The Lionesses have brought women’s football home: How to make sure the legacy continues
So, the Lionesses magnificent run has ended but how they have captured the hearts and eyeballs of the nation. Their match against the USA had a peak audience of 11.7M – over 50% of the potential viewing audience, making it the most viewed TV programme of 2019 so far.
This is a remarkable number and a very important milestone. To provide some reference, during the Rugby World Cup in 2015 there were 11.6 million viewers for England v Wales on ITV – the largest rugby audience in the UK since the 2007 final and the highest peak audience for a sporting event since the 2014 football World Cup.
Martin Glenn, former FA CEO said, “What will make the product of the Women’s Super League more attractive is getting more exposure in the millions – so being on terrestrial TV is important.”
The really crucial line there is “…being on terrestrial TV is important.”
It will remain a significant challenge for the FA and clubs to make the national league attendances anything to rival the men’s game with the current average attendance now below 1000. Will the rights to the Women’s Super League (WSL) be sold and go behind a paywall? If so, then viewing figures will also be pitiful and young girls and women will have even less chance to see the stars of the Lionesses they wish to emulate and participation will not meet the expectation.
The bold move is to sell the rights to a free to air provider who will live televise at least one or two matches a week plus highlights – initial income will be lower of course but the FA and clubs have enough money to be able to invest in such a move to continue the growth. However recent discussions do not look promising with it looking increasingly likely the Premier League taking over WSL from the FA and the almost inevitability of the sport disappearing behind a pay-wall. It will be interesting to see how the FA rise to this challenge and capitalise on the Lionesses’s success to increase audiences in the domestic game and participation.
The comparison to rugby shows how even with large audiences and the financial boost from a World Cup, governing bodies get it wrong. The RFU posted a near £31M loss and 54 redundancies in their last full fiscal year, just 3 years after the World Cup. Cricket here in the UK equally has failed to address their potential for growth by hiding on pay-tv and not reaching new young audiences who would find heroes in the star players and want to go out and emulate them. And that doesn’t even address the huge success of the England women team just embarking on their own Ashes series against Australia and being the current World Cup holders!
So why does it appear that these governing bodies seem to frequently get it wrong in so many ways? I grew up knowing I could watch sporting stars on TV and then head out into the garden or down to the park and pretend to be them in almost any sport.
Sports governing bodies need to be thinking long term and about growing participation. That means getting to a relevant audience and that audience is mostly not on pay-TV. More of these sports need to be free to view, without registration. For example, terrestrial TV, YouTube, Facebook and Twitch would all provide a means for monetisation for the governing body but also reach new relevant audiences. E-sports has a part to play too that will encourage not just watching and gaming but getting involved for real to find the next generation of stars.
Whilst we have been royally entertained these past few weeks with exciting, bold attacking football by the Lionesses can the FA and broadcasters put together a package that will bring us more? Or, more likely, will the memories fade until the next time in 2023?