Women stars set to score with viewers

Women’s football could be the next big thing for sports broadcasting – for the next fortnight at least, says Catherine Etoe

WITH MORE THAN 130,000 registered players, football has become the most popular participation sport for females in the country.

But when it comes to watching the women’s game, is the viewing public’s appetite as voracious?

The
BBC and British Eurosport are about to find out over the next two weeks
when they broadcast coverage of the biggest women’s football tournament
to arrive on these shores – the Uefa Women’s Championships. Euro 2005
sees eight of Europe’s top women’s teams – including England – compete
in Blackpool, Preston, Warrington, Manchester and Blackburn.

Eurosport
hopes to attract two million British viewers and 10 million overall to
its package of highlights, plus all 15 matches – 13 of them live – on
British Eurosport and British Eurosport 2.

BBC Two is showing all
three England group matches live, the final, possibly one semi-final
(should the hosts go through), and five highlights packages. Matching
figures for their past four women’s FA Cup broadcasts – up to 2.5
million – would be viewed as a success.

Of course, these are
nothing like the kind of figures broadcasters would expect for a men’s
tournament. And they’re not even comparable to those of Sweden and
Germany, whose Fifa Women’s World Cup 2003 final was viewed by 3.8
million and 11.4 million in each country respectively.

But here,
where the Premiership is God and Wayne Rooney’s Colleen is more famous
than England head coach Hope Powell, it is a whole different ball game.

“Due
to the high level of interest in the men’s game in this country, women
players aren’t necessarily household names,” says Eurosport’s press
manager, Matt Horler. “So if people are keen to follow the characters
in the sport, then there will be a period where they will need to get
to know them.”

So how will the two broadcasters get an audience
hooked on a competition featuring players many have never heard of and
teams most haven’t seen play before?

Lance Hardy, editor of Final Score and the BBC’s women’s FA Cup and Euro 2005 coverage, admits it will be a challenge.

“In
terms of what our standards are, how we dress the programmes up, the
analysis, the studio chat and features, we are basically approaching it
the same way as a men’s tournament,” he says. “But at the same time,
recognising that, with the best will in the world, (England left back)
Rachel Unitt isn’t Ashley Cole and (right back) Alex Scott isn’t Gary
Neville, so people at home may be seeing women’s football for the first
time.”

To counter this, Hardy has filmed pieces to camera with
the 20-strong England squad, which includes two A-level students, two
mothers and a postwoman.

He says: “We’ve got all the girls to
look down the lens and say their names and who they play for, to make
them a bit more personable. With 20 minutes’  build-up, you want to sell who these girls are so the viewers can find something tangible.

“The
success of this tournament from our point of view is the success of
England, however you calculate that. So I want the programmes to be
quite proud St George’s flag occasions, so people at home can think
these girls are representing the nation.”

Eurosport, whose
coverage will reach 54 countries, says it is treating the tournament in
the same way as any other. Having covered women’s Uefa, World Cup,
Algarve Cup and Olympic matches since covering the latest European
championships in Germany, it is an old hand at the genre.

But
Horler says that with England as host, Euro 2005 will offer the chance
to gauge interest in this country. “The game in the UK is not quite as
big as it is on a pan-European basis, so this will really be the first
chance to see what the impact of consistent England matches on our
channel is,” he says.

Eurosport is, however, aware the audience
may need guidance, so Jen O’Neill, editor of women’s football magazine
Fair Game, has been taken on as co-commentator with Dave Farrar. In the
studio, presenter Matt Smith will team up with The Guardian’s women’s
football correspondent, Paula Cocozza, alongside Arsenal players Angie
Banks and Julie Fleeting.

Horler adds: “There is going to be an
element of education in terms of people getting to know the players.
That’s why we’ve got such good guests so they can give some insight and
analysis into the players people should be following and what sort of
skills they’ve got and what their attributes are.”

Premiership
players Karen Walker and Sue Smith and Fulham manager Marieanne Spacey
will supplement the BBC’s team, which also includes Celina Hinchcliffe
and Guy Mowbray.

Having attended all England’s friendlies over
the past year, Women’s Euro 2005 Match of the Day 2 anchor Hinchcliffe
has already received an education in the game. “I’m on friendly terms
with a lot of the players,” she says. “You get a lot more access than
you do in men’s football because they are working so hard to promote
the game.”

Given that her editor is aiming to get daily
interviews with the England team during the tournament, it is the kind
of access journalists in the men’s game dream of.

“I get the
impression that the players are used to having a select gathering of
people around,” Hardy says. “Whereas in the men’s game you’ve got
dozens of camera crews at press conferences.”

Of the BBC
commentators, Mowbray probably has the tougher call, having been
allotted the B group matches featuring Germany, France, Italy and
Norway. He admits videos will form a greater part of his preparation
than usual, but insists he is finding the process stimulating.

“I’ll
be more reliant on the videos for this because for the men’s game, when
you get to World Cups and European Championships, you’d be hard pushed
to find somebod4y you’ve never heard of,” he says. “In many ways it’s
more interesting to do than some of the Premiership games. I’ve covered
players all season and when you are doing notes for a game it’s the
same old stuff, whereas with this, it’s ‘hang on a minute there’s
somebody I don’t know, let’s find out a bit more about her’.”

So
could this tournament be the litmus test for longer-term coverage of
the women’s game? Hardy seems to think so. “It’s quite a challenge
because first and foremost you are covering a game of football, but at
the same time there’s so much more attached to it and everyone
recognises this is a big opportunity for the game in this country,” he
says. “That comes down to how the girls perform, but it also comes down
to how the media present our coverage. It’s almost like we are helping
them along the way.”

Catherine Etoe is a freelance journalist and women’s football writer Euro 2005 kicks off on 5 June

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