Has women’s club football lost its media rights momentum?

(Daniela Porcelli/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)
(Daniela Porcelli/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)
  • Broadcasters and rights-holders struggle to find consensus on value of women’s football rights 
  • Sky and WSL’s domestic rights stalemate is indicative of a wider problem
  • Long-term horizon still looks good for women’s football, despite shorter-term obstacles

The meteoric rise of women’s football across the world’s ‘developed nations’ over the past five years has been, without hyperbole, one of the biggest pop-culture success stories of the century so far.

The 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup marked the beginning of a mainstream movement that continued to build momentum through the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 and the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup. These tournaments transformed the way women’s football viewed itself and made football fans – and sports industry executives – take notice like never before.

The transformative power of those tournaments also extended to women’s domestic football leagues. Across 2021 and 2022, the Uefa Women’s Champions League, England’s Women’s Super League, Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga, Spain’s Liga F and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan all struck their first media rights deals independent of men’s football properties.

Cumulatively, these properties’ primary media rights deals – some domestic, some global – are currently worth cash rights fees totalling about €30m ($32m) per season, with significant additional production and marketing costs also being assumed by the respective broadcasters.

Since those deals were struck, the women’s game has produced sharp upward trends across viewership, attendance and every other meaningful fan engagement metric, leading rights-holders to the belief that their media rights should be worth significantly more than when their current deals were struck.

Broadcasters, on the other hand, strongly disagree with this line of thinking. Broadcast executives spoken to by SportBusiness Media said that the prices paid for women’s club football properties in 2021 and 2022 already factored in this growth, and that raw commercial returns have not exceeded broadcasters’ expectations.

“The rights-holders are getting overexcited with their valuations,” one buyer told SportBusiness Media. “Some of the numbers we are hearing aren’t rooted in reality.”

Another said: “It’s difficult to attribute revenue to women’s club football rights. The leagues probably make sense at the level of fees currently being paid, but some of these rights-holders have talked themselves into a corner, saying that the valuations are only going one way. The truth is that there probably isn’t going to be any fierce competition for these rights when they next come around, and most clubs are still nervous about investing in their women’s teams – they just aren’t making money yet.”

However, it is important to note that while the pace of growth looks set to slow, the overall picture for women’s football is far from doom and gloom. Experts in the sector say that the popularity of women’s football continues to grow and that there is widespread certainty in the industry that over a long-term horizon, women’s club football will become a significant commercial force.

This long-term view also has a demographic aspect. Executives polled by SportBusiness Media for this article almost unanimously stressed that the majority of women’s football fans belong to Generations Z and Alpha (respectively, those born between 1997 and the early 2010s, and the early 2010s to the present day), which are still years or decades away from spending significant amounts of their own money to watch women’s football.

In addition, this new wave of young fans are not yet so numerous as to attract the attention of major free-to-air broadcasters. In many cases, women’s club football matches airing live on free-to-air broadcasters across the UK and Europe attract fewer viewers than archive or syndicated programming in equivalent timeslots. This makes it hard to justify for sports departments at commercial or public-service broadcasters, both of which face tightening budgets due to lower advertising revenues and funding pressures in many territories.

This growing disparity between the viewpoints of buyers and sellers – along with a wider downturn in competition for sports rights across the industry – is producing stalemates at negotiating tables across women’s club football, putting the sector at significant risk of short-term plateau.

WSL

Even in 2021, shortly after the closure of the WSL’s £7m-per-season (€8.3m/$8.9m) domestic media rights agreement with pay-television broadcaster Sky, some executives working in English women’s football believed the deal had been struck at way below the league’s true value. Some believed the deal had been undersold by as much as two thirds and that Sky had secured itself a bargain.

In particular, WSL chair Dawn Airey has been unafraid to vouch for the potential value of her league. Last year, Airey stated her belief that the WSL would become a “£1bn-revenue” competition by 2033 and that the figure – which includes central and club revenues – was “based on a pretty decent and detailed business plan for over the course of the next ten years”.

However, when the WSL and Sky returned to the negotiating table, that £1bn projection took a significant knock.

Sources told SportBusiness Media that the two sides were irreparably far apart on price from the beginning of the negotiation, with Sky willing to pay close to £10m per season – an increase of about 30 per cent – and the WSL, advised and represented by veteran media rights executive David Kogan, standing firm on a valuation thought to be around double Sky’s final offer.

The resulting one-season rollover deal, struck for 2024-25, will see Sky pay no more than it currently does: £7m for exclusive rights to 44 WSL matches each season, plus production costs and significant commitments to marketing and advertising the league.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations described the WSL as “very disappointed” in the result, as the league’s executives expected that three seasons of coverage and exposure across Sky and public-service broadcaster the BBC would produce strong competition for the rights. The sources said that Sky’s ability to strike a one-season deal with no increase in value indicates that the expected competition did not materialise.

The WSL has now turned its focus to completing the formation of NewCo – a new holding company for the league that will transfer much of its administration away from England’s FA and into the hands of its constituent clubs. NewCo is planning to bring WSL rights back to the UK market in Q4 2024.

Airey will act as chair of the NewCo alongside chief executive Nikki Doucet and new chief commercial officer Zarah Al-Kudcy. The trio now have four months to conjure up fresh competition or a data-led argument that can convince Sky of a more bullish valuation. Otherwise, Sky’s valuation of about £10m per season over a four-season term will likely be the best option on the table.

