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Women’s sport in lockdown: The W Series

In a pre-lockdown world, momentum was the watch-word for women’s sport.  2019 was a year to remember.  The FIFA Women’s World Cup in France saw a shift in perception of women’s football, with the level of skill and entertainment on the pitch gaining new levels of respect and interest.  In turn, the sponsorship, prize money and viewing figures were all record-breaking.

Other sports have taken the opportunity to ride on this wave of popularity.  Governing bodies have become more active in promoting women’s sport both at the grass roots and elite level.  There has been a notable increase in broadcasters and commercial sponsors investing in women’s sport.

The ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020 was one of the last major events before Covid-19 put a halt to world sport.  The viewing and attendance figures were the highest ever enjoyed by women’s cricket and the 86,174-strong crowd for the final between Australia and India, taking place in Melbourne on International Women’s Day, holds the attendance record for a women’s sport match in Australia and is the second highest ever attendance for a women’s sport match globally.

The direction of travel for women’s sport was clear and stakeholders will be keen to prevent the global pandemic slowing the momentum in the long term.

Here we focus on the W Series and take a look at where the fledgling Series stands and how it is coping with the Coronavirus crisis.

Pre-lockdown

Only six women have ever participated in a Formula One weekend, with the last occasion being five years ago when Susie Wolf, then test driver for Williams, had her Practice session at Silverstone cut short by a mechanical failure.  The status quo of women not making it to the starting grid did not look like changing any time soon.  However, the launch of the W Series in 2019 has shone a new spot-light on women competing in motorsport.

The inaugural W Series championship seemed to spring from nowhere, with CEO Catherine Bond Muir developing the idea whilst on maternity leave from her job in sports law. The objective was not just to create a successful racing Series in its own right but to open up a platform, to raise the profile of women competing in motorsport so that Formula One is not such an impossible dream for the girl racers of the future (and possibly even the W Series drivers of the present).

The private-equity backed Series offers women the opportunity to compete in mechanically identical single-seater cars, with no entry fees, for a share in a US$1.5million prize fund (US$500,000 for first place and every participant guaranteed some prize money).  The Series was set up to make an immediate impact, with broadcast deals struck in 60 countries (including free-to-air on Channel 4 in the UK) and big names such as David Coulthard connected to the venture.

Opportunities had already presented themselves to the drivers.  Jamie Chadwick, the eventual winner of the 2019 W Series championship, secured a place as a Development Driver with Williams on the back of her impressive performances (a position extended for 2020).  Chadwick has also been named as a driver in the new Extreme-E off road series, which has itself announced a format aimed at promoting gender equality.  In 2021, the inaugural Extreme-E series is set to see one male and one female driver in the cockpit of every car, swapping half-way through the race, in a move said to be inspired by mixed doubles tennis.

During lock-down

2020 was set to be an exciting year for the W Series, with the FIA confirming that Super Licence points would be available for the first eight placed drivers in the championship (the champion would gain 15 points).  This provides further recognition for the W Series and is an important step, given that a driver must attain a Super Licence to be able to compete in Formula One.  At least 40 points must be accumulated over the previous three seasons from eligible competitions to be able to qualify for a Super Licence.

The 2020 championship was also set to see an additional two fixtures, with the W Series supporting the Formula One United States and Mexico City Grands Prix, following six race weekends in Europe on the DTM platform (including two new territories – Sweden and Russia).  On the sponsorship side, the W Series had secured its first major sponsor, announcing in December 2019 a multi-year deal with telecoms company ROKiT Phones.

As a result of Covid 19, the 2020 season has been put on hold, with the first race on the DTM platform in St Petersburg on 29-30 May being postponed.  In the circumstances, it is unclear what will happen with the remainder of this year’s championship, with the fate of the races, as planned at least, depending on decisions made on postponement or cancellation of the DTM and Formula One race weekends.  The lack of testing and practice may also impact on the schedule of any return to racing.

To fill the void, W Series has joined the trend of traditional sports innovating in the field of esports.  Earlier this month, the W Series Esports League was launched.  Developed in connection with Logitech G, Beyond Entertainment and iRacing, the W Series Esports League, will stage sim races on 10 famous circuits, with all W Series drivers expected to compete.  Chadwick is already an accomplished e-racer, being named as one of Fernando Alonso’s esports team FA Racing Logitech G in 2019 and competing in Veloce Esports’s #NotTheGP in April alongside Formula One drivers.

No doubt, the Esports League will hope to capitalise on the fan base W Series has built up from last season and to continue to promote diversity and inclusion in motorsport as well as esports.

Post lock-down

Bond Muir has been positive in the press about the immediate future of W Series, citing the fact that, as a nascent business, the W Series is not currently reliant on income from promoters and TV broadcasting.  In the longer term, there is a recognition that W Series will need to move towards that type of business model, securing new investment and commercial partners in order to prove viable and self-sustaining financially.

On the track, W Series will be hopeful of a swift but safe return to racing to build on the success of 2019 and the promise of 2020.

© Copyright 2020 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 147

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