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What a feeling: Rachel Daly and Ellen White celebrate after scoring during England’s semi-final against USA. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Women’s football: to grow the game, don’t banish it to pay-TV

English national football teams going out in the semi-final of a major competition is nothing new. In fact, it has happened in successive women’s world cups in 2015 and 2019 and with the men in 2018. But this time the mood feels different – England’s women, the “Lionesses”, have taken their nation on an incredible ride.

An overwhelmingly positive reaction following the team’s semi-final defeat to the USA swept the country – there is a sense that the potential to grow the women’s game is now more achievable than ever before.

The semi-final attracted a record-breaking peak TV audience of 11.7m in the UK and the game is currently the country’s most-watched television programme of 2019. The question now turns to how best to capitalise on this? Where does women’s football go next?

The answer is relatively simple – particularly in relation to television exposure: do not be tempted to sell out to the highest bidder; do not kill your audience before it has even had chance to grow. While there will be pressure to raise finance to pay the players, there is a risk that you harm the long-term future of the game by selling out.

Instead, the strategy should be careful and deliberate with the focus on attracting bigger sponsors and ensuring mass market exposure. In short, retain a significant presence on free-to-air broadcasting.

There are already proposed developments to capitalise on the performance of the Lionesses at the World Cup. It has been reported that the Premier League is moving closer to a takeover of the Women’s Super League. The league has also recently been boosted by a £10m sponsorship deal with Barclays.

Fans watch England play the USA in the World Cup semi-final. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

But, with average match-day crowds falling below 1000 people, the pressure is on clubs to secure more lucrative sponsorship and broadcasting deals to fund their players’ salaries. But caution should be applied when it comes to growing revenue through TV broadcasters and we have plenty of examples, in other team sports, where chasing the money has not paid off in the long run.

Just not cricket

Away from the world of football, England and Wales have been hosting another world cup: the ICC Cricket World Cup. But beyond the grounds in which the matches are taking place there is very little awareness of it – partly because it is not being broadcast live on terrestrial television.

The tournament is taking place behind a television paywall – and the sport in the UK will no doubt suffer as a result. English cricket only has itself to blame that this is a forgotten World Cup.

A domestic World Cup was a glorious chance for cricket to reintroduce itself to old fans and engage new ones. Recent research has found that, despite a series of structural changes in cricket over the past 20 years, the domestic game continues to struggle with poor finances, low attendances and falling participation rates.

Cricket sold its soul to Sky Sports after the glorious summer in 2005 when England was gripped by live coverage on Channel 4 as the home side won a pulsating Ashes series on home soil. The decision to place the sport behind a paywall following that series has seen the popularity of cricket in the UK go backwards despite revenues rising.

Interestingly, cricket will now return (in part) to free-to-air broadcasting in its most recent TV deal (from 2020-2024) in an attempt to bring the sport back to the eyes of the masses.

Rugby league is another sport in the UK that has suffered a similar fate since signing an exclusive broadcasting agreement with BSkyB in 1995. This deal meant that live rugby league was no longer shown on the BBC’s Grandstand program on a Saturday afternoon. As a result, viewing figures fell sharply from around 1.3m to around 250,000 and since the introduction of the Super League clubs have struggled with financial problems and the sport itself has seen declining attendances and participation.

Wealth warning

Large broadcasting deals are beneficial. They fund player salaries, transfer fees and infrastructure improvements. But they also come with wealth warnings, particularly in sports where public exposure is so critical to sustaining the professional game.

Desolation: England’s players react to their semi-final defeat, mirroring the mood of a nation. EPA-EFE/Srdjan Suki

Inevitably, we see this reflected in wider participation figures too. Recent figures from Sport Englandshow that 0.9% or 200,500 women aged 16 or over play football regularly (twice a month) compared to 8.4% or 1.8 million men. The next generation and continued engagement of the masses should be the focus now for women’s football.

There will be a temptation to sell out to the highest bidder at the earliest opportunity but that may not be the wisest decision for the long-term future and success of the sport. Capitalising on the success of the Lionesses needs to be considered. This current generation of players need to place the future of the sport first, resisting the temptation to line their pockets.

Short-term gain for individuals will spell long-term stagnation for those girls who were gripped to the TV screen. The next major international tournament (the European Championships) are also being hosted in England in 2021. It is vital that the game is not hidden behind a paywall in the lead up to this and beyond.

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