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At Large: From World Cup viewing figures to a new IPL… questions for women’s sport in 2019

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly poses the quandaries coming up for females on and off the field this year.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: From World Cup viewing figures to a new IPL… questions for women’s sport in 2019

By common consensus, 2019 is going to be massive for women’s sport.

An array of world class events and commercial firsts promises to generate a huge cultural impact and unprecedented financial success. A lasting transformation is underway.

This, of course, is just the start. Whatever happens in the months ahead, it shouldn’t give the impression of a problem solved or a summit reached – much like turning over a weekly column ahead of International Women’s Day shouldn’t represent the sum of editorial ambition in that direction.

Improving the representation of half the world’s population in the sports business will be an ongoing struggle, further complicated by its contact with other industries. The media, and sports media in particular, is not exactly renowned for its achievements in diversity; the tech sector with which sport now overlaps is little better.

Progress rarely makes its way in straight lines, and this year’s battles for progress will only yield to new ones. That’s the thing about change. It keeps changing.

Still, with so many exciting things happening and important landmarks so tantalisingly within reach, it’s only natural to look ahead to what women’s sport could become. With all that in mind, here are a handful of questions whose answers might help us better understand how it is developing as a business just now.   

How many people will watch the Fifa Women’s World Cup final?

One prediction has been made with some confidence for this year: the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France will be the biggest to date, with fans set to fill venues, TV audiences likely to climb and brands planning to activate with greater enthusiasm than ever before. Fifa insists it will back the whole enterprise to the hilt, and it is putting together its most ambitious digital project outside of a men’s World Cup. But it has set one acid test for the tournament that many would prefer it did not face.

The final at the Stade de Lyon will take place on the same date – Sunday 7th July – as those of the men’s Copa America and Concacaf Gold Cup. It will be a difficult day to set the agenda. Even if the game in France is the biggest of those three stories globally, its potential has been checked on two continents with a decent chance of producing at least one of the finalists.

Still, the upward trend in viewership for the final and the wider tournament should continue. And brushing off that scheduling conflict will make an important statement about the appeal of the women’s game – one that broadcasters might actually hear when it comes to plotting coverage of other competitions.

Where will sponsors decide to spend their money?

On the subject of the Women’s World Cup, Fifa partner Visa made a telling commitment this week when it said its marketing spend in France would match that of the men’s event in Russia in 2018. That follows the long-term agreement it signed with Uefa in Europe last year, handily positioning the payments giant as one of the primary supporters of women’s soccer.

As Rebecca Smith, Copa90’s global executive director of the women’s game, noted on this week’s SportsPro Podcast, brands should now be investing “not because it’s a CSR campaign or because they have to, but actually, genuinely, because they see it as a massive opportunity for growth”. A decision like Visa’s, then, highlights an interesting dimension in all of this.

Few women’s sports properties can attract the kind of fees demanded by their male counterparts but many frame that as an opportunity to create much greater value. Sponsorship revenues are critical to any sport on the rise but so too is awareness. If more brands are prepared to spend bigger on promoting their association with women’s events, without necessarily upping their initial outlay, rights holders will be thinking about how best to capitalise.

Could a Women’s IPL be the first global breakout league?

The commercial rise of women’s sport is an international phenomenon but at this point, it is largely untethered from any specific competition. Female athletes have been achieving global recognition for decades, while apparel companies especially have enjoyed success in addressing a range of participation trends. Yet outside of the WTA, there are few league, tournament or even team brands that transcend national boundaries.

There are a few candidates for what would be a game-changing breakout success. The WNBA is in an advanced position, and there are a host of soccer leagues that will benefit from the rising tide lifting the whole sport. In cricket, meanwhile, another round of women’s exhibition games is planned during this year’s Indian Premier League, further raising the prospect of a professional Twenty20 contest to follow – and likely eclipse – those in Australia and England. The social impact of that may be profound.

The likelihood of something completely new and different emerging cannot be dismissed either. China, for example, is a powerhouse in women’s sport with a growing appetite for cultural exports.  What is exciting, daunting and unpredictable for anyone involved in developing women’s leagues is that they are relatively unencumbered by precedent.

Will the NBA have its first female head coach – and what would come next?

The next time a head coach job comes up in the NBA, it will be reasonable to ask if it might go to Becky Hammon. The 41-year-old San Antonio Spurs frontline assistant coach has been a head coach in the Summer League, served on the bench at the All-Star Game, and reportedly turned down a gig leading an NCAA Division I men’s team.

Hammon has already interviewed for a head coaching role, with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018. Gregg Popovich, her decorated, celebrated boss at the Spurs, is convinced she would be ready for the step up. Her appointment to a top job would form a powerful image and inspire further conversation about which other leadership positions – commissioners, chief executives and international federation presidents – could or should be filled by women.

But the longer-term challenge for women in sport isn’t just about visibility, but presence and influence. The broader question is not about who gets to the peak but how many more women will be in the rooms where messages are shaped, where opportunities fall, and where big decisions are taken.

A leader, by definition, is exceptional. By now, the sports business really needs to be done seeing women as an exception.