For four years, Kadeisha Buchanan has been a star defender with the French soccer club Olympique Lyonnais. But whenever she’s hit the pitch for big matches, such as last year’s UEFA Champions League final, which her team won, she’s had a nagging worry in the back of her mind: Was her mother, back home in Toronto, able to navigate the thorny tech challenges of accessing international broadcasts and watch the game?
“During the warmup, I’m thinking, ‘Is this link [that I sent her] going to work?’ ” said Buchanan during an interview on Wednesday. “I had so many subscriptions to different platforms, paying all this money, just to hear, ‘Oh, the link didn’t work.’ Or ‘It’s not [available owing to copyright restrictions] in your regional zone.’ "
Those problems should evaporate this fall, after the global sports-streaming service DAZN said Wednesday it had bought the worldwide rights to the next four years of UEFA Women’s Champions League play and will make every game in the first two seasons available free on YouTube. One media watcher called the move a “game changer” for women’s sports.
The deal means the games will be available globally for the first time, except in China and its territories, and the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa).
In the past, fans of the UEFA Women’s Champions League have had to search through a variety of providers, including TV channels and websites run by the clubs themselves, to watch the bulk of the games.
The move is expected to be closely watched as a bellwether for the popularity of women’s sports, which largely remain stuck in a chicken-and-egg conundrum despite growing viewership for women’s soccer and women’s basketball: advocates insist viewers will turn out for women’s pro sports on TV if they are made available, but access to them remains minuscule compared to men’s games.
A DAZN executive said that the disconnect between the current audience and the potential demand for the women’s game presented an opening for the company.
“We can grow the sport, and there’s just untapped opportunity in this particular space,” said Norm Lem, the senior vice-president of revenue for DAZN Canada, during an interview on Tuesday.
Putting all games on YouTube for the first two seasons will help remove barriers for casual fans who might either not have known how to access the games or to be been inclined to pay for them, he said. “Partnering with [a company that] has two billion eyeballs on their service every month, it’s very powerful.”
DAZN holds comprehensive rights to a number of men’s soccer competitions broadcast in Canada, including the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, but only a patchwork of rights in many of the other countries in which it operates.
“As a global sports-streaming platform, really the only one, we were looking for something that we could take to the world,” Lem said.
The agreement begins with the coming campaign, which kicks off with the group stage in October and runs through May, 2022. The company did not reveal financial terms of the agreement. No one from UEFA was available for comment.
DAZN intends to create feature programs celebrating some of the game’s stars that it hopes will raise the game’s profile, as it has done for many of its men’s sports properties.
“We know the household names from a men’s soccer perspective, the Ronaldos and the Messis, but unfortunately it’s hard to name a bunch of women players out there that are equally strong, equally entertaining and equally skilled as players,” Lem said. “There is a gap there that we’re trying to close. And ultimately [that is] an opportunity.”
The company announced the deal with an inspirational two-minute video on its new UEFA Women’s Champions League YouTube channel, featuring a voiceover that explains: “The more eyes, the more Likes ... More headlines, more airtime, more billboards, more big time.”
After two years of access to the games on YouTube – through which DAZN will earn revenue from commercials – the company intends to reduce the live programming it makes available on that free site, to 19 games a season from 61. “We see a very clear path to monetization,” as the company converts viewers from YouTube to its pay service, Lem said.
DAZN currently retails for $19.99 a month in Canada. It costs significantly less in many other countries, where its offerings are slimmer.
Ann Pegoraro, the Lang chair in sport management at the University of Guelph, suggested DAZN is getting in at the right time, before the prices rise on women’s sports.
“There are a lot of signals pointing to the [return on investment] in women’s sports being near a tipping point,” she said during an interview with The Globe this week. She noted that a recent survey found viewership of women’s soccer could spike more than 300 per cent in the three regions surveyed – Britain, the United States and the European Union – if the sport were more easily accessible.
If those findings hold true, “this is a really good pivotal move by DAZN to get in now, because once that growth happens, the rights [costs] are going to go up, as well.”
She also noted that it may be an especially canny move to invest in women’s sports, which are experiencing a surge in interest, even as viewership of men’s sports has not kept up to the sharp increases in the price of the broadcast rights to those sports.
And Pegoraro said it could finally put to rest the skepticism among some that there is no significant audience for women’s sport. “You can’t really judge that [idea] until you actually make women’s sports accessible,” she said.
Events such as the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup are frequently cited as proof that audiences will tune in to women’s sports, especially soccer. That tournament attracted more than one billion viewers, more than one-quarter of whom tuned in to the final between the United States and the Netherlands. But the popularity of those one-off tournaments does not always translate to regular pro league competitions.
Still, she said that DAZN’s decision to put the games on YouTube may prove to be transformational.
“Making it available to the masses, I think, it would be a real game changer, in terms of what we see in interest in women’s sport.”