Tense TV negotiations give way to record viewership for World Cup

By Reuters   August 21, 2023 | 07:20 pm PT
Tense TV negotiations give way to record viewership for World Cup
England fans watch Spain vs England match on TV in the Royal British Legion in Rickmansworth on August 20, 2023. Photo by Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
Negotiations over television broadcast rights for the Women's World Cup gave way to record viewership in the end, as soccer powerhouses Spain and England clashed in a finale that capped a tournament of thrills.

The final between England and Spain attracted a peak audience of 12 million viewers on BBC One, beating the men's Wimbledon final in July that peaked at 11.3 million.

In Spain, 8.8 million people tuned in to watch at least some of the match on TV, according to audience measurement firm Barlovento, as their team beat England's Lionesses 1-0 in Australia on Sunday.

Had tense pre-tournament negotiations between the sport's global governing body, FIFA, and broadcasters failed to come to fruition, the two countries that reached the final could have been among those blacked out during the biggest edition of the tournament.

The broadcast rights for the tournament were sold separately from the men's edition for the first time this year, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino had threatened a blackout of Europe's 'Big 5' nations - Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - unless initial "unacceptable" bids were improved.

In June, FIFA extended its agreement with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), ending the threat.

"I think we had to arm-wrestle some people to take the TV deals. Well, I hope they're saying 'Thank you!'" said Jill Ellis, the coach behind the United States' 2015 and 2019 Cup winning campaigns.

Japan also narrowly avoided a blackout after initially failing to strike a deal with FIFA.

Thomas Heenan, a lecturer for sports and Australian studies in the Monash Intercultural Lab, said the "unbundling" strategy was sound, but perhaps came at the wrong time with the tournament staged on the other side of the world from major markets in Europe and North America.

"Women's football, you know, has to at some point stand alone. And this may have been the wrong time to do so," he said. "But I think that the market is there and this World Cup actually shows it."

Co-hosts Australia made good use of the timing with an average audience of 7.13 million viewers - and a peak of 11.15 million - for Australia's semi-final against England. That was the highest rated television program in Australia recorded by research firm OzTAM since it began tracking in 2001.

"There's a growth in interest in women's sport and it's right across the board," Heenan said.

'Bigger coverage'

There were early signs that the tournament was on the right track, when the United States opener against Vietnam brought in an average 5.3 million viewers in prime time, according to U.S. broadcaster Fox (FOXA.O), nearly double the number that tuned in for the U.S. opener that aired mid-day in 2019.

Days later, the U.S. 1-1 draw against the Netherlands netted an average of 6.43 million viewers - peaking at around 8.5 million, according to Fox.

Brazil's opener against Panama reached more than 11.47 million viewers on Brazilian network TV Globo, according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics.

Former U.S. coach Ellis had a front row seat for soccer’s transformation in the world's largest sports market, where the beautiful game has long trailed the "big four" men's professional leagues.

Asked what improvements she hoped to see in four years' time, Ellis, now president of San Diego Wave FC of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), said "better TV deals, better media deals, bigger coverage."

"I hope that people will not have to be coerced into paying for TV rights for the Women's World Cup," said Ellis, "or any other women's sporting event for that matter."

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