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Kelly Simmons is in no doubt about the current health of women’s soccer in Europe.
“Whether it’s sponsorship revenues, domestic rights revenues, overseas rights revenues, whether it’s ourselves, or it’s Uefa, all of those indicators are up,” says the Football Association’s (FA) director of the women’s professional game. “We’ve seen exponential growth in recent times across a range of indicators. I think it’s really positive.”
Simmons, who is now in her third decade at English soccer’s governing body, is speaking to SportsPro on the eve of the 2021/22 Women’s Super League (WSL) season, a campaign that has since begun amid an optimism at odds with the mood when the 2019/20 edition concluded.
While the men’s Premier League resumed in June last year, the Covid-19 pandemic meant the decision was made that same month to call off the top tier of English women’s soccer. Chelsea were crowned champions courtesy of a points-per-game system, but their triumph was overshadowed by concerns that the women’s game had been an afterthought.
Yet, 15 months on, any frustration looked to have abated when the WSL kicked off its 11th campaign. The catalyst for the league’s rediscovered vigour was a new three-year domestic broadcast deal with pay-TV network Sky Sports and public service broadcaster the BBC that was reportedly worth around UK£15 million (US$20.5 million) per season.
“This is a landmark deal, not just for the WSL but the whole of the women’s game,” Simmons said when the deal was announced in March. “This partnership provides a wonderful platform on which to deliver on our ambitions and really to put the WSL at the global forefront of the women’s game.
“When we look at the benchmarks around audience, this without doubt will take us to be the most-watched women’s sports league in the world. It is transformational. This is mainstream, this is prime slots on television, big audiences, week in week out, and I think it’s such an exciting step for the women’s game. It is quite an emotional moment.”
WSL attendances have grown in line with with rising TV viewership
Simmons’ excitement was understandable. The contract, which she believes is the biggest commercial agreement for women’s soccer “in terms of a domestic deal”, has the potential to lay the groundwork needed to attract new audiences and players to the women’s game, from grassroots to the elite level.
Having opted to unbundle its media rights and sell them separately from those tied to the men’s game, the WSL’s blend of pay-TV and free-to-air (FTA) coverage across Sky and the BBC looks to have been done in order to find a happy balance between revenue and exposure.
Of course, the two networks are no strangers to soccer broadcasting. Sky, most notably, used the Premier League to take it from relative obscurity to the self-proclaimed home of the English top flight. Having paid a now comparatively paltry UK£190 million (US$259 million) for its first Premier League broadcast deal, which began in 1992, the move precipitated a snowball effect, driving up rights fees in the ensuing years.
Today, the Premier League is set to rake in UK£5 billion (US$6.8 billion) courtesy of its renewed three-year domestic broadcast partnerships with Sky, BT Sport, Amazon Prime Video and the BBC, all of which run until the end of the 2024/25 season.
“We’re absolutely thrilled with both partners,” says Simmons. “There’s Sky’s credibility, its track record in producing and delivering great live football, its cross promotion across different channels, the marketing that’s behind it, which we’ve already seen leading into the season.
“And then, obviously, the BBC speaks for itself. We’ve got 22 live games on the BBC, 18 of those are [on BBC] One and Two. It gives us a chance at some of the biggest audiences potentially in British sport.”
As for Sky’s own WSL ambitions, the network would have probably enjoyed snatching the rights from BT. Beyond that, the Comcast-owned broadcaster believes the deal strengthens its presence as a go-to destination for women’s sport.
“Sky Sports is synonymous with football, and it’s also synonymous with women’s sport,” says Gary Hughes, the network’s director of football. “When the opportunity was there it made perfect sense to marry the two together and to show an interest in the WSL.
“I think it’s a very powerful combination – women’s sport and football on Sky Sports. So to have the WSL on Sky Sports is huge. We’re the major rights holder in terms of the most games.
“It was a conversation with the FA around how we can take the game forward, how we can grow the game, how we can use the power of Sky Sports to grow women’s football. We’re going to elevate the WSL alongside our premium rights and our Premier League [coverage]. I think anyone who’s watched our WSL [coverage] would see that.”
Chelsea won the 2020/21 WSL title
Sky and the BBC certainly look to have hit the ground running. The Telegraph reported that the season-opening match between Manchester United and Reading on 3rd September recorded a peak audience of 311,000 on Sky Sports, making it the most-watched pay-TV match since the WSL began in 2011.
A game between Everton and Manchester City, meanwhile, pulled in a peak audience of 800,000 viewers on BBC One, making it the most-watched women’s club soccer match on UK television. The Telegraph added that the fixture on 4th September also drew an average audience of 700,000 on BBC One, making it the most-viewed programme at that time on any channel in the country.
