When a global sporting event takes place without TV coverage, does it really happen? Or at least, does it really matter? That question should be front of mind for all the protagonists in the standoff over broadcast rights for next month’s Fifa Women’s World Cup.
Blank screens are looming larger with every passing day in the five leading European markets, including Britain. Which will explain why you’ve not been bombarded with prime-time trailers for the World Cup since the end of the regular season. 42 days to the opening game, and counting…
First a quick recap. Fifa has unbundled rights for its women’s competitions from the men’s for the first time. Broadcasters in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK have offered sums for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand that are a small fraction of what they paid for the men’s event in Qatar last year. Early morning kick-offs don’t help, but it’s safe to say that perceptions of value differ wildly between football’s organising federation and TV’s buyers.
Fifa rights issues
Sports ministers in all five countries are jittery – presumably because they realise they will be first in line for public criticism if no deals are done. And lest you think that would be unfair, they are a cohort that has joyfully ridden the up-wave in the women’s game in recent years. Rough now to go with the previous smooth.
All parties might want to take a look at F1 for an urgent reality check. The W Series folded part way through last season for lack of cash. The ambitious project to establish an elite women’s motor racing format on the back of the F1 circuit wasn’t without its flaws – the imagery of the drivers it used was often toe-curling – but it was promoted energetically and certainly garnered good media coverage in a very crowded market.
Insiders believe the W Series floundered for lack of buy-in from F1, which instead is now pushing its own product, F1 Academy. This is for female drivers, with a stated aim of enabling them to compete in the established formulas currently locked-up by men. But this is happening in a media vacuum.
Some of last year’s W Series drivers are part of the 15 woman roster for the new seven weekend series, but only one of these weekends is paired with F1, you can’t watch the races live on TV and the press has shown scant interest. So, a competitor goes bust and the ‘in house’ successor is hidden in a corner. Wilful neglect for dubious reasons, or simply a commercially-driven decision by F1’s owners that is too hard-headed and/or short-termist?
Absence of Fifa competition?
An absence of live World Cup coverage would be a big backward step for women’s football. My sympathies lie (marginally) with broadcasters. Just because they grossly overpay for men’s soccer doesn’t compel them to do so now. They have been valuable partners for the football authorities and politicians in growing the female game and their compliance has probably been taken for granted.
Last year the UK government added the Fifa Women’s World Cup to the A list of sporting events on the so-called ‘crown jewels’ list that must be shown on free-to-air television. That assumes, of course, that someone wants to show it – unlikely to be a problem that was envisaged when the events list was first devised or last revised.
The most likely solution is a late deal, or deals, after much posturing and arm-twisting, in which Fifa has to give up most of the ground between the negotiating parties. If the FA and government both want to protect the financial and emotional capital that they have invested in women’s football, perhaps they should contemplate buying the rights themselves and swallowing the loss on a resale to the BBC or ITV. Help to bridge the gap, remove Fifa toxicity in the process, and get the games on the box.
The only way is up (or sideways)
Regular readers may remember my astonishment at the Middlesex CCC interview panel’s lack of focus on the fortunes of the men’s first XI in my unsuccessful attempt to be appointed the county’s new chair. Having played seven of its fourteen group matches, MCCC is currently bottom of the T20 Blast south group with nil points. One Middlesex member tells me this is the worst team he has seen in the best part of five decades as a supporter. Priorities? Go figure!
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com