Goalpost revolution: unveiling transformations post-FIFA Women’s World Cup

Anna Reynolds

It’s been over three months since Spain defeated England to claim their first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup title. Despite headlines focusing on the post-match controversy involving Luis Rubiales and Nike’s refusal to create replicas of Mary Earps’s shirt, the tournament was celebrated as a resounding success for women’s sport. Viewing and attendance figures broke records and World Cup fever swept over global audiences. Naturally, this will have impacted the sports industry and its audiences – but how?

Having witnessed the impact of the tournament in the press and social media, we wanted to compare how customer opinions and behaviours had changed since the Summer and what businesses can do to evolve, respond and grow. Here’s what we found.

The results are in…

We released a Women in Sport Whitepaper before the tournament, examining barriers and enablers to women’s sports participation. Our most recent research reveals interest in women’s football rose significantly after the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but this increase has now slowed. Under a third of the UK public (31%) were interested in women’s football before the tournament began, this rose to over two fifths (42%) immediately after the tournament, but three months on just over a third (37%) are interested – by allowing interest to decline, businesses across the industry are losing valuable audiences.

The largest increase in interest in women’s football after the World Cup was seen among women 18-34; with 22% expressing interest before the tournament and 44% afterwards. Interest in a range of sports also increased significantly among young women in this period, such as men’s football and men’s and women’s tennis. Our findings are backed up by research from the Women’s Sport Trust which shows that young people and women are becoming increasingly interested in women’s sport.

Three months after the FIFA Women’s World Cup finished, interest in women’s football and other sports among young women has dropped. This deceleration of momentum for women’s football is to some extent to be expected, but highlights that sports and brands that operate within sport need to make considerable effort to keep audiences interested to drive momentum forwards outside of headline grabbing tournaments.

Alongside interest, our research also shows that participation in a range of sports among young women increased significantly after the FIFA Women’s World Cup. For example, the proportion of 18-34 year old women who go to the gym increased by 12 percentage points, and the proportion who play tennis increased by 10 percentage points. While correlation does not always equal causation, the fact that this rise comes so closely after the FIFA Women’s World Cup shows the broad impact one sport can have in helping to inspire young women to be more physically active across a range of different sports and activities.

Although, as seen with interest in various sports, increases in participation among the 18-34 female audience have also slowed or dropped since the FIFA Women’s World Cup. This demonstrates the impact of declining momentum on participation and reinforces the need for sports organisations and brands to work together to capture audiences and cater to their needs to sustain interest and participation over time.

Captivating a new audience of sports fans

The slow in growth since the tournament ended suggests that this new, young, female audience hasn’t been appropriately catered for in the last three months. The growth we saw during the World Cup shows just how quickly a new, engaged audience can emerge – this is where the opportunity lies for organisations and brands to proactively capture this audience and bring a whole new section of the market into the sporting ecosystem. But what can be done?

Advertising and sponsorship

  • Current advertisers need to ensure they are catering for the changing make-up of the sporting audience. They must take the opportunity to diversity their approach to make the new young, female audience feel welcome and accepted in sport. If the products they see feel like they are for people like them, they will be more likely to purchase products that are advertised around sport. If a young woman only sees adverts for betting and razors during the football, it’s not going to feel like a space that is for her. Changing the types of advertising seen around sport has the opportunity to make the audience feel at home, retain them, and ultimately sell them more products.
  • Brands should also ensure they take opportunities to partner with women’s sports teams and events. The alignment of brands with women’s sport will demonstrate commitment to the cause and could lead to increased brand loyalty and advocacy among the young, female audience who want to see more investment in women’s sport.

Broadcasters, TV production and streaming businesses

  • There is an opportunity for TV production companies to create documentaries about women’s sports teams and athletes. There has been huge success with documentaries and sports entertainment programmes, such as the All of Nothing series, but many are focussed on men’s sport, with women’s stories going unheard. Going behind the scenes and creating compelling productions about women’s teams could develop greater interest generally, but also specifically among a younger, female audience who want to see women’s sport showcased in this way.
  • Broadcasters, streamers and platforms also have an opportunity to bring women’s sports to a wider pool of people through distributing it more regularly and consistently at peak times. Broadcasters clearly have a financial imperative and want programmes that capture the greatest interest and highest viewership, but putting more women’s sports at peak times would be a proactive and morally strategic move that would demonstrate commitment to equal opportunities in sport.

Sport and fitness providers

  • We know that there is an increasing number of young women who are interested in taking part in sports and fitness. We also know that there are multiple barriers preventing this audience from taking part in sports or exercising. Fitness providers and gyms must understand the needs and goals of their diverse, complex audiences and use this information to implement change.
  • For some, this might mean providing women-only sessions, classes, spaces, and gyms, or changes in the way you communicate as a brand. For others, this means actively seeking to make changes in culture, hiring strategy, or training to improve customer experience. The answer needs to be driven by what your audience needs – don’t assume you know what this emerging audience is looking to achieve because if you fail to follow through, they’ll lose interest and trust in your brand.

Retail and sports equipment

  • One of the barriers to women participating in sport identified by our research was insufficient kit and ill-fitting equipment. If you want to compete for the trust of this emerging audience, sports retailers and equipment providers must ensure they provide products that suit and support the female body through all the diverse stages of a woman’s life. Very few brands are leading in this space – there is a real opportunity here for someone to take the lead in women’s sports fashion to demonstrate a deep understanding of what women are trying to achieve and what they need to do it, down to the basics of a sports bra that actually fits. If you want to be the go-to sports brand for women, it’s time to find out what’s not working and to provide them with what they need.

Sports event organisers

  • There have been calls within some sports for men’s and women’s tournaments to be carried out at the same time wherever possible. Last year, pro golfer Bronte Law spoke out that golf should follow tennis and have tournaments played at the same courses and at roughly the same time. The argument being that women’s events would benefit from the interest and media coverage of the men’s competition, which would lead to more sponsorship opportunities, merchandise sales and generally raise the profile of women’s sports.
  • Whilst in the long term we’d want women’s events to be able to charge for separate tickets; providing viewing of women’s events as well as men’s within one ticket showcases the women’s game to an audience already interested in the sport, but who might not have considered watching women’s events up until that point. Further down the line, if interest grows, there is the potential for the women’s competition to break away and set up their own event, bringing in more money directly to the women’s game.
  • However, this approach is not suitable for all sports and should only be applied on a case-by-case basis. Sports such as football and rugby (where the men’s competitions are so popular that it would be difficult for women’s competitions to be at the same time, for fear of totally dominating interest) are better suited to separate tournaments to avoid men’s and women’s matches competing for viewers. Holding women’s tournaments after the equivalent for men could enable women’s events to benefit from high interest in the sport whilst avoiding potential competition between matches. This could also drive interest among a broad audience and develop further sponsorship and merchandising opportunities.

Don’t forget who they are

There is a need for brands to carve out an authentic space for the new audience within sport, rather than developing a reactionary quick fix whenever there is a big women’s tournament that grows short term interest. Truly understanding young, female sports fans is vital in ensuring long-lasting and impactful solutions. Getting to the heart of this audience’s lives, goals, nuances, and understanding who they are and what they’re going through is essential in developing relevant and authentic offerings that will succeed. If neglected or served inappropriately within sport, this audience, and the multiple opportunities they would bring, could continue to fade away.

By diving into different women’s stories, dreams, and fears, and observing how they live their lives, you can shape products and solutions that allow your business to serve them better on their terms. Not only will this capture the audience and help drive business growth, but it will also continue the momentum behind women’s sport.


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