The WSL would have benefited from an early season spike in viewers. But the numbers point to the growing momentum of women’s soccer in Europe. That is something networks will be eager to latch on to. Current rights fees for the women’s game represent a comparative bargain, especially when viewed within the context of audience potential. There is also the opportunity for channels to position themselves as the home of a particular competition.
Our aim is to turn players into household names and really inspire the next generation.
Both of those appear to have been considered by DAZN. In June, the streaming service secured global rights – with the exception of China and the MENA region – for the Uefa Women’s Champions League in a four-year deal that began this season.
Mirroring the WSL’s offering of subscription and FTA coverage, DAZN’s agreement also includes a distribution arrangement with Google-owned YouTube for Europe’s elite women’s club soccer competition. It means all games from the group stage onwards will initially be made available live and on demand via DAZN and its YouTube channel. For the last two seasons covered by the deal, all 61 matches will be live on DAZN, while 19 matches will be shown for free on YouTube.
“We’ve always seen the Women’s Champions League as being a really great synergy between what Uefa are trying to achieve and what DAZN are trying to achieve. This is a uniquely global rights opportunity,” says Laura Louisy, DAZN’s vice president, rights acquisition.
“This is the pinnacle of women’s football and, therefore, there is significant growth potential. We saw that DAZN could really drive the growth forward. Clearly, as Uefa were able to centralise the rights for the first time, it opened the door for this really ground-breaking deal.
“We’re looking to expand our commitment to women’s sport in a number of ways so that they match up with DAZN’s objectives with global growth.”
Manchester City’s WSL clash with Everton in September drew a peak UK audience of 800,000 viewers on BBC One
As Louisy mentions, Uefa revealed at the end of 2019 it would be centralising all media rights for the Women’s Champions League from the group stage onwards, beginning in 2021/22. Previously, only the competition’s final had been centrally marketed by European soccer’s governing body, with clubs responsible for selling rights to their home games during the earlier rounds. That arrangement meant broadcasters were limited in the number of matches they could show, resulting in the competition, outside of the final, suffering from fragmented coverage and an associated lack of visibility.
Uefa’s move is part of a wider revamp for the Women’s Champions League, which now includes four groups of four, resulting in a 20 per cent increase in the number of games each season. That brings the competition more in line with the men’s equivalent, whose commercial rights are sold by the Team Marketing agency on Uefa’s behalf.
For DAZN, it provides the latest opportunity to establish itself as global player in the expanding streaming market through a tournament whose popularity appears on course for consistent growth. Couple that with YouTube having more than two billion active users per month, according to Louisy, and it could make for a prolific mix.
“We believe this is a real game-changing moment for not only the Women’s Champions League, but also women’s football in general,” continues Louisy. “We’re creating a new global home for the Women’s Champions League, something that hasn’t been done before.
“One of the things that we found as the barrier for people engaging and really following women’s football wasn’t about the quality of the competition, it was about the lack of availability.
“So we have built a plan and brought YouTube on board to make the Women’s Champions League live matches available to every single person in the world that has access to the internet, in order to really solve that visibility problem. Our aim is to turn players into household names and really inspire the next generation.”
For Hughes, Sky’s tie-up with the WSL will offer the women’s game “profile, visibility, prominence, expertise, insight and a platform”. He says the league will also receive the same broadcast experience Sky gives for its flagship Premier League coverage, ranging from in-depth analysis to camera specifications.
“The Sky Sports treatment is something I smile about when I say it, but it’s true,” he continues. “And that is every aspect of the business coming together to support and back what they’re trying to get behind. And in this occasion, it’s the WSL.
“That’s everything from our marketing team, from our promos team, from Sky Sports News, from our digital platforms, to on-screen, to the talent we get, to the creative we use, to the look and feel of our studio and assets. We pull everything together.”
Ultimately, at the centre of the European women’s soccer broadcast picture is potential, with the likes of Sky and DAZN sharing the belief they have got in early to secure their rights at a good value.
Indeed, the burgeoning nature of the women’s game was highlighted in a recent study by the Women’s Sport Trust and the Two Circles agency. Released in April 2020, the report projected that women’s sport in the UK alone could generate UK£1 billion (US$1.4 billion) a year in revenue by 2030, up from UK£350 million (US$478 million) last year. Soccer, as well as tennis, is set to contribute more than half of that.
Nadine Kessler, Uefa’s chief of women’s football
For Nadine Kessler, Uefa’s chief of women’s football, the wheels have already started turning across Europe, with DAZN’s rights deal for the Women’s Champions League the latest signal of intent.
