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At Large: Is sport ready for the Fifa Women’s World Cup challenge?

The response to the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France is a sign of the growth women’s soccer is delivering. Now, the industry must prepare for the change the tournament will bring.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Is sport ready for the Fifa Women’s World Cup challenge?

History is as much about the things that didn’t happen as those that did, in sport as much as anything else. 

In fact, with all its fine margins and close calls, sport provides more than its share of opportunities to imagine the doors sliding shut a moment later. And had that catch been held or that chance converted, then you too could have been the Gwyneth Paltrow with the sparky new do and more fulfilling career.  

Of course, history is about waves as well as ripples and a lot of those redirected paths would have converged on the same mixed metaphor of a destination. Women’s soccer, infamously, was effectively banned by England’s Football Association (FA) from 1921 to 1971, having drawn bumper crowds during and after the First World War. In France, where 25,000 fans watched an international against England in 1920, the national league was dissolved in 1932 and the sport was banned by the Vichy government. 

Had those decisions never been taken, the progress of the female game would still have been complicated by decades of social inequality. But women’s soccer might never have undergone the curious othering that sports like athletics and tennis avoided. 

This week, as the Fifa Women’s World Cup arrives in France, women’s soccer is claiming its rightful place in the mainstream. Following a record-breaking event in Canada four years ago, organisers have set ambitious goals this time around. They have aimed to shift a million of the 1.3 million available tickets – 720,000 had sold by the 50 days to go mark – and are seeking a combined worldwide television audience of one billion.    

Brands are responding. Visa will match its activation spend from the men’s tournament in Russia in 2018. Adidas will match its player bonuses. The likes of Nike and Lucozade have spent big on smart, spectacular campaigns that have set a defiant tone. Media companies from Copa90 to Globo and the BBC to the New York Times are rolling out unprecedented levels of coverage, with Bleacher Report revealing ad sales against Women’s World Cup content have now caught up with the men’s event last year. Commercially, this is an opportunity, not an obligation.  

According to data released by Nielsen this month, an estimated 16 per cent of the populations of the 24 competing nations is interested in women’s soccer specifically – a potential audience roughly equivalent to that of golf. That adds up to about 314 million people across those countries. Coverage of women’s sport remains comparatively anaemic but over the next month, more and more media organisations will take the editorial decision to push stories about the World Cup above high-profile men’s events. 

The Fifa Women’s World Cup, and women’s soccer in general, are delivering growth. Soccer’s administrators and the sports industry are happy with growth. They’re ready for growth. Whether they’re ready for change is another question. 

For sponsors, who have shown a growing interest in high-value women’s soccer properties outside the World Cup, that means aligning practices with what they preach. According to Nike’s chief financial officer Andrew Campion, the women’s footwear and apparel market is 1.5 times bigger than the men’s but accounts for less than a quarter of the company’s revenues – a situation it is now moving to address through opportunities like the World Cup. But it was embarrassed last month by the revelation that elite female athletes had endorsement income cut when they became pregnant. It has now rewritten the terms of its contracts to ensure that cannot happen again. 

The media, too, will be expected to follow up on its flurry of interest in the tournament, and may need to overcome convention and limited budgets in the short term to do so. 

As the market expands, though, the pressure is being applied first on governing bodies. The world champions will mount their defence having sued US Soccer for equal pay to their male counterparts and the world’s best player, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, will sit out the tournament altogether in protest at inequality in the sport. There is realism at the work that lies ahead for the women’s game to reach maturity, but less appetite for a long wait to be a priority.  

This week heralds the first Fifa Women’s Football Convention in Paris, and Fifa and Europe’s Uefa are among those organisations to unveil ambitious new blueprints for the women’s game. The global governing body has insisted all of its member associations have their own strategies in place by 2022 and wants twice as many to have organised youth leagues – a reminder that in many countries, including briefly mooted men’s 2022 World Cup co-host Saudi Arabia, access to soccer for women is a different proposition altogether. 

Still, when Fifa president Gianni Infantino was asked this week about the disparity in prize money between the men’s and women’s World Cups – the total prize fund for the women has doubled from US$15 million to US$30 million this time, still some US$370 million short of the overall purse in Russia – he defaulted to a line about the need to better “commercialise women’s football”. Patience with that mode of thinking, at the international level in any case, is in ever shorter supply. 

Of all the challenges the sports business will face in the next few years, all the forces that will make 21st century sport different from what has gone before, addressing inclusivity is different from the others in how it jumbles up social and financial imperatives. Events like this World Cup will set a level of expectation among young fans, and the industry needs to be ready to deliver against them. 

The economics of women’s soccer result from decades of historic decisions and attitudes whose effects are only now beginning to unravel. But the young girls inspired by what they see in the next few weeks will not want their future defined by someone else’s past.