The Women’s Super League has confirmed that 1.5m people tuned in to watch live action across Sky Sports and BBC platforms for the opening weekend of the 2021/22 season earlier this month.
It serves as early proof that making women’s football more easily accessible and available to a wider audience will bring in more viewers. Despite the claims of vocal social media cynics, a significant appetite clearly exists for it.
Of the three live games shown on the opening weekend of the season, Manchester United against Reading in the curtain raiser on the Friday night enjoyed a peak audience of 366,000.
Sky Sports were the broadcaster and it was initially earmarked for the Sky Sports Premier League channel but they also moved it to their flagship ‘Main Event’ channel as well.
The following day, an 800,000 peak audience watched Manchester City take on Everton live on BBC One, with another 311,000 peak for Arsenal against Chelsea back on Sky Sports on the Sunday.
It has also been reported that the BBC’s first Women’s Football Show of the season – the WSL’s equivalent to Match of the Day – drew in a peak audience in excess of 1m.
To put the figures into context, the viewership of Sky’s live WSL broadcasts is already threatening the same ballpark as some of the smaller Premier League games shown last season – between 358,000 and 480,000 watched Newcastle vs Burnley on Main Event last October.
Free to air games on BBC will typically always draw a higher audience…because it is free.
The appetite for women’s football in the UK if it is easily available and accessible to watch was apparent during the 2019 World Cup when multiple new audience records were set. The biggest saw an 11.7m peak audience during the semi-final between England and the United States.
More than ever, it is very much a ’build it and they will come’ kind of situation.
Until Sky Sports and BBC entered this season’s new historic broadcasting deal worth more than £7m per year, WSL games were occasionally shown live on BT Sport for production costs only, or for free via the FA Player. The latter is beloved by hardcore fans but barely known in wider circles.
The FA Player, only available as a mobile app or web stream and therefore much less convenient to watch than television, has provided an invaluable service so far and still continues to show live WSL games not chosen for TV broadcast.
The FA Player’s limits are obvious and there had also been some concerns over whether putting two live games per week behind Sky’s paywall would hamper viewing figures rather than help.
It may be free, but to use an analogy regarding high street shops and customer footfall in terms of profile and accessibility, it is like a tiny kiosk on a barely visible side street, visited by a loyal customer base who know it is there and few else.
Sky Sports and BBC, on the other hand, are huge grand stores on bustling thoroughfares. They pull in not only existing returning customers but new one who happen to passing by and are intrigued. Some may not return after that but plenty of others will become repeat visitors.
In addition to initially paying for the live TV rights, both broadcasters have committed considerable resources to giving WSL games the polished coverage they deserve, which is all part and parcel of making the product as attractive to the viewer as possible.
Like any TV series or reality show, it is very easy to become invested with repeat exposure, which is what will ultimately keep new fans coming back to the WSL again and again.