A 30-per-cent increase with Sky would still represent a strong result for the WSL in a broadly tough UK sports rights market. However, across mainland Europe, other women’s club football properties may not be so lucky.

UWCL

Multi-platform broadcaster DAZN was by far the biggest investor in European women’s club football across 2021 and 2022, beginning with a €7m-per-season deal for global rights (excluding China and Mena) to the Uefa Women’s Champions League. The deal was done in partnership with YouTube, with DAZN holding pay-television rights and YouTube showing a selection of matches on its free-to-watch platform.

DAZN followed up with another €7m per season deal for global rights to Liga F; a €2m per season deal to share pay-television rights to the Frauen Bundesliga with Telco Deutsche Telekom; and a series of smaller media rights deals in non-domestic territories for a variety of women’s football leagues, including the WSL.

Experts spoken to by SportBusiness Media say that DAZN’s total per-season spend on women’s football rights, including production and marketing costs associated with the properties, has been over €20m per season since 2022-23.

In 2021 and 2022, the company believed that being the home of women’s football would add significant value to the DAZN brand in the short term with significant potential for strong commercial returns toward the back-end of each deal.

As it happened, DAZN’s investment in women’s football did not pay off anywhere near quickly enough for the liking of its senior management, who swiftly adjusted course in 2023 after the investments failed to drive subscriptions in any significant number.

UWCL rights were sublicensed to local broadcasters wherever and whenever possible during the 2023-24 season, and DAZN brought matches out in front of the paywall in multiple markets as it looked to flip to an advertiser-funded model.

Behind the scenes, media executives at Uefa believe that the UWCL has severely underperformed in terms of viewership. It is thought that Uefa has been particularly disappointed in viewership on YouTube, where matches often averaged below 10,000 live viewers, peaking at mid-to-high five figures or very low six figures for the competition’s biggest matches.

The most recent UWCL final between Barcelona and Lyon attracted an average viewership of about 3.6m people across DAZN’s global linear and digital platforms, YouTube, and 11 free-to-air broadcasters across Europe, including Spain’s public broadcaster RTVE.

For comparison, the 2023 Women’s World Cup final between Spain and England attracted an average audience of 5.6m in Spain alone, peaking at about 7.4m viewers. This was despite the match kicking off at midday CET, compared to primetime for the UWCL final.

From 2025-26, Uefa will go in a brand-new direction for its marquee club competition with agency Two Circles taking the reins of both global media and sponsorship rights. Sources tell SportBusiness Media the agency is likely to tilt the UWCL heavily towards an exposure-led strategy that prioritises sponsorship income and fan engagement, relying far less on media rights deals for its overall revenue. Uefa hopes this will make the competition more appealing to free-to-air broadcasters that are currently reluctant to pay rights fees for women’s club matches.

As for pay-television, experts believe DAZN will look to retain at least some rights to competition, having spent four seasons building a hardcore audience. However, the company is expected to seek a reduction in the amount it spends.

Slower, steadier

Most domestic leagues are meeting broadcasters’ raw commercial expectations in their home markets and are pleased with the results of aligning with so-called ‘purpose-led’ properties. Leagues such as the Frauen Bundesliga and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan are understood to perform well and experts believe they will likely grow their media rights value when they return to negotiate new deals.

According to the broadcast executives polled for this article, the only underperforming league is Spain’s Liga F – a direct symptom of DAZN paying €7m per season for global rights to the competition, which is now widely considered to have been an overpayment.

Experts say women’s football has a longer journey to mainstream success in Spain than in other western European markets such as the UK, Germany, Australia and the US. This is easily demonstrated by media rights fees paid for the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup – the rights sold for close to €10m in each of the UK, France and Germany, while rights in Spain sold for nearer €1m.

Sources say that aside from domestic rights sales, the international media rights market for women’s club football is still very small. Sellers say that securing rights fees outside the UK, western Europe, the US and Australia is almost impossible. However, most sales executives consider any exposure they can get outside core markets a success, especially considering the limited global profile of domestic women’s football leagues at present.

The new reality

The remainder of the 2020s is unlikely to produce the kind of rocket-fuelled growth women’s football has enjoyed over the past five years, and there are likely to be more tough negotiations between rights-holders and broadcasters over the coming months and years.

Even the most recent Women’s World Cup – the pinnacle of women’s football – struggled to attract significant rights fee increases for its most recent edition, with Fifa president Gianni Infantino resorting to public shaming tactics to coerce broadcasters to pay more.

“Whereas broadcasters pay $100m to $200m for the men’s World Cup, they offer only $1m to $10m for the Women’s World Cup. This is a slap in the face of all the great Women’s World Cup players and indeed of all women worldwide,” Infantino said.

He continued: “I call, therefore, on all players (women and men), fans, football officials, presidents, prime ministers, politicians and journalists all over the world to join us and support this call for a fair remuneration of women’s football.”

Broadcasters were not in the mood to hear Infantino’s pleas, nudging their bids marginally higher in order to end the stalemate.

“The challenge for the rights-holders is to prove their increased commercial value to the broadcasters,” says one broadcast executive. “The leagues and the clubs have to prove that they are directly responsible for revenues earned by their partners, because those are now the expectations from the broadcasters. They have to convince the decision-makers to put out serious numbers.”

Another acquisition executive was pithier in their summary: “This market can’t sustain CSR projects and branding exercises any more. Every broadcaster is now fully focused on their P&L. I don’t think the rights-holders have adapted to that reality.”