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Women’s football is booming in England. But the big money hasn’t caught up yet

Frida Maanum of Arsenal in action during the FA Women’s Super League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2022 in London.

Naomi Baker – The Law | The Fa Collection | Getty Images

LONDON – The England women’s soccer team will face their American counterparts at Wembley Stadium in London on Friday night, in an international friendly that has already become a record.

All available tickets for the 90,000-capacity stadium were purchased 15 minutes after they went on sale, the fastest sale ever in the UK for the women’s game. Fans are eager to see a showdown between recent European Championship winners and current World Cup holders.

This is the latest in a series of records that have been set by the game in recent months, reflecting a massive increase in its popularity, which was reflected and boosted by the popularity of the Euros tournament over the summer. .

All three of England’s group games ended in the coming months, and the crowd of 87,192 watching the 2-1 win over Germany in the final at Wembley was larger than any men’s final or female precedents. The organizing body, the Union of European Football Associations, said ticket sales brought in around 60 million euros ($58 million), nearly four times as much as the 2017 tournament, with a overall attendance more than double the previous record.

Meanwhile, 50 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the final on TV, up from 15 million in 2017, with 365 million people watching. watching the tournament as a whole.

This trend continued with the start of the 2022-23 Women’s Super League season, the top tier of women’s football in England. The clubs – all but one of which also have a men’s Premier League team – have scheduled several fixtures at their main stadiums. When Arsenal Women played rivals Tottenham late last month, 53,737 fans flocked to the Emirates Stadium to watch their 4-0 victory, an all-time league record.

WSL clubs also reported record attendance for first matches at their traditional, smaller stadiums, which also tend to be further from city centers (which has been cited as a challenge to the growth of the game). Manchester United have sold over 6,500 tickets for their opening game against Reading, and said it expects to at least double last season’s average attendance.

More money, more quality

The women were banned to play on Football Association grounds until 1971, and there was no fully professional women’s league until 2018. One factor that has contributed to the success of the current national team and the quality of the current elite players is increased funding at the grassroots level from bodies such as Sports England During the last decade.

In 2021, the BBC and Sky signed a three-year broadcasting agreement with the WSL’s organizing body, the Football Association, significantly improving the accessibility and quality of matches shown on television. Major publishers like BBC Sport have also taken steps to include the women’s game more prominently in coverage.

A government exam launched last month will assess how to grow the game’s audience and revenue, and create better structures around it, such as better funding for training and basic facilities.

Rachel Daly and Millie Bright of England celebrate during the England Women’s Team Celebration in Trafalgar Square on August 1, 2022 in London.

Lynne Cameron – The Law | The Fa Collection | Getty Images

Part of these efforts will involve to look at how to support the marketing of the game through broadcast and sponsorship revenue – something industry figures told CNBC was at an early stage, but likely to grow significantly in the coming years.

“Unbundling” packages

Jon Long, UK and Middle East managing director at sports sponsorship management consultancy Onside, said sponsorship of women’s sport had generally grown in recent years, but football in particular had been stimulated by the victory at the Euro and the revival of the WSL.

However, there hasn’t been a new big breakthrough since the summer, he said, in part because endorsement deals take time to negotiate and tend to run on cycles of three, five or even 10 years, and because many clubs still bundle sponsorship packages between men’s and women’s teams.

Mel Baroni, commercial director of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, agreed that while women’s football is “absolutely riding a wave right now”, it’s still “a bit early” to say exactly what this will mean for the sponsorship.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to separate packages between men’s and women’s clubs, but there’s always a conversation about how the game will grow, whether the viewing figures will remain high,” she said. “At the moment the teams that are doing well in the WSL are the same ones that are doing well in the Premier League because the funding comes from sponsorship of the men’s team, and there is still a chasm in attendance.”

He can stay miles away from the men’s game in terms of sheer range. Television is where the big money is and the Premier League is the most-watched sporting competition in the world, with around 3.2 billion viewers a year. WSL viewership, although up more than 140%, was around 34 million in 2021/22, according to a report of the Women’s Sports Trust.

But brands can still see significant benefits from associating specifically with the women’s game, such as the ability to target demographics that don’t just include women – a 2021 investigation found that 61.9% of women’s football viewers in the UK are male – but also national audiences or families.

“Unbundling would attract more brands that view the women’s game as their marketing objective and not just as an add-on,” Baroni said. “There are opportunities to bring people together with a sense of community.”

Meanwhile, unbundled plans might also be more accessible to another type of business. Where sponsorship of a Premier League team could cost tens of millions, a sponsorship package in the single-digit millions could have wider appeal.

“You buy in a move”

Some giants of the company have already signed major agreements around women’s football. Heineken and Visa were sponsors of the Euro, MasterCard sponsors Arsenal Women and Barclays is the main sponsor of the WSL.

Katy Bowman, head of sponsorship partnerships at WSL sponsor Barclays, said part of the bank’s decision three years ago to sponsor the WSL as well as the Premier League was about “the purpose and the way we want to that people feel about us as a brand”.

They also felt it was possible to have a real impact on game progression, she said.

“The Premier League is more of a finished article. But if we’re looking to help the game develop and grow, the WSL gives us a lot more leeway to do that. It’s still in its infancy,” he said. she stated.

She added that exposure to the euro fuels a circular economy. “We always hoped our investment would encourage others to invest. Then you make the league more competitive, there’s more money for training and facilities, you get more viewers, then the game becomes more attractive to brands,” she said.

Barclays was already considering higher amounts for its WSL sponsorship when it was last renegotiated, Bowman said. “Anyone who wants to partner with a club now will see exponential growth beyond the usual rights fees that would be attached to current viewing figures. They’re selling projection, so it’s not just about where is the game now, but where it could go.”

“You’re buying into a move, and nobody can really put a price on that,” she said.

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