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RTÉ's coverage of Women's World Cup could be 'turning point' for sport

The competition kicked off last Friday.

France v Norway - FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 - Group A - Allianz Riviera France's Kadidiatou Diani and Norway's Ingrid Syrstad Engen battle for the ball. Source: EMPICS Sport/PA Images

WITH THE 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup underway, RTÉ and TG4 producers are keeping a close eye on viewing figures. 

The tournament kicked off last Friday with France facing South Korea in Paris and for the first time in the history of the tournament, all 52 games are being broadcast free-to-air on both TV stations. 

Staff “just don’t know” how popular this competition will prove, though, an RTÉ spokesperson told TheJournal.ie. “We have no expectations and nothing to compare them with,” they said. 

So, will this coverage make money for the broadcasters? And what impact could RTÉ/TG4′s broadcasting have on an Irish audience? 

Rob Hartnett, founder and CEO of Sport for Business has said that, while the license to broadcast the competition is costly, if the women’s World Cup coverage proves popular for Irish broadcasters then “it could really take off”. 

‘Sea change’ 

The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991 – 61 years after the first men’s tournament in 1930. 

In total, 24 teams have qualified for this year’s tournament and just four have claimed the title previously – Norway, Germany, the United States and Japan. 

The US are heavy favourites to defend their crown again this year having lifted the trophy for the third time in 2015. They defeated Thailand 13-0 earlier this week. 

The Republic of Ireland has never qualified for the finals – this year included. After a promising start to their 2019 World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland ran out of steam and failed to out-muscle Group 3 heavyweights Norway and the Netherlands.

As the competition’s rolls on, broadcasters around the world have committed to broadcasting the tournament in a variety of platforms through licensing agreements. 

RTÉ and TG4 will be showing each match through a mixture from official FIFA TV and original coverage.

Later in the competition, RTÉ will be present in France where original material will be filmed. 

Women’s football continues to grow year-on-year in participation and attendance terms. 

Over 800,000 tickets have been sold for this year’s tournament in France while 2015′s World Cup in Canada attracted more than half a billion TV viewers worldwide. 

In 2017, over 1.3 million female players were registered with a national football association or affiliated football club in Europe while the number of youth players jumped from 827,877 in 2016 to 960,959 in 2017. 

Yet a spokesperson for RTÉ told TheJournal.ie that staff at the national “just don’t know in what numbers the audience will watch this tournament.”

Japan v Scotland - FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 - Group D - Roazhon Park Japan's Mana Iwabuchi celebrates scoring a goal against Scotland on Friday. Source: Richard Sellers/PA Images

“RTÉ has not  previously shown this level of coverage of a Women’s soccer World Cup, so there is nothing to compare it to.” 

TV figures

Writing in the Irish Examiner this week, Tommy Martin noted that football “long criticised for selling its soul to satellite broadcasters, has generally maintained a presence on terrestrial television for big events like cup finals and major championships”.

Early figures from RTÉ show that an average of 65,000 people watched Norway take on Nigeria last Saturday.

Tuesday’s much talked about game – in which tournament favourites USA beat Thailand 13 – 0 – was watched by an average of 62,000 people. 

While RTÉ nor TG4 disclose how much money is being spent to broadcast the Women’s World Cup, it’s likely to set them back a fair bit, according to Hartnett.

Although it’s understood to be a loss leader, that’s not to say it won’t pay off long-term for the broadcasters, should the competition engage an Irish audience. 

Following a number of campaigns in recent years to highlight participation in women’s sports, Hartnett has said that “there’s a real possibility that this could be the point at which men start to take a much closer look at it”. 

To an extent, RTÉ and TG4′s decision to team up was likely influenced by the fact that the BBC are covering the competition so closely. 

“I think RTÉ have looked at this and said ‘Look, we’re committed to women’s sport. We’re committed to the camogie championships.

“‘What can we do as a statement that will really put us in this space?

“And this is as big as it gets. It’s on a global scale.”

South Africa v China - FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 - Group B - Parc des Princes China gather for a huddle Source: EMPICS Sport/PA images

Yet, how the competition plays out will likely determine viewing figures, Harnett has said.

If the competition’s opening games don’t hold audiences’ attention then viewers could taper off.  “It could go the other way. But I doubt it.”

Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of TG4 has said that free-to-air coverage of the Women’s World Cup is an important part in the station’s Public Service Broadcasting remit and “is also indicative of TG4’s genuine commitment to the 20×20 Women in Sport campaign, which aims to help heighten the profile of women’s sport and give it the level of exposure that it deserves”.

“TG4 have of course been very active in this regard for many years, most notably through our partnership with the Ladies Gaelic Football Association – Peil na mBan.”

Ó Clochartaigh added that there appears to be a “very high level of public interest in the event” which the broadcaster “hopes will be reflected in strong viewership figures”. 

The RTÉ spokesperson said the broadcaster is “committed to showing more women’s sports across RTÉ”. 

Finally, what if Ireland were in the competition? Would the nation be hooked? Hartnett reckons so.

“If our women’s national team… if they’re given the exposure first you can well imagine it.” 

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