Show top women’s sport on free-to-air TV too, says Nicky Morgan

England playing the US in the 2019 Women's World Cup.

England’s semi-final match against the US in the 2019 Women’s World Cup attracted 12 million TV viewers. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

The culture secretary has called for top flight women’s sport to be added to televised sport’s “crown jewels” list, which would guarantee them exposure to potentially mass audiences on free-to-air television that men’s tournaments such as the football World Cup and FA Cup final currently enjoy.

Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, has written to TV rights holders advocating to make major women’s sports competitions “listed events” to create a level playing field with men’s events.

Events on the list – which include the Olympics, the men’s World Cup and FA Cup – are aired on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and cannot be poached exclusively by pay-TV services such as Sky, which attract a fraction of the audiences.

“Where a men’s event is listed, the women’s equivalent would be too,” said Morgan, speaking at the Royal Television Society conference, her first major speech as culture secretary. “This would be an important step in giving female sporting talent the coverage they deserve and putting men’s and women’s sport on an equal footing at last.”

The culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, wants to add top women’s sporting competitions to the list of protected sporting events reserved for free-to-air broadcasters.
 The culture secretary, Nicky Morgan, wants to add top women’s sporting competitions to the list of protected sporting events reserved for free-to-air broadcasters. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Morgan also said the Paralympics were being looked at in terms of being made one of the “listed events”.

Her push comes after the hugely successful women’s football World Cup on the BBC. The event provided the UK’s most-watched women’s football game ever as almost 12 million tuned in to see the England go out to the USA in the semi-finals.

However, although the BBC holds the rights to the women’s World Cup, rival commercial broadcasters – or a digital player such as Amazon’s Prime Video, which has UK rights to Premier League and top-flight tennis – could be tempted to bid for future tournaments after seeing the large audiences attracted to the sport.

“A record-breaking 28 million people tuned into the women’s World Cup,” Morgan said. “I want to build on this momentum and make sure future generations of female sporting talent can be inspired by who they see on their screens.”

Morgan is seeking views on whether women’s events including the football and rugby world cups, Champion’s League football, and Rugby League Challenge Cup final should be added to the existing list.

The list of crown jewel events is governed by legislation and a voluntary code set up in 2009, and is signed by sports bodies governing cricket, football, golf, tennis and rugby union and league. The rights for these events, including the Wimbledon tennis and rugby World Cup finals must be offered to free-to-air channels which can be received by at least 95% of the population under the current rules.

The broadcasting rights for the Wimbledon finals are among those on list of TV sport’s so-called ‘crown jewels’.
 The broadcasting rights for the Wimbledon finals are among those on list of TV sport’s so-called ‘crown jewels’. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The list is designed to make sure that events deemed of national importance can reach the largest TV audiences, although being on the list does not guarantee that it will be broadcast by a major free-to-air TV company.

Morgan also said that the government would back Ofcom introducing new TV regulations to help UK broadcasters compete against the increasingly powerful and popular Silicon Valley giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

The broadcasting regulator is set to launch a review of the public service broadcasting system, which includes the activities of ITV, the BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The broadcasters would like regulatory advantages including forcing players such as Sky to make sure their programming gets top billing on its on-demand TV services.

“British broadcasters are central pillars of our public life and their benefits are too great for them to be cast off as a victim of this revolution,” she said. “We need to make sure that regulations – many of which were developed in the analogue age – are fit for the digital age and the new ways that people watch and produce shows. I want Ofcom’s upcoming review to help us consider how regulation can ensure our much loved public service broadcasters can continue to be the beating heart of our television landscape for years to come.”

UK Listed Sporting Events:

Group A – Live Coverage

  • The Olympic Games
  • The Fifa World Cup finals tournament
  • The FA Cup final
  • The Scottish FA Cup final (in Scotland)
  • The Grand National
  • The Derby
  • The Wimbledon Championship finals
  • The European Football Championship finals tournament
  • The Rugby League Challenge Cup final
  • The Rugby World Cup final

Group B – Highlights

  • Cricket Test matches played in England
  • Non-finals play at Wimbledon
  • All other matches in the Rugby World Cup
  • Six Nations rugby tournament matches involving home countries
  • The Commonwealth Games
  • The World Athletics Championship
  • The Cricket World Cup final, semi-finals and matches involving home nations’ teams
  • The Ryder Cup
  • The Open Golf championship


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