By Vasilia Polycarpou, The Sports Financial Literacy Academy
With women in sports being historically underrepresented, over the past decade a significant increase in interest has been noticed, with the spotlight being shifted to female athletes. This increased interest in female athletes is here to stay, with female sports showing great resilience over time, building grounds for even greater growth. The rise of female sports has undoubtedly had an impact on the sports industry, not just affecting athletes but also rights holders, media, sponsors, brand commercialization practices and fan engagement; leading to major changes in the dynamics of the industry as a whole.
Female athletes have proven to be highly influential, both on and off-court, using traditional and social media as a tool to highlight the importance of women in sport, bringing more interest and additional coverage, inspiring their fans and boosting their following. Consequently, being influential means higher marketability but also greater responsibility for the matters you choose to promote.
Two great examples of female influential athletes, who have managed to market their power into lucrative endorsements, are Japanese professional tennis player Naomi Osaka and American artistic gymnast Simone Biles; both of whom have been voted amongst the most influential athletes of 2021. Naomi Osaka managed to secure a diverse endorsement portfolio partnering, not only with sport’s brands, but also with high-end luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton and Tag Heuer, as well as launching her own skincare line; proving her influence beyond the playing field. Both Biles and Osaka have not hesitated to bring to light sensitive social matters; emphasizing the importance of mental health for athletes; initiating an open dialogue about athlete wellbeing.
In recent years, female sports have repeatedly proven their ability to attract large audiences, with increased television and online viewership as well as game attendance. A recent Nielsen survey, has pointed out that 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports, with a significant 51% of those being male.
To the benefit of sports right holders, television viewership of female sports has seen an astounding increase, with women’s soccer and tennis recording the highest interest. Specifically, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France was watched by 1.12 billion viewers on TV and digital platforms; showing greater popularity among US viewers with 22% more audience, in comparison to the men’s 2018 final. This has led to greater interest in bidding for TV rights. An example, is the Premiere Hockey Federations (formerly NWHL), of the United States and Canada which signed a live stream deal with Twitch, an interactive live streaming service, receiving a fee for the first time ever.
It is also worth mentioning, that over time, there has been an increase in female sports match attendance; an example being the English cricket’s new Hundred tournament, in 2021, attracting the highest recorded attendance for a women’s cricket event with a total of 267,000 fans.
The ever-increasing interest in female sports has also encouraged an increase in coverage, not only being limited to the coverage of sports events and games but extending to sports content with female athlete protagonists, ranging from interviews and documentaries on the lives of female athletes to reality TV shows, attempting to inspire and empower a new generation of female athletes.
Even though female sports occupy a relatively small fraction of sports sponsorship, compared to men, the high attendance, in addition to viewership numbers, have encouraged greater sponsorship due to the prospects offered and accumulating support from a wider range of audiences. Sponsors seem to realize the importance of focusing on the bigger picture rather than one-off returns given the rise of women’s sport. Visa has become a sponsor of UEFA women’s football, being the main partner of flagship events, including the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the UEFA Women’s European Championship. UK bank Barclays is the lead partner of the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships aiming to boost girls’ participation in football at school level. Such initiatives have helped support and encourage the participation of young female talent in sport.
Moreover, with women’s teams showing great potential, increased investments have been noticed on a global scale, with Real Madrid launching its women’s team in 2019 by acquiring the existing Madrid-based team CD Tacon. Another example, is Leicester City launching its first professional women’s football team after acquiring Leicester City Women’s Football Club.
It is also noteworthy, that various reforms have taken place over the past few years, given the increased investment in female sports, in an effort to improve conditions for female athletes in the United States as well as in Europe. Such reforms include but are not limited to, significant pay rises, bonuses, paid maternity leave as well as fertility services. Furthermore, prize money is also recording an increase, even though the biggest gaps in prize money for male and female athletes are still in football, golf and basketball. Cricket has taken the greatest measures, in 2021, offering an equal prize for the men’s and women’s tournaments. Such changes have helped reduce the inequality between male and female athletes, even though there is still a long way to go before the gap is bridged.
Finally, despite the gender pay disparities and working conditions, the underrepresentation and lack of media coverage, as well as the low level of investment in female athletes in the past, we are witnessing actual change in the world of sports over the past decade. Even though the rise of women’s sports should be celebrated there are still plenty of actions which need to be taken to begin equalizing women’s sport and closing the gender power gap.
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