From BBC to Channel 4: Will women’s football retain its viewership?

England Women's football team take on USA.
England Women’s football team in action against USA, the second ranked team in the world. Photo cred joshjdss on Flickr.

In two months the Women’s European Football Championships will be broadcast on Channel 4 and there are concerns over the retention of the record-breaking viewership the BBC established two years ago.

When England were defeated by France in the semi-finals of the World Cup 2015, the BBC viewership peaked at 2.4 million, the highest audience for women’s football in the UK. With the 12th Women’s Euros looking to be one of the standout sporting events of the summer, there is pressure on novices Channel 4 to continue the media proliferation of the women’s game. Especially as this is the first international tournament the channel has ever broadcast.

Jo Currie, BBC women’s football reporter says: “For women’s football to succeed in this country, it needs to be a strong product which is sellable. The creation of the Women’s Super League (WSL) has certainly helped. The league is now mostly professional, the venues are league grounds, the players have improved and the quality of football has definitely improved.

“However, for the sport to continue to grow, clubs desperately need fans to attend the games. They need people to pay to watch the matches so that eventually it can become a self-sufficient league. But for people to want to attend the matches, they need to see how good the league has become and this this is where coverage on mainstream TV comes in.”

Media City: the home of BBC Sport located in Salford, Manchester.
Media City: the home of BBC Sport. Photo credit: Mike Heneghan on Flickr

So far, no other terrestrial channel has managed to come close to the viewership of any major football tournament as the BBC. The Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) indicated the 2014 Men’s Football World Cup gained an average 12.9 million viewers on the BBC compared to ITV’s 2.9 million. The statistics indicate the major presence and popularity the BBC possess in the UK as can be seen in the chart below.

Pie Chart indicating the percentage of total TV viewing each channel received in the month of April.
Chart depicting the percentage of total viewing each channel received in the month of April according to BARB.

James Gregg, a Sports News Producer at BBC, says: “It’s important, that they [the BBC] have built a core viewership up because women’s football needs that retention. If this is just going to be a one-off bit of coverage for Channel 4, that’s a shame because the BBC cover a lot of the Women’s Super League and people know that for women’s football results they would  go to the BBC.”

These considerable differences suggest that the task Channel 4 is trying to take on will be a struggle, but the success of the lionesses over the past few years could seriously help. Women’s football is on the surge in the UK and surely any coverage of major events can only be a good thing for the sport.

Ms Currie says: “Without coverage on television, people won’t know it is happening. If they’re unaware of the sport, they won’t go to watch the matches in person. Without people paying to go and watch the matches, the league will never become self-funded which is definitely not ideal moving forward in the future.

“It’s also important for young girls to be inspired by the footballers on TV so they want to take up the sport themselves. More girls playing football means there’s a bigger pool of players for clubs and England to choose from. This means in years to come, the quality of players in this country will improve and hopefully lead to more success on the international stage.”

By Beth Fenner

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