CAPITALIZING ON A LANDMARK WORLD CUP
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
This article was originally published on July 10th, 2019.
At the weekend, The USWNT won the Women's World Cup for a record fourth time as they eventually overpowered the Netherlands, 2-0, in Lyon.
The tournament surpassed expectations, smashing records and proving that the women's game is entering into a new era.
So, how can women's soccer capitalize on a landmark World Cup, that hit new heights of exposure and profile, and shifted perceptions like never before?
The first women's soccer game on record was all the way back in 1881, between teams representing Scotland and England, in Glasgow. At the time, the Glasgow Herald described it as "a rather novel football match".
It would be long before women's soccer began to take off, continuing to grow through the First World War, as women's teams filled the places of men's teams. A game in 1920, between Liverpool and St Helen's Ladies, was attended by 53,000. Thousands of fans were locked outside of Goodison Park that day, unable to get in, this record stood until March of this year when 60,000 people attended an Atlético Madrid vs Barcelona game.
At the time it looked like the women's game might be on track to rival the men's game. However, in 1921 in the UK women were ban from playing on playing on professional stadiums, on the grounds that it was "quite unsuitable for females."
The ban would not be lifted until 1971, which by that time had damaged the women's game upon repair. FIFA would launch the first Women's World Cup in 1991, mostly with amateur players.
Since the early nineties, the women's game has changed a lot. The continued growth has led us all up to the 2019 World Cup, in France.
The tournament in France drew a huge wave of interest and made history on and off the pitch, reflecting an increased international commitment and investment in the sport.
Over 200 different broadcasters attended the tournament, with many giving matches prime-time slots on network television. FIFA estimated that over 1 billion viewers, across the world, tuned into the tournament.
This opportunity offered by broadcasters proved fruitful, as TV records were broken in a multitude of countries, including in France, the U.S., Germany, and China. The tournament also saw 59 million people watch hosts France defeat Brazil, 2-1, in their last-16 game matchup, making it the most-watched women's soccer match of all time.
88% of the entire Dutch TV audience tuned in to watch their team in the final, becoming the highest TV audience in the country since the 2014 men's World Cup semi-final.
After calling the 2019 tournament "the best women's World Cup ever," FIFA president Gianni Infantino, set out a five-point plan to make sure soccer "seizes this opportunity."
Starting with the 2023 World Cup, Infantino wants to increase the size of the next Women's World Cup to 32 teams from the current 24. The 2019 World Cupsaw the prize money doubled to $30 million, with the new changes will see the 2023 tournament again double the prize money to $60 million.
He has also called for the world governing body to set up a women's World League for national sides, similar to that of the UEFA Nations League, which would include promotion and relegation.
Furthermore, Infantino also has plans to double a planned $500m investment in women's soccer in the next four years, saying FIFA has unprecedented levels of reserves and "we don't need all that money in Swiss banks, they have enough."
"It's a great thing, this World Cup, but then people forget, they do other things. It's our job to make sure that they don't forget and we don't just say: 'See you in four years,'" said Infantino. "That's why I propose to the Fifa council and to all our members - who have to embrace the development of women's football."
Dropping down to the club level, Infantino has also expressed plans to increase awareness, with plans for a Club World Cup-style tournament. Similar to that seen in the men's game, where the winners of the UEFA Champions League face continental champions from Africa, Asia, Oceania and North, and South America.
"I would like to propose a Club World Cup for women, starting as soon as possible," he said. "A real Club World Cup. We can only develop national football if we develop club football as well.
"It can be played every year to expose clubs all over the world. Clubs would invest even more in women's football to shine on the world stage."
Alongside FIFA, brands are now increasingly willing to show their backing for the women's game. Some described it as a "culturally relevant" moment, that companies can now tap into new audiences.
Visa, one of six global FIFA sponsors, pledged to spend the same on marketing the next Women's World Cup, as it does the men's tournament. Adidas would also release a statement that their sponsored players on the winning team "would receive the same performance bonus as their male counterparts".
The 2019 tournament will be remembered as Megan Rapinoe's (@mPinoe) World Cup. Rapinoe was a star in the women's game before the 2019 tournament. If you take the time to look back at her highlight reel, it is easy to see that she has always been an entertainer.
At the 2011 World Cup, when the Americans were runners-up to Japan, she scored against Colombia and celebrated by grabbing a stadium microphone and singing Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA".
However, it is only after performances on and off the field at this World Cup that Rapinoe has become a household name across the world. On social media, she would become the most mentioned player in the tournament, dragging with her the women's game into the consciousness of many a casual soccer fan.
The U.S.'s co-captain took home the trophy for the second tournament in a row. She scored the opener in the final, won the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, was the official FIFA player of the final, and also made headlines for criticizing President Trump and championing LGBT rights and women's equality in soccer.
During the group stages, when the U.S. won all three games, she was filmed saying she would not go to the White House if she were to be invited. This caused a response from Trump, which included the line: "Megan should win first, before she talks."
Rapinoe has used her platform and her voice amazingly standing up for the things that she believes in. However, her stand on equality has gathered the most attention.
As USWNT collected their winner's medals, chants of "equal pay" echoed throughout the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
"I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next level," Rapinoe said when asked about the "equal pay" chanting. The message also has resonated with fans, as according to Twitter, there were five times more tweets about "pay" after the final win.
"I think we are done with the questions like 'are we worth it?', 'Should we have equal pay?' Everyone's done with that. Let's get to the next point of 'what's next?' How do we support women around the world? How can Fifa do that?" she added.
The USWNT, is currently suing the U.S. Soccer Federation over gender discrimination, a lawsuit that was announced on International Women's Day, 8 March, this year.
According to the lawsuit, in addition to base pay differences, the US men's team received over $5m in bonuses after they lost in the 2014 World Cup, while the women received just under $2m after they won the 2015 World Cup, US media report.
These differences are despite the fact that the USWNT generates more revenue for the federation than the men's team in recent years.
In the men's World Cup in 2018, winners France took home $38 million in prize money, more than all 24 women's teams competed for in 2019 combined.
Global soccer players' union FIFPro would respond to information about Infantino's calls for doubling the Women's World Cup's prize money, by saying that the increase was not enough to redress the inequality between men's and women's soccer and that the sport remains "even further from the goal of equality for all World Cup players."
Women's soccer is far behind that of the men's game, in terms of turnover and wages. The highest-paid female soccer player, Norway's Ada Hegerberg (@AdaStolsmo), earns about $450,000 a year. That is roughly about 325 times less than what Barcelona and Argentina striker Lionel Messi earns, according to an annual survey published by France Football magazine.
"The more people give attention to equal pay, the easier it gets. I think we should look at ourselves and what we can do to develop the sport to increase the level and obviously that's to perform, to increase the level. That's our biggest job," Hegerberg told the BBC.
For some, the small changes are just the start of a new era for the women's game. Brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance says it has calculated the total potential worth of sponsorship in women's soccer globally and reported that it is undervalued by over $1 billion.
"Football now has the opportunity to become the world's leading professional women's sport," says Izzy Wray (@izzy_wray) of Deloitte.
"Now the time has come for rights holders and brands to shape the future of women's football by building the competition structure, governance, media rights and sponsorship strategy to allow the sport to flourish at both amateur and professional levels."
Only 60% of top-flight women's soccer clubs globally have shirt sponsors that are different from the men's equivalent. That, Wray believes, will rise dramatically by the next World Cup, in 2023.
"To maximize this opportunity, there needs to be a clear vision of how the game should develop," she says.
With over 30 million women and girls now playing soccer worldwide, if things do not change those chants of "equal pay" will continue to get louder by 2023.