Updated: Dec 23, 2020
For every cloud there is a silver lining and, whilst the storm caused by the Covid-19 crisis has cast a shadow over the sports industry in 2020, there have been some rays of light.
Principally, an intense glare has been shone upon the importance of fans and the need to find new, innovative ways to connect with them. Indeed, a recent survey by Seven League concluded that “the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the sports industry’s transition into a third age, where digital disruption is affecting every area of the landscape.”
For rights holders, an opportunity for a reset has been presented. Not just to reassess how to engage fans but also in how to approach different, thriving markets.
This is particularly the case for women’s sport, where there is real value to be found for rights holders big and small. There is not only an abundance of exciting means to captivate fans - from fan activations to content production, owned channels and data and insight - but a whole sector that, despite great strides in recent years, remains relatively untapped in comparison to the men’s side.
The widespread cancellations had of course put an unfortunate halt to the pre-Covid 19 momentum, such as for the Women’s Super League (WSL), which had seen year-on-year growth since becoming a fully professional competition in 2018. However, as the gloom slowly lifts there is a recognition amongst rights holders of the need to diversify revenue streams and packages for women’s sports and to show greater flexibility with their approach to fan engagement. Markers had already been set, such as in April when the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) hosted its 2020 draft virtually for the first time in its history. The coverage on ESPN attracted an average of 387,000 viewers and achieved a 123% increase on 2019.
Brands and stakeholders are conscious of the opportunities to communicate with new, growing audiences and rights holders should consequentially be re-evaluating their own approach to how they allow them to do so. This is the reason The English Football Association recently tendered the WSL rights for the 2020/21 season separately to the English Premier League for the first time, with Sky Sports heading the way with major investment. It is also why Global broadcaster Eleven Sports is expanding its digital content to include an area dedicated to women’s sport. The need to diversify is set to supercharge a move rights holders should look to avoid being left behind by.
Furthermore, online engagement with female athletes and sports is only getting stronger despite recent barriers, providing rights holders with a myriad of ways to captivate fans. With the aforementioned WNBA virtual draft, multiple engagement platforms were used, from broadcast guests to ESPN.com features, social activations and special podcast editions. Another prime example is the England Lionesses’ digital channels, where social media engagement has increased from 33.7% to 55.3% in a year, faster than the senior men’s. This has been fuelled by successful player content campaigns, such as their lockdown “#FootballsStayingHome with the Lionesses” and “Keeping up with the Lionesses” series. If these and other new fan engagement and activation solutions are here to stay and expected by fans in this ‘new normal, tailoring an offering for women’s sport is vital for rights holders.
Additionally, women’s sport is arguably in a better place than expected. It is therefore a good time for rights holders to invest more in activating and engaging fans in the area. This in part comes from the commitment of major rights holders such as World Rugby to protect their sports with funding. Yet it's also because rights-holders, after the initial crisis slowed down, clocked on to how women’s sport was well placed to emerge from it.
Indeed the UK Sport Chief Executive Sally Munday has argued that fans have already got a taste for how brilliant women's sport is live and on TV, stating that it is “ripe for incredible growth” and that “the disruption from coronavirus will be just a short-term "blip". For example, at the start of the pandemic a fair number of sports were not as reliant on gate receipts as their men’s equivalents, whilst the vital trends around empowerment and social justice will rightly continue, meaning products that can still deliver for sponsors despite being severely limited. A good example is how Barclays has used its investment in the WSL to work with the FA to generate digital content during this period.
As seen by Netflix committing to a feature film of the 1999 United States FIFA Women’s World Cup winning team, there is real investment being made. What’s more, cuts in budgets could make women’s rights even more appealing to new investors, particularly with the increasing ways to connect with fans at home. Even before a year which has dramatically changed how we’re able to interact with sport, a 2018 Nielsen survey showed that 46% of respondents wanted more women’s sport shown on free-to-air TV. There is also an argument to be made that right’s holders in women’s sport are now in a position to learn from the men’s side, with shorter-term contracts and the technology at their disposal offering the chance for more innovative and adaptable rights packages. From a fan engagement perspective, more investment can mean more opportunity.
Earlier this month, The World Players Association launched six key principles to guide global sport out of this pandemic. One of these was to fully commit to women’s sport, including building its commercial case “through innovative means.” And whilst this year has offered up unprecedented challenges, exciting progression could come out of it. With a plethora of technology solutions to drive fan engagement strategies and a rising demand for content, rights holders have been given a new opportunity to enhance their offering for women’s sport and play a crucial role in its commercial development.
Photo credit: The FA