The return of international tournaments combined with growing domestic interest means 2022 is set to be another record year for UK women’s sport viewership, as the industry aims to treble its value to £1bn by 2030.
Some 32.9 million people watched domestic women’s sport in 2021, beating viewership of 32.8 million in 2019 – the last time the Women’s World Cup was staged – and 26.9 million in 2020 when all global events were cancelled due to Covid.
The ‘Visibility Uncovered’ 2021 review from the Women’s Sport Trust (WST) and Future Sport and Entertainment released today (8 February), finds the main drivers of growth were new format cricket tournament The Hundred and the FA Women’s Super League (WSL). Together these sports properties attracted almost 11 million new viewers to women’s sport.
In 2021 there were 5.9 million new viewers to the WSL who had not watched any other women’s sport prior to the start of the season. Of the 4.9 million new viewers to The Hundred, 71% (3.5 million) went on to watch other women’s sport, with football and tennis the most popular choices.
The Hundred attracted most interest among viewers of women’s sport, with cricket achieving 41% of total viewing hours, compared to football with 39%. The statistics reflect the fact the WSL has only just kicked off its landmark broadcast agreement with BBC Sport and Sky Sports.
Signed in March 2021, the £8m-a-season deal is the biggest broadcast agreement for any professional women’s football league worldwide and will run for three years from the 2021/2022 WSL season.
The importance of free-to-air, alongside pay TV coverage, in bringing new audiences to women’s sport should not be underestimated.
Tammy Parlour, Women’s Sport Trust
Women’s sport is finding a core domestic audience, according to the research. A quarter of viewers who watched England women’s cricket or the women’s Hundred last year did not watch any men’s cricket on TV in 2021. Of the 2.7 million viewers who only watched women’s cricket last year, 27% were aged under 35, compared to 25% of viewers who solely watched men’s cricket.
This trend is seen elsewhere. Some 6.2 million people watched live WSL broadcast matches in 2021 without watching a Premier League game on TV, while 1.5 million people watched live coverage of W Series motorsport without watching live Formula 1.
Furthermore, the impact of largescale events on women’s viewership is undeniable. In the UK, 37 million people watched more than three minutes of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, 21 million of whom hadn’t watched women’s sport in 2019 before the tournament.
Of this number, 8 million viewers went on to watch more than three minutes of women’s sport in 2019 after the Women’s World Cup concluded, showing how powerful the tournament was in switching fans onto women’s sport in general.
Given these statistics, the opportunity in 2022 is clear. England will host the Women’s Euros this summer (6 to 31 July), the Commonwealth Games (28 July to 8 August) and the Women’s Rugby League World Cup (15 October to 19 November), while fans also have the Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand (8 October to 12 November) to look forward to.
However, building a habit for watching women’s sport beyond the marquee events will be crucial. The WST analysis finds 45% of people who watched the women’s Hundred viewed the tournament again, while 35% have so far repeat watched the WSL 2021/2022 season beyond one game.
In comparison, 87% of Premier League viewers have watched the male game again and 55% returned to watch the men’s Hundred beyond a single match.
Crucially, across free-to-air and pay TV, women’s sport is bucking the trend for declining TV viewership. Free-to-air coverage brought 19 million new viewers to women’s sport in 2021, with most female viewers (79%) watching women’s sport exclusively on free-to-air channels.
The research reveals a key target audience of 2.9 million viewers who watched women’s sport on free-to-air channels, but not on pay TV in 2021, despite watching men’s or mixed sport via pay TV channels. According to the data, the average age of this target audience is 55, while 60% fall into an ABC1 social classification.
“The importance of free-to-air, alongside pay TV coverage, in bringing new audiences to women’s sport should not be underestimated,” says CEO and co-founder of the Women’s Sport Trust, Tammy Parlour.
“Domestic competitions such as The Hundred and the Women’s Super League are the perfect gateway to viewing more women’s sport and I look forward to seeing the impact other major international events this year will have on future viewing figures.”
Scheduling issues were highlighted in the report, such as the impact on WSL matches of being held at inconvenient times or clashing with men’s matches. The WSL does, however, benefit from being screened straight after a men’s football match. On the Sky Premier League channel, for example, WSL viewership is on average 120% higher following a men’s match.
Putting women’s sport back-to-back in the schedule has also shown to be effective. Some 34% of viewers who watched the rugby international between the Red Roses and New Zealand’s Black Ferns on 31 October stayed tuned to BBC Two to watch the Women’s FA Cup final.
Beyond TV channels, some broadcasters are experimenting with reaching audiences digitally. The Sky Sports YouTube Netball Live channel attracts a 74% female audience, 32% of whom are aged between 25-34 and notch up average watch times in excess of 27 minutes. This demographic differs from the core Sky Sports TV audience, which skews 26% female and 74% male.
Parlour urges broadcasters to formulate strategies to use digital channels to reach new audiences and utilise social media to build fandom around both athletes and teams.
“Be it enhancing the scheduling of women’s sport, to give more prominent broadcast slots and better onward journeys for viewers, including signposting to other women’s sport content, or reducing some of the barriers faced by the media in trying to tell women’s sport stories, this report highlights significant opportunities for growth in the coming years,” she adds.
The report suggests interest in female athletes is driving demand for sport in general, but this is mostly led by individuals rather than teams.
US Open winner Emma Raducanu, for example, featured in four of the top 10 most visited women’s sport stories on Sky Sports’ website in 2021 and generated 8 million UK Google searches in September 2021 alone.
WST trustee Chris Hurst believes there’s a “huge opportunity” to make individuals in team sports more visible, with the emphasis being on brands and broadcasters to play their part.
“Social networks have a role to play in helping facilitate the growth of individual female athletes, irrespective of whether they play in a team sport or not. TikTok’s partnership with the Six Nations is a fascinating example of that,” he states.
“I really hope as part of that partnership we’ll see brilliant female rugby union players build large followings on social platforms. Brands have a massive role in making individuals from team sports more visible, as well by investing and activating with top female athletes around major events.”
If you’re standing as an organisation that believes in gender parity, inclusion and diversity, actually some of this is a longer-term play investing in your content around women’s sport.
Chris Hurst, Women’s Sport Trust
Media coverage must also adapt if women’s sport is to find new audiences. The WST report finds 78% of broadcast news coverage and 75% of print coverage of last year’s The Hundred focused on the male side of the tournament. Despite the breakout impact of Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon in 2021, 69% of news coverage and 64% of press coverage was weighted towards the male tennis stars.
Furthermore, just 8% of mentions on Sky Sports News, 7% on BBC News and 5% on ITV News were dedicated to women’s sport in 2021. Some 18% of stories on the BBC Sport website were dedicated to women’s sport between April and September 2021, versus 76% focused on men’s sport.
Organisations wanting to build engagement on social media might believe it’s easier to post about popular male sports to drive high levels of interaction, but Hurst urges media outlets to consider how to use social to deliver their strategic objectives.
“If you’re standing as an organisation that believes in gender parity, inclusion and diversity, actually some of this is a longer-term play investing in your content around women’s sport. Even though it might not perform as well as some of the content you might post around men’s sport, it’s a long-term journey,” he states.
“I also think social platforms have a role to play in helping surface this content beyond paid media.”
Hurst points out many female athletes are trying to build a following without any budget to spend on paid media, which is why social media companies can help by directing users to content these athletes are creating.
“That in turn will build interest in them, attract brands and fuel women’s sport. Everyone needs to play a part at this stage in the women’s sport journey to grow the industry,” he adds. “As we show there’s a big pie available at the end. By 2030 the value of women’s sport could treble if everyone in the sports industry plays a role.”