You don’t have to look far for good news about women’s sports. It seems to be everywhere right now, especially with the Euros coming up.
America has taken some massive strides recently. US Soccer made the front page last month for being the first federation ever to offer equal prize money to female World Cup teams, and the first woman-headlined boxing match played out at Madison Square Garden in May, with a record number of viewers.
Progress is being made, but our research shows we still have a long way to go.
Director of the RFL Board Chris Hurst believes the value of women’s sport could triple by 2030 if everyone in the sector does their bit. With this goal in mind, our data signposts some key opportunities to catch, and hurdles to jump, on the road to equality.
Interest in women’s sports picks up pace
Our Sports research helps us map out over-time changes in the number of people watching or following women’s sports. Overall, it’s a mixed bag.
There have been year-on-year increases in a number of our tracked markets – most noticeably in the UK (+10%), Australia (+7%), and Brazil (+4%). Off the back of more media investment, the UK even saw record viewing figures for women’s sport in the first three months of 2022, with the average viewing time almost doubling.
And that’s not all – there’s been a slight rise in the number of women tuning in, and more 35-54s are getting on board.
Various groups are making headway, though the global figure has stayed pretty consistent since 2020. This will vary for different competitions, but it all just goes to show how much room the sector has to grow.
Viewing stats are only one half of the story. Our data allows us to track shifts in perspective, and we’ve seen real change in people’s attitudes toward women’s sports.
More fans think female sport is exciting to watch, and growth in the number following female athletes or teams has been even bigger, which is a huge win for the industry.
Social media has a major part to play in getting the word out. You don’t have to be a sports fan to follow an athlete. As we’ve seen with other stars-turned-activists like Marcus Rashford, players are sometimes followed because of what they stand for, which opens a door for followers to see them in action.
70% of those who follow a female athlete/team on social media also follow/watch a women’s only league.
The way we consume media is branching out, with the line between social media and TV blurring. Short clips of exciting footage, real-time updates, and live content are good ways to get new followers to dabble their toes in women’s sports, doing away with any misconceptions they might have about it at the same time. As sports streaming service DAZN puts it, “the more eyes, the more likes”.
Companies and broadcasters can help stars build large followings, particularly teams, who tend to get less attention than individual players. Six Nations Rugby and TikTok, for example, have partnered up to promote the female tournament.
62% of sports fans either think women’s sports should get more investment or be highlighted more by the media, and that number’s growing. Businesses that advocate for equality should focus on what they want to achieve in the long-run, as this small change on their part could do wonders for the industry by showing brands and viewers all that women’s sport has to offer.
Many value women’s sports, they just don’t watch it
The potential for the future of women’s sports is exciting. But where exactly are we at right now?
We should start by saying that more men watch sports overall (86% vs 72% of women). Beyond that, there are big differences in the types of competitions each group watches.
Men prefer to watch men’s-only leagues (69%), whereas mixed tournaments are the favorite among women (72%).
This relates back to the sports they’re interested in. Female sports fans stand out for following ice skating, gymnastics, swimming, and badminton events. In contrast, men are most distinctive for watching boxing, rugby, motor sports, and wrestling – categories with some of the biggest gaps in female representation.
In order to move closer to equality, some sports need to work harder at normalizing women’s involvement, which is why female referees have been selected to officiate at a men’s World Cup finals for the first time in history.
Sports like swimming already provide lots of opportunities for women to succeed both in and out of the water. In contrast, motorsport is working at ensuring they’re visible at all levels – as engineers, decision-makers, pit crew, analysts, and trainers.
There’s a lack of engagement with women’s only events from fans of all genders, though.
70% of European soccer fans watch the FIFA World Cup, compared to 22% who watch the Women’s World Cup.
It’s not that people don’t value what women do. The majority think female athletes should earn the same (70%) prize money as males. In India and China, around 1 in 4 actually think they should earn more.
A similar number in places like Brazil and the UK do make a case for men being paid more, but most want things to be fair, even those who don’t interact with women’s sports. In fact, 89% of those who don’t watch women’s leagues think female athletes should be paid the same or more.
We see this trend in our Sports research too; many non-engagers say female sport should be better promoted and get more attention. This untapped audience is dedicated to the cause, but needs to be called to action. Teams could therefore put some of the responsibility onto fans by pointing out women’s sport needs them.
More media coverage is a springboard for women’s sports
The most common reason given for not watching women’s sports is there not being enough media coverage. And this adds up; according to car company Buick, female athletes receive less than 10% of total coverage despite representing over 40% of players.
Past research by Purdue University has touched on the quality of coverage as well, arguing that the production value of women’s matches tends to be lower.
This offers more context on the lingering stigma around it. A lot of this comes from males, who are twice as likely to say the quality or skill of female tournaments doesn’t match men’s (31% vs 15%). Though, this is possibly more about the overall experience than on-screen talent, given women’s sports reporting doesn’t tend to show the ‘greatness’ of their achievements very well.
The ongoing comparison between women’s and men’s sports is also an issue in itself. The quality of reporting should match up, but it should be of a different variety, one that conveys women’s unique skillset. Plus, broadcasters shouldn’t try and cater to women’s sports fans in the same way as men’s because they attract different audiences.
23% of those who watch women’s only competitions don’t watch mixed or men’s events.
Female sport fans are much more likely to watch fan content, and to say sports organizations and athletes should take a stand against social issues; they’re keen for sports games to be a shared unifying experience, as well as an exciting one.
We’ll have to keep tabs on this audience as it grows, but in the meantime, here’s a couple of key ways organizations can work to bring in younger, female audiences – those most likely to say women’s sport is exciting and follow female athletes.
Younger consumers present a unique challenge. 16-24s are the most likely to say they don’t have the time to watch women’s sports or that they can’t find competitions. So, media outlets and sports companies will have to find ways to bring this world to them by offering games in ‘snackable’ portions and making sure they’re clearly available on streaming sites.
The sports social landscape also isn’t that friendly to female fans at the moment. Compared to men, they’re 27% less likely to say they typically watch games at a bar, and 17% less likely to attend an event in-person every 6 months. The sector needs to ensure women feel comfortable getting involved, which is why bars that only feature women’s sports are now a thing.
However they go about doing it, companies must find fresh ways of exposing consumers to women’s sport if they want to bring in new audiences, and work on catering to existing ones better.
Efforts made so far have been well-worth it – which supports the idea that, if brands and broadcasters collectively manage to put women’s sports in front of people, they’ll watch.
And with some exciting global events coming up, we’re optimistic we’ll see many brands seize on this huge opportunity, record engagement figures, and progress that sprints ahead of expectations.