25 May 2022

By: Sport Industry Group

With the Women’s Super League (WSL) drawing to a dramatic conclusion as Chelsea pipped Arsenal to the title by a solitary point, Senior Account Executive at CSM, Cameron Scott, reflects on what has been an incredible season for women’s football...

The women’s game has grown emphatically on and off the pitch in 2021-2022, with rising attendances, viewership, sponsorship, and competitiveness, all resulting in a better and more exciting league.

So, as the dust settles on the most gripping WSL season to date, what key lessons did we learn from the 2021-2022 campaign?

Landmark broadcast deal bringing in vital new commercial revenue into the league and clubs

Ahead of the season the FA signed a landmark deal with Sky Sports and the BBC for the WSL broadcast rights. The reported £24 million, three-year deal represented the first time the WSL broadcast rights had been sold separately to the men’s, and it’s fair to say it’s been a resounding success. The size of the deal has enabled unprecedented reinvestment into women’s football from grassroots to the elite level, and the benefits are clear. WSL clubs receive the majority of the revenue, but cash is also distributed to those in the second-tier Women’s Championship.

Having Sky Sports and BBC as broadcast partners has also elevated the coverage of the women’s game, with more programmes and better production. This has made women’s football a more enticing product, and consequently has attracted an influx of new fans while engaging existing ones.

The deal has also resulted in more WSL games being shown on television. Sky Sports had the right to show up to 44 matches per season, while the BBC showcased 22 live games, with a minimum of 18 on its flagship BBC One and BBC Two free-to-air linear channels. This growing exposure has encouraged more brands to invest in women’s football.

Build it and they will come – access to women’s football is resulting in record-breaking viewership and attendances

With a vast number of games being shown on Sky Sports, and therefore behind a pay-wall, some feared that broadcast viewership figures would take a hit. However, there’s been a huge rise in the number of people tuning in.

WSL matches on Sky recorded an average 125,000 viewers per game, with a mammoth peak audience of 550,000 watching Manchester City vs Spurs in September.

The BBC has seen record viewership too, and the WSL fixture between Everton and Manchester City in September became the most-watched women’s football match on British television with a peak audience of 800,000 viewers on BBC One.

These impressive figures have contributed to more people watching women’s sport than ever before, with the Women’s Sport Trust finding that 17.9 million tuned in to coverage over the first three months of 2022 – up from 6.7 million the previous year.

These rising figures are mirrored by in-stadia attendances. The league’s highest attendance came at Old Trafford where over 20,000 watched Manchester United beat Everton earlier this season.

It’s not just the WSL that has seen rising attendances; in fact, the record crowd for women’s football in the UK this year came in a fourth-tier match as 22,000 fans watched Newcastle Women beat Alnwick Town Ladies at St. James Park. This figure is striking when you consider it was higher than the attendance for a Premier League game at Vicarage Road on the same day.

These impressive figures are proof of the huge appetite for the female game and demonstrate that matches can and should be played at major Premier League stadia such as Old Trafford and St. James’ Park.

Sponsorship is getting bigger, bolder and more innovative

Rising interest in the WSL isn’t limited to just fans though – brands are also increasingly engaging with the female game. WSL title sponsor Barclays agreed a new sponsorship deal with the FA ahead of the 2021-2022 season, agreeing to invest more than £30m into women’s football over a three-year period – a new record for investment into UK women’s sport.

We’re also starting to see more unbundled sponsorship deals, with many WSL teams getting their own partners, distinct from the men’s team. For example, this year we’ve seen the likes of Lavazza, Herbalife and JLab sign women’s-team-only deals with Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, respectively. Football’s world governing body FIFA also recently unbundled its women’s sponsorship rights, and it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.

This is because brands are increasingly seeing the value of women’s football as a distinct product to the male game. The values and characteristics of women’s football differentiates it and are appealing to brands. So too is the WSL’s family-friendly audience – again a stark contrast to the often-hostile crowds seen at Premier League games.

Sponsors recognise that women’s football represents an opportunity to have a meaningful brand purpose and their investment can genuinely have a wide-reaching positive impact. An example of this is Barclays becoming a sponsor of the FA Girls' Football School Partnership which aims to have 20,000 schools offering football to girls by 2024.

There’s also a growing understanding that women’s football is a commercially strong option too, as many properties are currently undervalued and are likely to grow given the steep upward trajectory of the women’s game.

On-field action is more competitive, and more thrilling than ever

The increased investment we’ve seen this year has also led to a better quality product on the pitch, with the standard of the WSL higher than ever before.

The 2021-2022 season was extremely competitive, with the title being decided on the final day by a single point separating the top two sides, Chelsea and Arsenal.

The standard is expected to keep rising in the years to come as we see the impact of the increased investment into grassroots football.

Investment into coaching programmes has also led to a rise in elite women’s coaches, with title-winning side Chelsea having perhaps the finest of them all – Emma Hayes. Many have pipped Hayes for a job in men’s football due to her exceptional credentials, but with the unprecedented recent growth in the WSL, it would likely take a big job to tempt Hayes out of the marquee women’s football division.

As the standard of coaching and playing improves, so too does the interest in the game, with media, fans and sponsors now recognising the WSL as an elite and professional football league.

Players are evolving into super stars

The attention on individual players is growing too, and female footballers are becoming more cemented household names.

Sam Kerr, Ellen White and Vivianne Miedema are among the high-profile names to have graced the WSL this season. They are becoming cultural icons in their own right and have large and engaged social followings.

Many WSL stars are even surpassing their male counterparts on social media, and the Women’s Sports Trust found that Chelsea’s women’s Instagram interactions in 2021 were higher than 12 of the men’s teams that played in the 2021-22 Premier League season.

The growing profiles of these WSL stars is enabling them to land independent sponsorship deals, as brands look to utilise their huge platforms.

It’s been a dream season for the WSL, with growth on and off the pitch. The unbundling of broadcast and sponsorship rights has led to an unprecedented cash injection and has paved the way for further development.

As more brands start to recognise the enormous untapped value of women’s football and as the unbundling of rights continues, we are surely soon going to see the female game become a standalone financial entity.