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The COVID-19 Pandemic: catalyst or obstruction to the growth of women’s sports?

Over the last few years, women’s sport has made huge progress, with continued growth in both professional sports and in participation sport more generally. Broadcaster viewership is increasing, and many sponsors are viewing women’s sport as an essential part of their mix. A great example of this would be Barclays announcing a ground-breaking multimillion-pound deal with the Women’s Super league in March last year. However, there are now growing concerns surrounding the impact that COVID-19 will have on women’s sport. With traditional men’s sport looking at significant losses in 2020, will this progress be lost?

Amid this global pandemic, there is a real financial challenge for all sports, both men’s and women’s. Sports officials have now started to accept the reality of ‘behind-closed-doors’ events, which are likely to become the ‘new normal’ for an extended period of time. With the almost complete loss of match day revenue during this period, some difficult financial decisions will have to be made for sports organisations to survive. This nightmare period has upturned traditional commercial models and exposed financial instability in many sports properties, including some of high-profile such as the Premier League and Formula One.

Sports properties and governing bodies have relied on significant revenue to feed their ever-growing costs in recent years. According to a report by Two Circles the sports industry will only generate $73.7bn this year (2020), which is just over half of the pre-Covid-19 projection of $135.3bn. This begs the question, what elements of sport will feel this financial cutback the most?

Some might suggest that women’s sports are particularly vulnerable to the financial impact of the global health crisis. Whilst significant commercial progress has been made in women’s sport, the commercial model in most women’s sport is on a knife edge under normal circumstances. Unless there is a clear commitment from national governments, sports governing bodies and sponsors of women’s sport to continue their support, women’s sport is at a disproportionate risk.

The Pessimistic View:

With a global recession looming, there is bound to be an impact on all aspects of sports revenue, as businesses and individuals struggle financially. Every corner of the sports industry is feeling - and will continue to feel - significant financial pain. The majority of governing bodies and administrators have had to dig deep into their own pockets or release bonuses early in a bid to help organisations that are experiencing short-term financial hardship. This has resulted in the draining of sports properties cash reserves, leaving little room for further disruption or long-term economic downturns. Men’s sports have the historic profits that have built significant cash reserves to provide some support, but wage reductions and other financial cutbacks have also been necessary to survive. Women’s sports have very different economics, are under-resourced, and have little reserves to fall back upon. With no solid structural foundations for long-term sustainability, some women’s leagues and clubs are releasing players and closing down. In late April this year, ACF Fylde, after previously stating its commitment to retaining the women’s game, confirmed they had disbanded their women’s side due to the effects of the pandemic. Will women’s sport be the casualty to allow the bigger men’s game to survive in the post-covid age?

The majority of sports governing bodies rely heavily on the men’s professional sport as the key revenue driver. 85% of the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) revenue comes from hosting the men’s international games at Twickenham. If international sport is not able to resume by the end of this year, most sports governing bodies will be looking at severe financial implications and will most certainly require additional support. The women’s game will come under the same scrutiny as every other area of investment in sports, but with a large financial hole to plug, it is likely that men’s sport will be prioritised to drive the recovery. FIFPRO stated that the current global crisis is likely to present an almost existential threat to the women’s games if no specific strategies are put in place to protect the women’s football industry.

As we wrote about in our last post, women’s sport has benefited from more backing from brands and media companies in the past 12 months. However, there are fears that trend could decline if marketing budgets are slashed, and stakeholders are wanting to maximise the ROI on their sponsorship dollar. The greater media exposure and following of men’s sport might make an argument with the finance department easier to win.

The Optimistic View:

The brands that tend to do best in economic downturns tend to be those that continue to market themselves effectively, and there is every reason to believe brands will continue to invest in female competitions. Covid-19 has allowed many companies to step back and think about what their values are as a brand. Many businesses will want to seek out authentic partnerships and may decide that women’s sport aligns more with their corporate identity. This could boost the progress made by women’s sport.

With the perception that COVID-19 will spark a commercial reset in a lot of sports, there is a chance for women’s sport to make great gains in a global society that values women’s sport more highly now than ever before. It is our hope that women’s sport and the values associated with it, take on increasing resonance in the post-covid age. Many federations are working hard to secure the future of women’s sport, as they have realised the untapped potential and new commercial opportunities that sportswomen have to offer. Fifa has committed to its plan to invest US$1 billion in women’s soccer and the RFU acknowledge that the growth of the women’s game is a key component to help the organisation to support the grassroots game. The RFU are spending just short of £5 million on the women’s game, and it would be difficult to see this investment being reduced.

In a time of global uncertainty, the call for unity has never been greater. Ladies European Tour (LET) Chief Executive, Alexandra Armas, admitted in a recent interview with SportsPro that the LET would have been a real risk of extinction had it not been for its new joint venture with the LPGA. There is a good chance that other governing bodies will use this situation to consolidate the men’s and women’s games at the top level. There are already reports in the media that a merger of the ATP and WTA, could create a compelling draw for partners and broadcasters and would allow the two organisations to no longer compete for that interest. A merger could also remove barriers to allow for more mixed events. The increased exposure for female athletes through mixed professional sport will encourage major sponsors to see the untapped potential and new commercial opportunities that sportswomen have to offer.

What has become clear during this crisis is that professional sport is fundamental to society across the world, and as such, it will recover. Sport has never been more progressive and commercial as it is today, and many sports will be able to use this crisis to evolve and become more sustainable. The momentum that has been achieved by women’s sport in recent years, and the values that women’s sport stands for across so many disciplines, will stand it in good stead to benefit from this change. What is important is that those who have fought hard to get women’s sport to where it is today, continue to fight. If there is one good thing to rise from the ashes of this global tragedy, a revitalised women’s sports industry would be well received by all.

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