £7.6 billion for the UK economy. Women’s sports in general still only account for around 5% of global sports coverage and only 7% of global sports sponsorship money. Indeed, the European Women’s Championship where the Lionesses triumphed was not profitable.
Yet interest in the Lionesses transcends the sports fan community, says Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, chief executive of marketing giant Wasserman, who works with UEFA. The key now is to create the ecosystem to support growth. This means more people watching the games, which leads to more awareness and more engagement, creating a virtuous circle that generates new business opportunities. But comparisons to the men’s game may be pointless. “If we decided to pay women the same as men now, we would break the system,” she says. “People are not going to run loss-making clubs.”
Monetizing this success also requires understanding who is attracted to the matches and why. The audience for the Women’s Euro was not much like that of a major men’s football match. “It was family entertainment at its best,” says Michel Masquelier, former president of IMG Media. “There was more fluidity, without all the fake injuries and a lot less aggression. And the game was played against the backdrop of well-mannered fans, without the drunkenness and violence that often characterizes big man games. .
Overall, women’s sport has been developing for some time. In March, more than 91,000 spectators watched the women’s teams of Barcelona and Real Madrid go head-to-head. And the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France hit a record viewership of 1 billion across all platforms.
In the first three months of 2022, viewership figures for women’s sports in Britain nearly tripled in the first quarter of 2021, with the Women’s Super League accounting for 58% of viewership. Viewers were staying longer and not all were fans of the men’s game: some 6.2 million people watched WSL matches live on TV in 2021 without watching the Premier League (just as 1.5 million watched the motorsport W Series without looking at Formula 1). Other major tournaments, with the Women’s World Cup next summer and the Olympics the following year, are also expected to attract wider audiences.
The women’s game can develop further by looking at what makes it distinctive. In Britain, football allegiances are tribal and visceral. Women’s football can thrive on a different basis just like people enjoy outings to the US Open or Wimbledon without being die-hard tennis fans. They can also expand their audience by being more family-friendly and accessible, through more online outreach and social media engagement. Women’s football fans seem to connect with players based on their values as much as their goals. This makes players much more suited to be brand ambassadors than many of their male counterparts.
The Lionesses have brought football “home”, but it still doesn’t seem as rewarding as players and fans would like. Realizing growth opportunities will require investments at all levels of the game to attract more players, fans and sponsors. For those who are visionary enough to support the women’s team along their journey, especially Nike, they will benefit from a halo effect for a long time.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.
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