When it comes to media coverage, the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada has already been a major milestone for women’s sport. According to official figures from FIFA, TV records have been broken in each round so far. With a total expected TV audience of more than 1bn viewers worldwide, the tournament is set to more than double the 400m viewers who tuned in to the previous Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011.
The tournament has been embraced as a “truly marquee event” in Germany, Sweden, the US and France. The UK’s interest has been patchier. Even though this has been one of a few countries that have broadcast every game live, BBC coverage was only promoted from BBC Three to flagship channel BBC One for England’s historic quarter-final win against hosts Canada on Saturday June 27.
This was because the tournament has become a (seemingly unexpected) ratings hit, which has been echoed in other parts of the media. So will things now start changing for the sport in the UK – and women’s sport in general – or will it just turn out to have been a blip?
A predictable backlash
Until the quarter finals, the mainstream media in the UK paid sparse attention to the tournament at best. But even then, the broadcast commitment has attracted an angry backlash from those concerned about the male-dominated status quo of sport – in a pattern that has been well established over the years. In Scotland, for instance, the Daily Record ran a column a few days ago slating the BBC in particular for its “unjustified” investment in what has been a “borefest”.
The perceived poor quality of the football has been the most common criticism. Games are boring, apparently, and not very entertaining. I think it would be fair to say that the matches at this World Cup have been of varying quality, but this is normal in football – and exactly the same in all men’s World Cups. If there was similar outcry about a dull men’s international, we’d never hear the end of it.
Chauvinistic whingeing aside, the live TV coverage of all games and the fact that the tournament has had a (limited) media presence is an important shift – it was almost completely absent from the mainstream UK media before the World Cup began. And while previous news stories during the tournament were buried among Premiership transfer gossip and U21 European Championship reports, the England win over Canada was a lead story on the BBC and Guardian websites. This kind of visibility is vital if women’s football in the UK is to develop and grow.
The prospect of the Lionesses appearing in the final, or even winning outright, might bring about the sea change many supporters of women’s sport have been craving.
Why media interest needs to continue
It is crucial that media interest in the sport continues in the UK once the tournament is over. Recent research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that only 7% of all sports coverage is devoted to women’s sports. TV tends to be the most “generous”, with roughly 10% of coverage. Newspapers are particularly stingy, devoting a meagre 2%.
The Olympics and Commonwealth Games are among the key exceptions. The London 2012 Games came close to achieving coverage parity for male and female athletes, as did the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. A major bugbear for advocates of women’s sports has always been that we revert to the status quo once these events come to an end. Indeed the rationale behind this research was to find out whether the London Olympics had made a lasting difference to the problem. It clearly hadn’t.
One study of six UK national newspapers – the Sun, Mirror, Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express – in fact suggested that they produced fewer stories about women’s sport than before the Olympics.
Poor media coverage has major implications for the wider sporting landscape. It is a major barrier for sustained commercial investment in almost all women’s sports. It should not come as a surprise that women’s sport accounts for an appallingly low 0.4% of all commercial spending on sport in the UK. Female athletes are often reduced to relying on the exposure that they can gain during big events like the Olympics to ensure their financial survival. Lack of coverage also has important consequences for grassroots participation.
This is why it is so encouraging that a fundamental change for women’s football could now be around the corner. Yes it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario and media presence doesn’t necessary come first. But the media is unarguably a driving force, so it has the power to make all the difference. As things stand, I think it’s been a fantastic tournament (turf wars aside).
As USA/Germany and England/Japan line up for the two semi-finals, it promises to be an exciting finish, too. It’s still hard to be overly confident that mainstream UK media interest in women’s football will survive much beyond the final, but I would be only too happy to be proven wrong.