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Women’s Sport Round Up (UK)
Wednesday, April 10, 2024

On Leap Year Day 2024, Squire Patton Boggs held its inaugural women’s sport symposium, Leap into the Future of Women’s Sport. Bringing together key figures from across the sports industry, the Symposium focussed on what is next for commercialisation, investment and growth, and maternity and parental policies.

In the weeks following the Symposium, we have already seen some further leaps forward for this fast-moving industry. The following is a round-up of some of the most recent developments in:

  • Women’s Rugby
  • Women’s Cricket
  • Women’s Football

Women’s Six Nations dominates Easter Weekend

The Red Roses’ second fixture of the 2024 Women’s Six Nations broke the side’s attendance record for a home match outside of Twickenham. 19,705 fans travelled to Ashton Gate for the 46-10 victory over Wales, making the match the highest-attended rugby union fixture (men’s or women’s) in the UK over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. We wait to see whether Red Roses v Ireland at Twickenham later this month, only the second standalone women’s fixture to be held at the stadium, will top last year’s landmark 58,498 crowd v France. 

The Women’s Six Nations has also seen increased investment from sponsorship this year. Guinness, the existing title sponsor for the men’s tournament, has added the women’s tournament to its portfolio, signing a £15million a year long term deal to replace TikTok as the title sponsor. In supporting both tournaments, Guinness has cited the brand’s commitment to equality and inclusion as a driving factor:

This new partnership will help support the skill and talent of the Women’s competition to surge forward towards a level playing field between the Men’s and Women’s game. It is our goal to ‘Never Settle’ until rugby is a place where everyone belongs, where we hold nothing back, and where we unite together in sport and life.  

Stephen O’Kelly, Diageo’s Global Brand Director for Guinness

While these objectives are of course admirable, the level of investment is indicative of a major brand recognising the commercial value of a women’s sport partnership.

Board of Women’s Sport established with its first focus on female health

The Board of Women’s Sport was first announced following Karen Carney MBE’s review, Raising the Bar – Reframing the Opportunity in Women’s Football (“Review”), and the Government’s responses to the Review (please see our previous blogs summarising the Review and the responses). The aim of the Board is to bring together leaders in the industry “to highlight common themes and challenges being faced by different sports, share best practices and research, and accelerate growth of women’s sport beyond women’s football”

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has now confirmed the identity of those on the new Board, including, amongst many others, Karen Carney MBE, Tammy Parlour MBE (Women’s Sport Trust), Alex Teasdale (England Rugby), and Fran Connolly (England Netball). The first meeting, which took place on 26 March 2024, focused on the physical welfare of female athletes with discussion on key topics such as concussion, ACL injuries, and the impact of female health life stages. Representatives from Sport England, UK Sport, UK Sports Institute, FIFA, The Concussion Research Forum and The Well HQ amongst others were in attendance at this first meeting. 

New Women’s Professional Cricket Structure

In the domestic women’s cricket game, sides are battling it out off the field to tender for one of eight spots in a revamped three-tier competition, which will see its first over in the 2025 season. 

Earlier this year, the England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”detailed its plan to restructure the women’s professional game. Since 2020, the domestic women’s game has been structured as a ‘Regional Model’ with eight teams each administered and delivered by eight ‘Regional Hosts’ (including several first class counties (“Counties”)) but under central ECB ownership. Currently, there are over 80 professional domestic women’s players with an average salary of £25k. The players do have the potential to top up these earnings of course; the top women’s players in the Hundred this year will earn £50,000, an increase from £31,250 last season, although still under 50% of the top salaries in the men’s tournament, which remained frozen at £125,000. 

In order to drive forward professionalism and commercial opportunities for the women’s game, which the ECB notes has been seen in women’s football and rugby, the existing Regional Model will be replaced and the eight teams will transition into eight women’s professional clubs each under ownership of a County. There will be a three-tier structure with eight clubs winning a spot in the Tier 1 competition; 10-14 teams in Tier 2 and 16-20 in Tier 3. Between 2025-2028 there will be no promotion or relegation between the tiers. Clubs will compete in 50-over and T20 cricket.

All 18 Counties and the MCC have been invited to tender for Tier 1 status. The tender document outlines that an Evaluation Panel will be appointed by the ECB and teams will be assessed against four key criteria: (i) vision and mission; (ii) quality cricket; (iii) passionate fans; and (iv) long-term value. Geographical location and population size will also be considered within the decision making. Reportedly, 16 Counties have submitted bids and the ECB is expected to announce the successful Tier 1 clubs later this month. Those Counties who miss out, along with National County sides, will be part of the process to decide on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 sides. 

These changes certainly have the potential to be game-changing. Investment, especially in the short-term, will need to be significant and will be key to the success of the new format and its potential to progress the women’s game in England. Given the new ownership structure, the responsibility will largely fall on the shoulders of the Counties, however, the ECB has announced a minimum investment of £1.3m a year for 2025-28 into each of the women’s clubs. As the ECB has indicated in the tender documentation that certain rights for the Tier 1 competition, including broadcast rights, will be reserved for its own exploitation, it will be interesting to see how distribution of central revenues is agreed and develops further down the line.

First meeting of Women’s Football Review Implementation Group

There has also been a development on the women’s football side, with the first meeting of the ‘Women’s Football Review Implementation Group’ – convened by Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer – having taken place on 26 March 2024. This Group is tasked with delivering the recommendations made in the Review and includes representative from NewCo, the FA, Football Foundation, Sport England, the Sports Ground Safety Authority, Professional Football Association, the English Football League, the Department for Education and the Premier League, together with three independent members: Kelly Simmons MBE, Jane Purdon, and Deborah Dilworth.

We wait to hear more about the outcomes of that meeting. Initial soundings from Karen Carney in the meantime are positive:

I am encouraged to see a wide range of stakeholders involved. Through collaboration, investment, and hard work, I truly believe we can make the sport world-leading in every aspect, from playing standards to access for fans and career opportunities for women. The growth of women’s sport represents a wider movement towards equity and I am proud to be part of it.

Karen Carney MBE

Women’s Super League broadcast rights

The current WSL domestic TV rights deal with the BBC and Sky Sports reportedly has been carried over for another season. This is considered a short-term solution pending the establishment of NewCo in time for the 2024/25 campaign. There is now an opportunity to explore proposals for alternative broadcast slots which aim to attract even more viewers (and regular higher stadium attendance) and, in turn, enhance the WSL offering.

Accepting the status quo for now is hopefully a temporary bump in the road, with the WSL and Women’s Championship ‘products’ set to further evolve in the meantime.

It is encouraging to see a real focus on women’s sport with different sports and stakeholders working together to share best practice and make improvements. With the Olympics around the corner, which should provide an excellent platform for women’s sport to shine, we’ll be following with great interest the further leaps forward that will be made in 2024 (and beyond).

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