Sunday’s game attracted the largest stadium audience in Championship history, along with 17.4 million television viewers, making it the most-watched women’s football game on British television. It ended a 56-year losing streak – the last win of this magnitude was when England beat (West) Germany in 1966 to win the World Cup. And it made for iconic cultural moments, notably when winning goalscorer Chloe Kelly removed her England shirt in celebration, mirroring former US star Brandi Chastain in 1999. Both unveiled Nike sports bras.
Turning all of this into commercial success, however, is not easy. Comparisons to the men’s game or the US women’s team can be misleading.
It’s true, for example, that the US women’s team recently reached a landmark $24 million settlement in a six-year legal battle over equal pay and World Cup bonuses — a feat reminiscent of Billie Jean King’s campaign for equal prize money in women’s tennis. But that doesn’t mean there’s likely to be pay equity in the UK game. One major difference is that Major League Soccer players in the US are not as stratospheric as Premier League stars.
Cultural differences also make it harder to improve the sport. Girls’ football is ubiquitous in the US but scarcely available in much of Britain, a point the Lionesses emphasized in a letter to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak on Wednesday, urging the two Tory leaders to address the lack of opportunity for girls to play playing soccer and playing sports in general.
Of course, there will be significant advantages for individual players, but even these comparisons are difficult. 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 meant her net worth grew to an estimated £ 10 million ($12.2 million).
But this is tennis, where in Grand Slam tournaments, men and women have roughly equal broadcast coverage and prize money. Half of the top 10 highest paid athletes in the world come from sports.
football is different. The question is not just how quickly the gap can be closed, but where the growth will come from. Since the Lionesses’ win, there have been new collaborations with Nike, Pepsi, Visa, Gucci and more – and more deals to come. But sponsors will be looking at whether the national team’s win will spark more fan interest in the women’s major division.
At least that’s what it looks like so far. Searches for ‘women’s football tickets’ have skyrocketed, with interest in Chloe Kelly’s Manchester City side up 3,000% after the Lionesses’ win. Previously, it was often difficult to fill the 7,000-seat Academy Stadium where the women play. Nine clubs from the Women’s Super League have told the Guardian that interest has risen sharply since the game, with Brighton saying they have sold more tickets since Saturday than in all of last season. The site, which sold tickets for the Lionesses’ friendly against the US women’s team in October in October, crashed on Tuesday because of the demand.
While a larger audience promises more prize money and sponsorship, comparisons to men’s football (and the pay) remain pointless. Around 3.2 billion people around the world watched the Premier League on TV during the 2018-2019 season, with the league generating £7.6 billion for the UK economy. Women’s sport in general still accounts for only about 5% of global sports coverage and only 7% of global sports sponsorship money. Indeed, the Women’s Championship, where the Lionesses triumphed, was not a moneymaker.
But interest in the Lionesses goes beyond the sports fan community, says Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, chief executive of marketing giant Wasserman, which works with UEFA. The key now is creating the ecosystem to sustain growth. This means more people are drawn to watch the games, leading to more awareness and engagement, creating a virtuous cycle that creates new commercial opportunities. But comparisons to men’s football cannot be helpful. “If we decided now to pay women the same as men, we would blow up the system,” she says. “People will not run loss-making clubs.”
To monetize that success, you also need to understand who is drawn to the games and why. The Women’s Euros crowd didn’t bear much resemblance to a large men’s soccer crowd. “This was family entertainment at its finest,” says Michel Masquelier, former CEO of IMG Media. “There was more fluidity, without all the fake injuries and a lot less aggression. And the game was played against a backdrop of well-mannered fans, without the drunkenness and violence that often characterize big men’s games.”
Women’s sport has been growing worldwide for some time. More than 91,000 spectators watched the women’s teams from Barcelona and Real Madrid in March. And the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 in France reached a record 1 billion viewers across all platforms.
In the first three months of 2022, viewership for women’s sports in the UK was almost triple compared to the first quarter of 2021, with the Women’s Super League accounting for 58% of viewership. Viewers stayed longer, and not all were fans of men’s football: around 6.2 million people watched WSL games live on TV in 2021 without watching the Premier League (as did 1.5 million watching W-Series motorsport without the Formula 1). Other major tournaments, with the Women’s World Cup next summer and the Olympics the following year, should also bring larger audiences.
Women’s football can continue to grow by building on what makes it distinctive. In the UK, football loyalties are tribal and gut feelings. Women’s football can thrive on a different basis, just as people enjoy trips to the US Open or Wimbledon without being die-hard tennis fans. They can also expand their audience by being more family-friendly and approachable, through more online streaming and social media engagement. Women’s football fans seem to connect with players for both their values and their goals. This makes the players much better suited as brand ambassadors than many of their male colleagues.
The Lionesses brought football “home,” but it may not yet feel as rewarding as players and fans would like. Realizing growth opportunities requires investment at every level of the game to attract more players, fans and sponsors. Those visionary enough to support the women’s team along the way, especially Nike, will enjoy a halo effect for a long time to come.
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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering healthcare and UK politics. She was previously a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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