The Ashes, the Tour de France, the Uefa Champions League, the T20 World Cup and the Fifa World Cup. 2023’s biggest sporting events so far have been the women’s versions. The standards were high, competition strong and each event saw unprecedented success—both sporting and commercial. That’s not all. The BCCI launched its inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL) and the women’s Hundred returned for its second edition in England. There is talk of a Women’s Kabaddi League along the lines of the successful Pro Kabaddi League, Hockey India is hosting the Women's Asian Champions trophy and all 10 Formula One teams have agreed to field a team in the all-female F1 Academy feeder series from 2024.
The year is clearly shaping up to be a momentous one, one that might well get remembered as the year when women’s sports hit the mainstream. The numbers prove it. Close to two million people watched the recently concluded Fifa Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in the stadiums. According to a Reuters report, a further two billion people watched it on tv and streaming services, while the tournament generated $570 million in revenue, second only to the men’s World Cup in Qatar last December.
In India, cricket leads the way. The inaugural Tata WPL had the highest viewership for any women’s cricketing event with more than 50 million viewers in the first week and 10 million new viewers by the time the tournament ended. Jio Cinema, which had the streaming rights for the tournament, had 50-plus advertising partners.
So impactful was the first WPL that Megan Rapinoe, a two-time women’s football World Cup winner, name-checked the tournament as an example of the recent growth and success of women’s sports globally.
These are encouraging signs for the future of women’s sports in India, feels Divyanshu Singh, COO of JSW Sports, which has interests in cricket, football and Olympic sports. “People were very skeptical before the launch about whether men will come to watch women play but the numbers are very promising with about 45% men making up the audience. That should make leagues bullish about the potential of women’s sports in India,” he says.
Even though the WPL was launched in a hurry this year with just five teams (the IPL has 10) it was successful, says Suprita Das, author of Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket In India and also the media manager of IPL franchise Delhi Capitals. “There is an appetite among fans, sponsors and stakeholders for women’s cricket, T20s in particular,” says Das.
In India, beyond cricket, for any sport to be successful and commercially viable is dependent on two key factors—the participation of world-class athletes, and a culture of winning. Singh gives the example of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). “You are seeing high quality of sport that you will not see anywhere else. It is the best league in the world with the best players and talent. If there is a good quality of sport and there are Indian heroes in it, definitely there will be a demand for it,” he says.
Das recently saw an Adidas poster with actor Deepika Padukone, Olympic medal-winners Lovlina Borgohain (boxing) and Mirabai Chanu (weightlifting). “It was stunning to see these three together in a campaign by a leader in sports brands. That poster speaks volumes about how women's sport has grown,” says Das, adding that these women are also winners and success at the highest level trickles down. Just look at the Neeraj Chopra effect on javelin throw. There were an unprecedented three Indians in the javelin final, which Chopra won, at the World Athletics Championship in Budapest on Sunday.
“Success means everything to our audiences. No Indian has as many medals and trophies as shuttler P.V. Sindhu. So, if she is consistent in her build-up to key tournaments, people will follow her. When it comes to theIndianwomen’s hockey and football teams, people take an interest only when they cause an upset. For example, the women's hockey team had a fantastic run at the Tokyo Olympics, where they narrowly missed out on a historic medal. There was a lot of passion and fans back home watched those games. But the moment there’s a dip, they stop following the team,”says Das.
Since 2000, India has won 20 Olympic medals, eight of which have been won by women. A data-first approach would show that our women teams are ranked much higher than the men’s teams in sports like football (women 60th, men 99th) and basketball (women 57th, men 82nd). Two Indian women—Manisha Kalyan and Jyoti Chouhan—play top-flight football in Europe and Tanvie Hans has played football for the London club Tottenham Hotspurs.
National sports federations have also started taking and increased interest women’s sports. Hockey India introduced the zonal championships for both men and women this year to identify and nurture talent at a young age and are launching zonal academy championships. “The upcoming Asian Women's Hockey Championship is an opportunity to develop, recognise, and inspire women's hockey in India,” notes Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has proposed a football league pyramid and a minimum annual pay of ₹3,20,000 for women footballers.
Rapinoe, in the press conference, had said that women’s sport is the new big thing in the business of sport. Both Das and Singh agree that women’s sports need to be commercially viable for clubs and stakeholders toinvest in them. JSW Sports, which owns Bengaluru FC, launched a women’s team this year in the developmental pyramid. “Women’s teams need to generate revenue to self-sustain. You can’t launch a women’s team for the sake of doing good. It has to make business sense. For us a team in the lower league worked business-wise,” explains Singh. Tirkey says there is a growing interest in women's hockey from fans, sponsors and stakeholders, particularly after Indian women’s performance in Tokyo.
Investors and advertisers seek stability, vision and a long term plan. These are also factors that determine the progress of a sport. “For women’s sports to flourish, we need long term planning, utilise resources efficiently, have a sustained and focused approach towards excellence and get our strategy right. Also, leadership of sporting federations shouldn’t change with political cycles,” says Singh. Even women’s cricket needs structure and stability right from the team selection and the backroom staff, notes Das. She also says a lot more work is needed at the grassroots level in domestic cricket.
While the signs are encouraging, the harsh reality of India is that cricket dominates 90% of the commercial and media markets. This reflects in the fact that the AIFF’s ₹80 crore annual revenue, the second richest sporting body in India, is a fraction of the BCCI’s which generated over ₹27,411 crores over the last five years. “Even that money could be enough for football in India. There are plenty of nations, especially in Africa, with lesser money who sent teams to the World Cup. There is a market and appetite for other sports, it just needs the right eyeballs and some space to flourish,” says Singh.
Hans travelled to watch the Fifa Women’s World Cup semi-finals and the final. To her, what stood out was the passionate fans in the audience. “It was different from any men’s sport, where the audience is primarily men. There were teenagers, young girls, full families having a picnic in the stadium feeling safe, having a good time. You don’t see this many women and kids at a men’s game,” she says.
There is a new kind of audience for women’s sport and that is a whole new market that people in the business of sport are excited about. Till recently, the received wisdom was that women’s sport is of an inferior quality and not as good as the men’s game, says Hans. “But that is no longer the case. In Australia, they were excited and talking about the World Cup and soccer, not Women’s World Cup or women’s soccer. The footballing performance, from skills to strategy, everything was top level. Women athletes have set high standards.” These high standards are also attracting traditional sports fans, i.e. men, to women’s sports.
The WPL final and semi-finals saw huge turnouts as well as high TRPs. However, despite such high following, the actual number of people playing sports is low in India. “India has a very high passive consumption of sports. But this doesn’t translate to people taking up the sport or adopting an active life like it so often does around the world,” says Singh. If this changes and the new audience that is consuming women’s sports acts on that interest to take up playing the game, a big revolution is at hand.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.