The government wants to see an equal airing of major men’s and women’s sports on free-to-view TV following the success of the Women’s World Cup earlier this year.
In her first major speech since taking on the role July, culture secretary Nicky Morgan said that she has written to TV rights holders to advocate adding key women’s sporting events to the “crown jewels” list of sporting events on free-to-air TV to bring parity with the men’s events on the list.
It would mark a significant change to the Broadcasting Act 1996, which contains a list of the major sporting events which must be available to free-to-air terrestrial broadcasters on “fair and reasonable terms”.
The move also means major sporting events like the FA Cup Final and Olympics would be given full live coverage on free-to-view channels; events like the Six Nations rugby union tournament, the Ryder Cup, and cricket test matches played in England must also have adequate coverage offered to the free-to-air broadcasters.
The goal of the new legislation, first proposed by Labour MP Tom Watson in June, would be to ensure that the women’s equivalent in these sporting events are given the same opportunities as men’s sports to be aired on free TV.
At the Royal Television Society conference today (18 September) Morgan pointed to the record-breaking number of people that tuned into the Women’s World Cup and said she wanted to “build on this momentum” and “make sure future generations of female sporting talent can be inspired by who they see on their screens.”
“So, today I can announce that I have written to the relevant rights holders to seek their views about adding women’s sporting events to the listed events regime,” she said.
“So where a men’s event is listed, the women’s equivalent would be too. This would be an important step in giving female sporting talent the coverage they deserve and putting men’s and women’s sport on an equal footing at last.”
The BBC declined to comment on the proposals. Channel 4 did not return The Drum's request for comment at the time of writing.
ITV welcomed the proposals. A spokesperson said: "The listed events regime plays a key role in helping free-to-air broadcasters secure the rights to cover the most popular sports events that bring our country together. It’s important that coverage of such events remain on TV channels that are free and universally available to anyone.
"The growing popularity of women's and disability sport means they should have the same protections and we welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today."
Keeping the door open
The proposed legislation would also mean that the growth in popularity of women’s sports would not be stunted by pay-TV broadcasters that may want to snap up the rights.
At the time of making the initial proposal, Watson pointed to the golf Open Championship as a warning of what happens to audience numbers when coverage rights are bought by pay-TV companies. The event had had a peak audience of 4.7 million on the BBC in 2014 when Rory McIlroy won at the Royal Liverpool, but the audience dropped by 75% the following year when tournament rights were bought by Sky.
It would also encourage more brands to offer sponsorship dollars. According to charity organisation Women in Sport, commercial investment of women’s sport remains “shockingly low” in comparison to men’s. Citing a study conducted between 2011 and 2013, the most recent robust figures available, women’s sport sponsorship accounted for only 0.4% of total sports sponsorship.
But in the last few years, there has been a noticeable impact in the reach of women's sport and this potential legislation would fuel it further.
“Free to air broadcasters have been very supportive of women’s sport for some time,” said Jamie Wynne-Morgan, chief executive at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.
“The door is open already and this [proposed legislation] is just pushing it further open and making sure it stays open. More sponsors are coming into women’s sports; Nike has sponsored women’s netball, Vitality is putting a lot into it, as is SSE. And it’s all because of the awareness women’s sport has generated by being on free-to-air channels.”
However, Kate Tweed, business director at sports marketing agency Dark Horses, suggested that there might still be a lag in marketing investment into women's sport, depsite this move from the government to ensure major events are widely viewed.
"Just because the games are being shown, it doesn’t mean that brands will instantly invest, and that people will instantly watch. While this move is a step in the right direction, there is way more that needs to be done," Tweed said.
"This was starkly proven to us in research we carried out over the summer. When we asked people why they don’t watch women’s football the answers we got back were saddening, but unfortunately not shocking. Here is a choice one: 'I do not enjoy watching women's football, it just doesn't seem feminine and is just a bunch of butch women wanting equality'.
"Broadcasters and rights holders need to invest both time and money in building audiences for the sports. They will need to do this to entice advertisers, so suddenly there becomes a financial imperative," she added.
Dark Horses's own research also suggested that 68% of people would watch more women’s football if they knew more about the backstories of the players and clubs. And so she hopes broadcasters will also invest more in companion programmes that would build narratives around the sports, the teams and the players.