Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

UK orders commission to study women's football; rising TV prices warn of commercial monopolization

Karen Carney in 2019
(James Smed CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The UK has announced "an in-depth review into the future of domestic women’s football" and appointed the decorated footballer and today commentator Karen Carney MBE to chair.

In the United States, this year marked the historic equal pay settlement for the blockbuster Women's National Team (USWNT). And in the UK, England hosted and won the 13th UEFA Women's Euro 2022, delayed two years by the pandemic, in a nail-biter over Germany.

Though to say women's football is coming into its own is an assertion decades late, just as it is decades early to say that women's football has at last been afforded parity with men's in social and commercial recognition.

The UK announced three points of focus for the review:

[1] Assessing the potential audience reach and growth of the game—by considering the value and visibility of women’s and girls’ football in England, including the potential to grow the fanbase for women’s football and whether current growth still supports home-grown talent and can be achieved without overstretching infrastructure.

[2] Examining the financial health of the game and its financial sustainability for the long term. This will include exploring opportunities and ways to support the commercialisation of the women’s game, broadcast revenue opportunities and the sponsorship of women’s football.

[3] Examining the structures within women’s football. This includes the affiliation with men’s teams, prize money, the need for women’s football to adhere to the administrative requirements of the men’s game; and assessing the adequacy, quality, accessibility and prevalence of the facilities available for women’s and girls’ football for the growth and sustainability of the game.

The UK does have already a system for youth development in women's football that looks sophisticated from the U.S. vantage point. Carney is a case in point. Even in the 1990s, Carney came up through the ranks of Birmingham City since age 11. She became one of England's top capped players, scoring 32 goals for the national side from 2005 to 2019.

After three years at Arsenal, in 2009, Carney moved to the United States to play for the Chicago Red Stars, a team then affiliated with the Women's Professional Soccer league (WPS). The WPS was a short-lived installment in the fits and starts of women's pro soccer in the United States. The league collapsed after scarcely a year. Carney returned to England in 2011 to play for five years again for Birmingham City, then three years for Chelsea.

Today, Carney comments on both men's and women's football for Sky Sports and Amazon Prime. The Chicago Red Stars play today as part of the National Women's Soccer League.

Sky, like NBC in the United States, is a division of Comcast. The anti-competitive bundlings of these interrelated companies is making it unaffordable for viewers in the UK and in the United States to follow a team. I'm not sure how long UK viewers and regulators will tolerate the exploitation. Some Latin American governments have been increasingly ruffled about commercial efforts to make access to football a privilege of the elite. I've speculated that in the United States, NBC is effectively killing the goose that laid the golden egg. U.S. viewers will never commit to world-class Premier League football if they're given access only to different teams and lower priority matches week to unpredictable week.

Unfortunately, commercial development of the women's game presents the same conundrum. Commercialization in the priorities of the Carney review is presented as an undisputed good. To be sure, that's where the money is, and it will take money to bring the women's game to gender parity.

At the same time, there is evidence already in the United States that commercial success, ironically, invites audience exclusivity and, thus, narrows public appeal. USWNT television rights presently lie with ESPN and Fox Sports, both divisions of Disney. But Disney+ viewers won't find the USWNT there, nor in the Disney+/ESPN+ bundle, as "+" seems to be a number less than (ESPN)2 and (ESPN)3.

In March, US Soccer awarded USWNT and men's team rights together in an eight-year deal to HBO Max and Turner properties, all divisions of AT&T by way of WarnerMedia. An HBO subscription doesn't come cheap, and different Turner channels require subscription to different bundles.

With media empires now controlling access to football on both sides of the Atlantic, fans' budgets will be stretched thin, and appetite for allegiances to new endeavors, such as expanded women's football, might prove difficult to stir. If the women's game is to be kept from becoming a victim of its own success, the goal of commercialization should be viewed with a discerning eye, wary of monopolization.

A call for evidence in support of the Carney review is expected from the UK Football Association in the coming weeks. HT @ lawyer Paul Maalo, writing for the Wiggin digital commerce team in London.

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