Sunday’s game drew the biggest stadium crowd in the history of the championship, along with a 17.4 million-strong TV audience, making it the most-watched women’s football match on British TV. It ended a 56-year dry spell — the last win on that scale was when England beat (West) Germany to win the 1966 World Cup. And it created iconic cultural moments, especially when winning goal-scorer Chloe Kelly whipped off her England jersey in celebration, echoing US former star Brandi Chastain in 1999. Both revealed Nike sports bras.
Translating all of that into commercial success, however, isn’t straightforward. 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 to get an equal rate of pay with the men’s national team and parity in World Cup bonuses — an achievement that recalls Billie Jean King’s campaign for equal prize money in women’s tennis. But that doesn’t mean there is likely to be pay parity in the British game. One big difference is that Major League Soccer players in the US don’t pull in anything like the stratospheric packages that Premier League stars get.
Cultural differences also make it harder to level-up the sport. Girls soccer is ubiquitous in the US, but it’s barely available in much of Britain, a point the Lionesses made in a letter Wednesday to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, urging the two Tory leadership candidates to address the lack of opportunity for girls to play football and participate in sports generally.
There will be substantial upsides 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 meant her net worth surged to an estimated £ 10 million ($12.2 million).
But that’s tennis, where there is roughly equal broadcast coverage between the men and women and equal prize money at grand slam tournaments. Half of the top 10 best-paid athletes in the world come from the sport.
Soccer is different. The question is not just how fast it can narrow the gap, but where the growth will come from. Since the Lionesses’ win, there have been new tie-ups involving Nike, Pepsi, Visa, Gucci and others — and more deals will come. But sponsors will be looking for whether the national team’s win attracts more fan interest in the main women’s league.
So far, it sure looks like it. Searches for “women’s football tickets” have surged, with interest in Chloe Kelly’s Manchester City team up 3,000% after the Lionesses win. Previously, it had often struggled to fill the 7,000-capacity Academy Stadium where the women play. Nine Women’s Super League clubs told the Guardian they had seen a big rise in interest since the match, with Brighton saying they sold more tickets since Saturday than the whole of last season. The website selling tickets to the Lionesses’ friendly match against the US women’s team in October crashed on Tuesday because demand was so high.
Even as bigger audiences promise more prize money and sponsorships, comparisons to the men’s game (and pay) will continue to be pointless. Some 3.2 billion people around the world watched the Premier League on TV in the 2018-2019 season, with the league generating £7.6 billion for the UK economy. Women’s sports in general still account for only about 5% of sports coverage globally and only 7% of global sports sponsorship money. Indeed, the Women’s Euro championship where the Lionesses triumphed wasn’t a money-maker.
Yet interest in the Lionesses transcends the sports fan community, says Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, managing director at marketing giant Wasserman, which works with UEFA. The key now is to create the ecosystem to sustain growth. That means getting more people watching the games, which leads to more awareness and more engagement, building a virtuous circle that generates new commercial opportunities. But comparisons with the men’s game can be unhelpful. “If we decided to pay women equally to men now, we’d break the system,” she says. “People aren’t going to run loss-leading clubs.”
Monetizing that success also requires understanding who is attracted to the matches and why. The audience of the Women’s Euros didn’t much resemble a big-match men’s football audience. “It was family entertainment at its best,” says Michel Masquelier, former chairman of IMG Media. “There was more fluidity, without all the fake injuries and much less aggression. And the game was played against a backdrop of well-behaved fans without the drunkenness and violence that are often hallmarks of big men’s matches.”
Globally, the women’s sport has been growing for a while. In March, more than 91,000 spectators watched Barcelona and Real Madrid’s women’s teams square off. And FIFA’s 2019 women’s World Cup in France reached a record audience of 1 billion across all platforms.
In the first three months of 2022, viewing figures for women’s sports in Britain were nearly triple the first quarter of 2021, with the Women’s Super League making up 58% of viewership. The viewers were staying longer, and not all were fans of the men’s game: Some 6.2 million people watched live WSL matches on TV in 2021 without watching the Premier League (just as 1.5 million watched the W Series motorsport without watching Formula 1). More big tournaments, with the Women’s World Cup next summer and the Olympics the following year, should bring larger audiences with them, too.
The women’s game can grow further by leaning into what makes it distinctive. In Britain, football allegiances are tribal and visceral. Women’s football may thrive on a different basis, just the way people enjoy outings to the US Open or Wimbledon without being die-hard tennis fans. They can also expand audiences through being more family-friendly and accessible, through more online streaming and social media engagement. Fans of the women’s game seem to connect with players based on their values as much as their goal-scoring. That makes the players far more suitable to be brand ambassadors than many of their male counterparts.
The Lionesses brought football “home,” but it may not yet feel as rewarding as players and supporters would like. Realizing growth opportunities will require investment at all levels of the game to attract more players, fans and sponsors. For those visionary enough to back the women’s team along their journey, especially Nike, they’ll enjoy a halo effect for a long time to come.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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