Women’s sport and the pandemic
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Covid-19 restrictions may have checked the momentum women’s sport had built up heading into 2020 but the commercial signs remain positive in the longer term.
How far the sport and industry is shifting
Almost the last global event before the Covid-19 shutdown of 2020 was one which showed just how far women’s sport has come in the past few years.
Last month, on International Women’s Day – Australia beat India in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final in front of 86,174 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was the second-biggest crowd ever to watch a women’s sporting event, behind only the Fifa Women’s World Cup football final between the USA and China at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
The tournament itself had been the most-watched in women’s cricket history, and its conclusion had built on gathering momentum in women’s sport. Half a year earlier, in France, another Fifa Women’s World Cup had captured the international imagination, with a total viewership of 1.12 billion and landmark marketing campaigns from the likes of Nike and Visa.
In Australia, organizers had been purposeful in their efforts to pack the house for the final. For months, they had pursued a cross-platform campaign to #FillTheMCG, while pop superstar Katy Perry was booked to play before and after the game itself.
Covid's disproportionate threat to women’s competition
When elite sport came to a near-total global stop just a few days later, it seemed to disproportionately threaten women’s competition. Visibility was one key concern. Those marginal parts of the sports economy that stayed active, like archive content and gaming, had a considerable male bias. High-profile athletes like Megan Rapinoe used Instagram Live and similar services to keep conversations going but the wider structural support seemed lacking.
Those worries deepened once it became clear what form sport would take on its limited return. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the Wimbledon tennis championships, two global events where female athletes feature as prominently as their male counterparts, were swiftly postponed and canceled respectively.
Even as governments carved out exemptions for top-level sport from pandemic restrictions, rights holders and broadcasters prioritized the bigger financial commitments they had made to men’s competitions, which were quicker to return. A slate of women’s events did make a comeback through the middle of 2020 – such as Frauen-Bundesliga football in Germany and the National Women’s Soccer League in the US, the Women’s National Basketball Association, and international cricket. However, the relative gap has triggered some concerns.
80% belive the Pandemic has halted the gains made
A survey by the UK’s Nottingham Trent University, reported by Sky Sports in February, found that 80 percent of elite British female athletes believed coronavirus stoppages had hampered the growth of women’s sport, while 66 percent were worried about the long-term financial implications and 91 percent highlighted a gender pay gap.
Nonetheless, just as women’s events have made a sustained return amid more consistent Covid measures, so the continued financial interest in women’s sport has been evident. Angel City FC, a future entrant in the NWSL, launched in July 2020 with a starry majority female ownership group including actress Natalie Portman, tennis icon Serena Williams, venture capital leader Kara Nortman and entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, who will be the club’s president.
Build it and they will come
In March 2021, soccer star Alex Morgan, snowboarder Chloe Kim, swimmer Simone Manuel, and basketball’s Sue Bird collaborated on the creation of Togethxr, a new media, and commerce venture that aims to tell the stories of women involved in elite sport and encompass coverage of culture, fashion, and wellness.
‘We got tired of waiting for someone to build it,’ the founders wrote in a launch statement. ‘So we did.’
There are challenges ahead. World Rugby confirmed in February that it would be postponing the Women’s Rugby World Cup – perhaps the biggest female-centric event remaining on this year’s schedule – from its September 2021 slot.
Despite that, with unprecedented interest and participation, compelling personalities, and deliberate commercial backing, the signs are still there that women’s sport will make its unprecedented rise a permanent one.