“The train has left the station, the last few doubters tried to jump on it. Let’s see if they will make it,” she said during an interview with DAZN back in June. “This deal is a first because we must be honest to ourselves that it was quite difficult to view our matches and it’s the first time that we will bring the Women’s Champions League to the world, to the fans, to the people who love and care for this game and should be able to watch it.
“This was never there before and it’s really showing that people have realised the potential in this sport and what’s possible with it.
“Now it’s up to us, to everyone, Uefa, YouTube, DAZN, every club, every player, every person that tunes in, to make a difference. Isn’t that exactly what we really all strive for? To make a difference to something bigger? Because, at the end of the day, if there’s a little boy and a little girl that are able to be inspired by the best female players in the world then that’s where we’re changing things.”
It’s still football, it’s not another sport. It’s 90 minutes played by 11 players. It’s still the same game, so that’s how we want to get it across.
Evidently, the legacy element brings another dimension to these, and future, rights contracts. It won’t be lost on Sky and DAZN, among others, that it’s a great chance for some positive PR. But for the pair to deliver long-lasting change for women’s soccer, getting more people engaging with the game must be a central pillar in their plans.
“Our campaign, ‘We All Rise With More Eyes’, has really brought up our broader vision for the Women’s Champions League, women’s football and women’s sport. We very much do see this as a snowball effect, with DAZN as the catalyst driving the growth,” says Louisy.
“We’ve talked about making every game available live on our YouTube channel for the first two years, investing in enhancing the production, creating all that behind the scenes content and the original programming. We’re confident that will lead to more eyes watching, bigger audiences, more engagement, more fans in the stadiums.
“That will then lead to more tickets being sold, more people in the venues, more sponsors, more advertisers and, ultimately, more girls and boys playing football. We do really see it as a virtuous circle.”
The FA’s Kelly Simmons, Sky Sports’ Gary Hughes and DAZN’s Laura Louisy
Hughes points to Sky’s rights agreement for the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) short-form tournament The Hundred, which debuted over the summer, as a recent example of the network’s commitment to helping increase participation.
“I think the deal with The Hundred and the ECB was all about growing the game and getting a new audience to cricket,” he says. “We’re trying to get the younger audience to watch cricket and doing it in a more engaging way. If you look at what we did with cycling back in the day with Team Sky, and trying to get engagement at a young level, I think we’re very good at that.
“Part of what Sky wants to achieve [with the WSL] is getting the football fan to support their men’s and women’s team, to support all their teams. I think that’s a good legacy as well, that teams are seen on a par.
“I’m an Aston Villa fan and we’ve had Aston Villa women [play] in the morning, then we had Aston Villa men in the evening. Over time, fans could be thinking, ‘I’m going watch the women in the morning and the men in the afternoon’, and that just becomes a natural part of their viewing habits.
“It is football, it’s not another sport. It’s 90 minutes played by 11 players. It’s still the same game, so that’s how we want to get it across.”
FC Barcelona were crowned champions of Europe after defeating Chelsea in May’s final
Should Sky and DAZN make good in this regard, one must wonder what else can be done to fuel further growth. Having stopped operating men’s professional leagues many years ago, the FA has made it clear that it does not expect to run the WSL long-term. Subsequently, a takeover of the WSL has long been mooted. According to BBC Sport, the Premier League was edging closer to a deal back in July 2019. A report the following year from The Guardian poured cold water on that prospect, noting that the majority of WSL clubs would prefer the division to be run independently rather than controlled by the Premier League.
When asked for an update, Simmons does not mention the Premier League directly, but says steps are still being taken to find a new owner for the WSL.
“We have embarked on a future ownership review, which we’re currently in,” she explains. “Part of that has been looking at our ambition to want to be the best women’s league in the world, what that might take, what that investment might look like and the business plan that might underpin that.
“We’re looking at what the best ownership options would be. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we should be able to give an update on what that might look like. Talking to the clubs, it’s absolutely fundamental that they buy into the emerging thinking.”
Naturally, only time can reveal the true shape that the WSL, the Women’s Champions League, and the wider women’s game in Europe will be in when their next rights cycles come around. All signs, though, suggest years of pent-up potential is ready to be released.
“We have been developing a business plan forecasting future revenues right out to 2033,” concludes Simmons. “We’re taking a longer term look and then focusing in on more detail on the next three, four years and what needs to be done.
“We’re forecasting growth in every aspect.” 
This feature series was originally published as part of ‘W is for progress’, a special report on women’s sport in Issue 115 of SportsPro magazine. Access a digital version of the edition here.

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