A sport on the rise: what does the latest research tell us about the growth of women’s football?
The Women’s World Cup final, broadcast on the BBC on 7 July, attracted a peak of 4.7 million viewers – an impressive 38.5% of the total audience watching TV at the time. Meanwhile, across the pond in the US, over 14 million viewers tuned in to watch the showdown between the USA and the Netherlands – outperforming last year’s men’s World Cup final by more than 20 per cent to rank as the biggest Stateside soccer match since 2015.
From the viewing figures alone, one thing is clear: women’s football is beginning to capture the imagination of sports fans across the globe and experts are predicting that the sport is on the verge of going mainstream.
But the picture surrounding the growth of women’s football is a complicated one, with many interconnecting factors determining its success and measurement. Dr Nicolas Scelles, a Programme Lead on Manchester Metropolitan University’s Global Online MSc Sport Business, Management and Policy, has spent the past six years tracking its development – from stadium attendance, to league and cup analysis. Here are three key findings from his research:
1. The development of women’s football is a key objective of UEFA, but predicting success is complex
In a recent article co-authored alongside Maurizio Valenti and Stephen Morrow, Dr Scelles underlined that the development of women’s football is a key objective for UEFA. This has led National Associations (NAs) to dedicate higher levels of resources to the growth of the game in their respective countries – which is great news for the sport. This has had a positive impact on specialised coaching provision for female players in a number of countries, which in turn has had a significant impact on women’s football performance level – the benefits of which we saw in this year’s tournament. However, there are still large differences in the development of the game across countries, which can lead to large differences on the pitch – which in turn leads to certain games being less interesting for fans to watch. It’s not just sport economics though – Dr Scelles’ research reveals that a country’s economic development, talent pool, climate and men’s football legacy are also significant predictors of its women’s football performance level.
2. There are four key factors that managers must focus on to drive stadium attendance (and one that they can’t control)
In another article also co-authored alongside Maurizio Valenti and Stephen Morrow, Dr Scelles analysed stadium attendance data from 554 UEFA Women’s Champions League matches. The research found that although stadium attendance had not substantially changed over the past nine seasons, spectator interest in attending a match peaks not only when a team reaches a higher stage of a competition, but when the outcome of the match is uncertain and there is competitive intensity between the teams – where something is at stake for at least one of the sides. Unsurprisingly, the away club’s reputation was also a key determining factor in fan excitement. One final factor found to drive stadium attendance was the weather – which is out of any football manager’s hands – even Jurgen Klopp can’t do much about it!
3. Competitive balance and intensity could explain the growth of women’s football
Competitive balance is a theory that argues that for a sports match to capture fans’ imagination, there needs to be an equilibrium between teams’ playing strengths to generate enough uncertainty for fans to be interested in the outcome. Over the course of his research, Dr Scelles has examined the competitive balance of both women’s and men’s World Cup games since 1990, calculating the percentage of game-time with a difference of no more than one goal between teams. Historically, results have shown that women’s World Cup matches have always been less balanced than men’s, but the gap is tightening: in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the percentage of game-time with a difference of no more than one goal stood at 81%, just 6 percentage points lower than the men’s 2014 World Cup.
Competitive intensity is growing too – the percentage of game time with something at stake for at least one team was 81% for women in 2015, compared to 80% for men in 2014. In other words, there was slightly more game time with uncertainty in women’s football – which made for a better viewing experience for fans.
Investment and Grassroots support
From Dr Scelles’ research, it’s clear that nothing will grow the popularity of the sport more than closely contested grudge matches between two rival teams, both running for glory. To narrow the competitive balance and intensity gaps even further, football governing bodies should continue to make more positive moves when it comes to incentivising investment into the elite women’s game, and – at a policy level – develop more initiatives to encourage participation within the grassroots to grow fan support and nurture young talent.
Dr Nicolas Scelles is a Programme Lead on Manchester Metropolitan University’s Global Online MSc Sport Business, Management and Policy. The course, delivered 100% online, is one of only a handful of management programmes taught by a UK institution which focuses solely on sports. Designed by experts working with some of the sector’s biggest brands, including Sport England and FIFA, the course brings together decades of research and expertise to help you develop the skills you need to take your career further, including international strategy, sports marketing, event management and sports administration and policy. Find out more by visiting the course page.
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