England's Ellen White celebrates after scoring her team's second goal during the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Norway and England at Oceane Stadium in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 27, 2019. Record World Cup audiences this month show women’s soccer is on a roll. Now it’s time to see what it’s worth. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
INTERNATIONAL - Record World Cup audiences this month show women’s soccer is on a roll. Now it’s time to see what it’s worth.

A test of the game’s commercial appeal is looming after England’s Football Association decided to sell domestic broadcast rights to the women’s game independently of the men’s competition for the first time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The Women’s Super League rights have always been bundled in with the male FA Cup. The WSL can now go it alone because women’s soccer has grown in popularity over the past two years, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the approaching rights negotiations are private.

To boost the profile of the women’s league, it may prefer a deal with free-to-air broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corp. or ITV Plc that could reach a bigger audience than pay-TV.

“Because women’s football is in its infancy, you don’t have corruption scandals, you have good role models and season tickets are cheaper,” said Minal Modha of media research firm Ampere Analytics. “You just need to get it in front of as many people as possible.”

Although the current contract has two seasons to go, renewal negotiations will start soon after the World Cup ends on July 7. The FA declined to say how much it receives from the current WSL rights.

For now, fans must switch between a confusing array of platforms, with some games airing on BT Group Plc’s pay-TV channels, others on secondary BBC digital channels and the rest live-streamed by Facebook Inc. BT said its WSL matches attract an average of 57,000 viewers, compared to 990,000 for Premier League games.

The rights won’t raise more than a fraction of what’s spent on the elite men’s Premier League, the world’s richest soccer competition that earns more than 3 billion pounds ($3.82 billion) a year from broadcasters. Premier League players take home an average of 2.64 million pounds a year -- almost a hundred times more than the 26,752 pounds paid to the average WSL player, according to figures in a 2017 survey of global player incomes by Sporting Intelligence.

Going Pro

Most high-level female competitive soccer is unpaid. Fewer than 1,300 professional soccer players worldwide are women, compared to around 137,000 male professionals, according to Sporting Intelligence. Many of the paid female players are in the U.S., where the women’s game generates more revenue than its male equivalent.

That also means it won’t take a massive increase in funding to bring a step-change in salaries and training budgets. Famous clubs are promoting the women’s game more actively, with Real Madrid announcing this week it is starting a female team and Manchester United’s women advancing to the WSL next season.

In France, the value of broadcast rights is soaring. The top female league in the World Cup host nation secured 6 million euros ($6.83 million) by selling domestic rights to pay-TV broadcaster Canal+ over five years, according to Le Parisien newspaper. That’s 1.2 million euros a year, or six times what the rights were worth two years ago.

The teams in the top tier of the WSL only became fully professional last season and the game is beginning to draw sponsorship from big brands such as Barclays Plc and Budweiser.

Enduring Appeal

Although stadiums were emptier than expected early in the World Cup competition, it has been drawing some record TV audiences. Around 6.7 million people watched England’s latest match against Cameroon on the BBC, 2.7 million more than for their Euro 2017 semi-final against the Netherlands -- the previous record for an England women’s game going into this year’s tournament.

Many of the England team players, who will meet Norway later on Thursday in the quarter-finals, ply their trade in the WSL, including Chelsea Football Club winger Karen Carney and Manchester United defender Alex Greenwood. The Norway match will be screened live to thousands of revelers at Glastonbury, one of the Britain’s biggest music festivals.

The challenge will be to use the World Cup to multiply audiences for club games, which still draw relatively small crowds. WSL match attendances averaged 996 in the 2018-19 season, compared to 38,495 in the Premier League a year earlier, according to Deloitte.

“A lot of kids are playing the game. They’re watching it on TV,” Kristine Lilly, who won two World Cup titles with the U.S. national team, said on the Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast. “If we keep the women’s game still visible for people to see, instead of just the World Cup every four years, that helps.”