There is no denying that 2022 was a watershed moment for women’s soccer in Europe.
The Uefa Women’s Euros were a huge success, with knock-on effects for both domestic and international competitions. England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) has smashed both TV viewing and attendance records this season, Women’s Serie A in Italy was professionalised for the first time and DAZN saw a 42 per cent increase in viewing figures for the Uefa Women’s Champions League group stages.
However, as we move towards the end of the domestic season, women’s soccer is being thrust into the spotlight for less positive reasons – namely around the issue of broadcast money.
In October 2022, Fifa first rejected bids for rights to the 2023 Women’s World Cup from broadcasters in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK, claiming that they were not offering “what the women’s game deserves”. By May this year, with the bids still not deemed to be enough, Fifa president Gianni Infantino was threatening a broadcast blackout of the competition in major European footballing territories.
Like nearly all major tournaments, the Fifa Women’s World Cup is heavily reliant on revenue from broadcast rights. Prior to this year, rights to the competition had simply been bundled in with the men’s event, despite the fact that the 2019 women’s tournament officially reached 1.1 billion people worldwide.
However, in 2021, Fifa (rightly, I believe) uncoupled the rights to allow full revenue to be reinvested into women’s soccer and capitalise on the growing interest in the game. But it’s unlikely that soccer’s global governing body would have foreseen a battle like this when selling the competitions separately for the first time.
Ampere’s media rights data shows that total broadcast investment in women’s sport globally is set to reach roughly US$350 million in 2023 – but that remains equal to less than one per cent of total TV sports rights revenue. This correlates to Infantino’s claim about what the European broadcasters are offering for the Women’s World Cup.
In an Instagram post in May, he wrote: ‘And concretely, whereas broadcasters pay US$100 million to US$200 million for the men’s Fifa World Cup, they offer only US$1 million to US$10 million for the Fifa Women’s World Cup.’
Looking at the numbers like this, it’s hard to argue with Fifa, and suggests that the European public service broadcasters (PSBs) are unwilling to play their part in helping to grow the women’s game further.
However, their contribution has been crucial so far: in 2021, UK broadcasters Sky and the BBC signed a deal with the WSL which meant the top-flight competition was earning money from its TV rights for the first time. The BBC has subsequently dedicated significant hours of programming to the competition throughout the season.
Likewise, PSBs across nearly all the big five European markets invested heavily in last year’s Women’s Euros, with ARD/ZDF in Germany paying the most to show the competition. This investment, and the free-to-air coverage that came with it, is having a significant impact on growing interest in women’s soccer in the region.
Indeed, Ampere’s Consumer data shows that interest has grown significantly in every market surveyed, with those in Italy most interested, followed closely by the UK. Much of this is being driven by interest in the Fifa Women’s World Cup, which is the most popular international women’s soccer tournament in Italy, the UK and France. Unsurprisingly, the main way for fans of the World Cup to engage with it is to watch it live on TV, so with such significant proportions of fans at risk of missing out, there must be other drivers of the perceived low bids from the broadcasters.
While I’m not privy to broadcasters’ negotiations, I would hazard a guess that there are two main reasons. The first is the wider economic landscape. The economies of the European markets have slowed over the past year and rising food and energy bills have resulted in a cost-of-living crisis in many countries, leading to a slowdown in consumer spending.
TV companies have not been immune from these wider economic pressures, particularly broadcasters reliant on advertising revenue. Ampere forecasts that TV advertising revenue will decline four per cent this year across the big five European markets overall, which leaves commercial broadcasters with less money to spend on content. For those supported by government or licence fee payers, such as the BBC in the UK, cuts to their funding mean they are also now playing with smaller pots than in previous years.
The second reason, which ties in with the first, is the time zone. The 2023 Women’s World Cup is being held in Australia and New Zealand, which means matches will not be played during ‘primetime’ hours in Europe. While Fifa has tried to schedule the matches so that they are not in the middle of the night for key markets, the time difference means that England’s group stage games are at 9.30 am, 10.30 am and midday respectively.
While these are accessible times, they will by no means produce the audiences we saw for the Euros last year, with many people being at work or school instead. This limits the broadcasters’ ability to commercialise the tournament, as advertising slots will not be as lucrative. Some of the broadcasters may even be using the Women’s Rugby World Cup, held in New Zealand last year, as a proxy for audience figures, but this seems unfair given soccer’s wider appeal.
A post shared by Gianni Infantino – FIFA President (@gianni_infantino)
European broadcasters are certainly operating in a challenging market, with a competition which they can’t monetise to its fullest, but if we return to the amounts which Infantino alleges they have offered, the discrepancy in financial terms between the men’s and women’s competitions seems hard to justify.
While the bottom-line numbers for the broadcasters are obviously important, there is a bigger picture here: women’s soccer is building momentum in Europe and broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that it continues through quality free-to-air coverage – and have an opportunity in the longer term to benefit from growing that interest. And that is without mentioning the wider societal benefit of investing in women’s sport. If there is a broadcast blackout, it would be a huge step backwards, and one which feels like it could have been avoided.
Negotiations will surely continue, but if no resolution is found, Fifa does have its online streaming platform, Fifa+, to fall back on. Given the time zone issues, and the fact that a third of sports fans across the big five European markets now prefer to watch live sport via streaming services, this could be a viable option. It would boost advertising revenues and bring audiences to the platform, but Fifa would need to invest in a significant marketing campaign to build up awareness of the competition being live on the service.
Ampere’s polling shows that currently only around one in ten fans in each market are using Fifa+. This is significantly lower than the proportion who are interested in the tournament overall.
While it remains to be seen if Fifa will follow through on its threat to bypass broadcasters, all involved must ensure that the women’s game is not damaged as a result of any fallout. Currently, women’s soccer stands apart to a degree from many of the issues which taint the men’s game, such as greed and corruption. But this dispute, while nowhere near the level of the Qatar World Cup controversies, does serve as a stark reminder that the business of sport ultimately boils down to money, rather than quality on the pitch or what is best for fans.
There is a responsibility on both sides. The broadcasters need to ensure they are giving women’s soccer the investment and coverage it deserves. Fifa, meanwhile, needs to guarantee that it is monetising the competition effectively, but also using it as a vehicle to grow interest in the sport globally. A TV blackout in some of the most advanced women’s soccer markets begs the question of whether the latter responsibility is being met.
It would still be a surprise if come 20th July, those of us in Europe will not be able to turn on the TV to watch the Women’s World Cup. But this very public battle ahead of the event serves as a reminder that despite huge and growing interest in women’s soccer, the sport has some way to go to reach its full commercial potential.
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