This article was written for The Times and Sports Marketing Surveys by SMS’ special advisor for women’s sport, Sue Anstiss.
Despite the curtailment of much of women’s sport in 2020 through COVID-19, it’s been great to witness a huge bounce back in 2021 as women’s sport continued its unstoppable rise. Here are some of the key developments.
In football, a multi-million-pound deal was announced with Sky Sports and the BBC to broadcast the Women’s Super League for the next three seasons and Barclays renewed its title sponsorship of the WSL, doubling its investment in women’s football, with a £30M 3-year deal to include title sponsorship of the Women’s Championship. ITV signed a four-year deal with the FA to broadcast all women’s international friendlies and qualifiers, along with a new four nation tournament to launch in February 2022.
UEFA’s partnership with DAZN and YouTube takes Women’s Champions League free to fans around the world in a four-year agreement that also sees adidas as an exclusive global partner. Early matches attracted over five million viewers with 85% of them new to DAZN’s YouTube channel.
FIFA announced it will unbundle its women’s football sponsorship under new model that will allow brands to focus exclusively on women’s properties. The Italian Soccer Federation announced Serie A Femminile, Italy’s top female league, will turn professional from 2022/2023; the Australian national team broke the crowd attendance record for a standalone game playing in front of 36,109 fans in Sydney; and OL Reign vs Portland Thorns set a new NWSL attendance record of 27,248.
Wales became the first country in the UK, and only the third in Europe, to drop ‘women’s from the name of its female football league, with both Wales and Ireland introducing equal pay for their men and women’s international teams. UEFA announced it would double the prize money for the women’s Euro’s in 2022 (sadly still less than 5% of the men’s Euros’ prize pot). [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Along with Barclays, other big brands flocked to women’s football with the FA announcing new sponsors for the Euros including The LEGO Group, Pandora and Starling Bank, and Nike increasing its investment in the NWSL along with corporate partners Nationwide, Ally, Mastercard, Deloitte, Budweiser and Verizon. Commonwealth Bank became naming partner of the Matilda’s in the build up to the 2023 World Cup and Ford became naming partner for the New Zealand women’s national team the Ford Ferns, with a ground-breaking three-year partnership focused on growing the women’s and girls’ game.
Heineken committed to backing women’s sport with sponsorship deals for EUFA and the W Series; with Michelob ULTRA committing $100 million to increase visibility for women’s sports over the next five years.
Google signed a landmark partnership with the WNBA and ESPN, with the technology giant joining AT&T, Nike and Deloitte in the WNBA’s ‘Changemaker’ partnership category. Audience numbers for the WNBA continued to grow with regular season ratings up 24% on 2019 and ESPN averaging 306,000 viewers per game, with 755,000 for Chicago Sky’s win over Seattle Storm in August.
In rugby, a new global 15s tournament to ‘supercharge’ the women’s game was announced by World Rugby. Backed by a £6.4 million investment, the new 3 tier ‘WXV’ competition will take place each autumn (except World Cup years) and starts in 2023; Mastercard became a founding partner of World Rugby and the first dedicated partner of the women’s programme; England were named ‘preferred bidder’ for the World Cup in 2025, with an ambition to sell out Twickenham for the final; and Royal London become the first “principal partner” of a new Women’s Lions Programme as they fund a study to examine if a Lions women’s team could be formed.
World Rugby also announced it will increase the pace of women’s rugby development through the second phase of its 2017-25 strategic plan. Four years into its delivery, there are more than 2.7 million women and girls playing globally – a quarter of the world’s playing population.
England rugby legend, Rachael Burford, was appointed Head of Women’s Rugby at the International Rugby Players Association; Vickii Cornborough was elected the first female Vice Chair of the Rugby Players’ Association and the Women’s Rugby Association – a new player union to provide support, a new collective voice for Premier 15s players – was launched with Rugby World Cup winner Nolli Waterman as CEO. England’s Simon Middleton was named World Rugby’s Coach of the Year, the first time a women’s team coach has won this prestigious award.
With free to air BBC coverage of the Autumn Internationals attracting over 4 million viewers, weekly coverage on BBC was announced for one game each round of the Premier 15s season. Following the success of the Six Nations standing apart from the men’s in 2021, the women’s championship will remain in its own dedicated window of March and April, with much increased TV coverage and matches to be broadcast in the UK, Ireland and Italy.
The Hundred was a massive success for women’s cricket, breaking all kinds of records. The opening game of the ECB’s new 100 ball tournament at The Oval in July became the most viewed British women’s cricket match in history (1.9M across Sky Sports & BBC), with the largest ever crowd for a modern-day women’s domestic match (17,000) watching the Oval Invincibles beat Southern Brave in the final.
The whole tournament boasted the highest attendance ever for a women’s cricket event globally with 267,000 people attending women’s games throughout the competition. Women’s salaries in The Hundred will be doubled for 2022, a bold move that reflects the ECB’s commitment to the women’s game and their ultimate goal of gender parity in wages.
Charlotte Edwards was elected as first female president of the Professional Cricketers Association; the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) amended the Laws of Cricket to use gender-neutral terms “batter” & “batters”, rather than “batsman” or “batsmen”; Indian cricketer Smriti Mandhana became the first player (male or female) to gain ten consecutive scores over fifty at an ODI against South Africa; and Cricket Australia committed to addressing the lack of statues of female cricketers.
Big news that cycling’s headline race will have gender parity with Le Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift commencing on the Champs-Élysées after the end of the men’s race on July 24, 2022. Every stage will have live TV and digital coverage across 55 European countries and Australia. Lizzie Deignan took a sensational breakaway victory in the first women’s Paris-Roubaix event and became the first Briton to win the gruelling 116km race in its 125-year history. The first female edition of cycling magazine Rouleur became the fastest selling issue of the magazine in its 15-year history.
The 2021 Boat Race had female umpires for both events for the first time with Sarah Winckless umpiring the men’s race and Judith Packer in charge of the women’s race; Rachael Blackmore made history as the top jockey at Cheltenham Races and the first woman to win The Grand National; and England Netball launched its new 10-year strategy, with Vitality and Nike renewing their sponsorship agreements.
Fallon Sherrock continued to break records in darts. She was the first woman to reach a televised PDC final, attained the highest televised average for a woman and was the first woman to reach the last 16 of a Darts Grand Slam.
The Tokyo Olympics saw record female participation with women representing 49% of all competitors and Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary US Open win drew an audience of 7.1million in the UK, raising the profile of women’s sport and igniting important discussion about the impact of investment.
Women’s clothing in sport also saw some positive changes with German gymnasts wearing full body suits at Tokyo to protest at the sexualisation of their sport. Table Tennis England changed their regulations to be more inclusive for all female players and the International Handball Federation finally responded to widespread accusations of sexism by changing its rules around women’s uniforms, to allow shorts and tank tops instead of bikinis. The governing body had made negative headlines in the summer for imposing a €1,500 fine on the Norwegian women’s beach handball team for wearing shorts like their male counterparts which the federation described as “improper clothing” for women.
Next year is set to be an extraordinary one for women’s sport with World Cups in cricket, rugby union and rugby league, the Euros, Winter Olympics and Commonwealth Games along with major international events such the new Tour de France Femmes, World Athletics Championships and Wimbledon. Add to that the growing reach and profile of the domestic calendar with The Hundred, Premier 15s, WSL, Netball Super League, Six Nations and FA Cup and it’s clear this huge momentum we’ve seen in 2021 will continue through 2022 and beyond.