There’s no debate: as a standalone tournament, the Women’s World Cup is a rip-roaring, commercially viable success. The 2019 edition broke women’s football viewing records around the world. This happened not only in Europe, where the time zones were friendly and new marks were set in France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, but also in the United States and Brazil. In fact, according to FIFA, Brazil set a new global viewing record when 35 million watched the Selecao take on France in the round of 16.
And it’s not as if this audience was simply football junkies getting their fix at the end of the European season because there was nothing else on. They had plenty of other options, from the European under-21 championships to the Africa Cup of Nations, from the Copa America to the Gold Cup and Major League Soccer.
The tournament was rightly celebrated across mainstream media, but you can’t help but wonder what happens next and whether the right questions are even being asked, not just of FIFA, but of stakeholders in the women’s game — players, fans, associations — around the world. Because the risk for women’s football is that it becomes like most Olympic events: massive audiences and media attention every four years, and then zero on the Richter scale until the next Olympiad. And like many Olympic events, it becomes not a true mass participation sport but a niche pursuit for the privileged elite.
There is a significant window of opportunity for women’s football. It requires creative thinking. It requires belief. It requires a willingness to hold institutions, from FIFA to federations, to account. Above all, it requires a clear-eyed realization that the priority must be making the game accessible and sustainable to every woman and girl who wants to play it. With that said, here’s my take on the some of the most important issues facing women’s football as it looks to build on the successful Women’s World Cup.
Q: OK, let’s start at the top, with FIFA. Shouldn’t we be holding it to account over equal pay and equal prize money?
A: I can see why you would conflate the two issues, since much of the media has. But they’re entirely separate.
Equal pay refers to what women’s national teams earn relative to their male counterparts. In some federations the women’s team is not just more successful, but also generates comparable, if not greater, amounts of money than the men’s team. It’s not quite “pay” in the sense that these aren’t salaried employees, but more like contractors. It’s also complicated by the fact that for most of the bigger men’s teams, the bulk of the players’ earnings comes from their club sides and the national team stipends are basically pocket money, whereas for the women they’re often the main (and sometimes only) source of income. So it seems justified and reasonable to treat the men’s and women’s teams equally.
Q: What about prize money? The men’s prize money pool in 2018 was $400 million. The women’s prize money in 2019 just $30 million.
A: Like I said, that’s a totally different issue. The men’s World Cup also had 32 teams instead of 24, so on a per-team basis, on average, the men’s prize money was 10 times as high. There’s a reason for that. (I’ll get to it in a minute.) But what many seem to fail to understand is that prize money doesn’t go to the players. It goes to the federations that then decide how to allocate it.
Some of it goes to World Cup preparation and expenses — in the case of less wealthy federations, FIFA covers the cost with an additional pot of $20m — some of it goes to players and staff. In the case of men’s teams there’s another massive expense relative to the women: insurance. FIFA pays the cost of insuring players at the World Cup itself, but not for qualifiers and friendlies. But obviously you need to play qualifiers and friendlies to get there.
In any case, there’s nothing stopping successful women’s teams like the United States from going to their federation and demanding equal pay, as they have done. It shouldn’t be tied to prize money.
There’s also another, more pertinent, reason why discussion about investing in the women’s game shouldn’t focus on prize money.
Q: What’s that?
A: Increasing prize money would simply steer more cash to those who need it least. The countries who perform best at the Women’s World Cups are all wealthy nations with the best-established women’s football programs. All eight of the countries with the most registered women footballers reached the round of 16 in France and seven of the eight made the quarterfinals. That shouldn’t be surprising: when you have far more players to choose from and more money to train them you usually end up winning.
FIFA’s mission is to promote and develop the game worldwide, not to run a commercial enterprise that rewards countries which already enjoy all sorts of advantages. Every dollar spent on prize money is a dollar not going into development, and FIFA’s job is primarily development. Roughly a quarter of FIFA member nations (156 of 209) don’t even field senior women’s teams and it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) for a woman to play organized football at any level.
This gap is why there’s such a disconnect in the conversation. The U.S. and Australia, two of the countries that have pushed hardest for increased prize money, are actually two of the ones who, frankly, need it least. The U.S. has more than 1.6 million registered women’s footballers, which is roughly 40 percent of all registered women’s players in the world. It has Title IX, which ensures opportunities for women to play at university level. These are luxuries most of the world’s countries can only dream of.
Demanding more prize money from FIFA smacks of a “first world” attitude if it comes at the expense of development money, especially when these players can (and should) get more pay from their own federations.
Q: What exactly do you mean by “development money”?
A: These are funds that FIFA sends to member associations to promote football development. It can mean everything from coaching education to building pitches and training centers to buying equipment to leasing minivans to drive kids to matches. Right now, in addition to the general funds that FIFA makes available to member nations, it also has half a billion dollars earmarked specifically for women’s football programs.
As FIFA president Gianni Infantino says, if you don’t run a woman’s program that meets certain requirements, you don’t get the money.
Q: Can we trust FIFA to hand out this money, given its past history of corruption and malfeasance? A football pitch is a football pitch after all: how do we know it’s going to be reserved for women’s football? In fact, how do we know it’s not going to be used for some local FA official to build himself a new swimming pool?
A: No doubt stuff like that happened in the past, as Infantino himself readily admits.
Money just leaks out of the system. FIFA says it has tightened up requirements and oversight to ensure it won’t happen. And, possibly because of this oversight (or maybe because they simply don’t care), many FAs have left money on the table, But it requires more vigilance on a local level, that’s for sure, and it requires education — people in less developed footballing nations demanding the funds are spent — as well as, perhaps, some solidarity from the bigger, wealthier countries.
Q: But isn’t FIFA sitting on $2.75 billion in cash reserves (money sitting in the bank at the end of the last fiscal year)? Surely it can do both: increase prize money and increase development funds.
A: Of course it can, and that’s what Infantino has pledged to do. He wants to double prize money to $60m (plus another $40m to help cover World Cup expenses for less wealthy nations) and also double development funds for the women’s game from $500m to a billion over the next four-year cycle. It’s just a little disappointing that so much of the talk has focused on prize money and not development.
In any case, hopefully this whole argument will be moot next time around.
Q: How’s that?
A: What many don’t seem to realize is that more than 95 percent of FIFA’s income comes from a single tournament every four years: the men’s World Cup and, specifically, the sale of tickets, commercial and broadcast rights.
Effectively, the men’s World Cup subsidizes everything FIFA does, from development grants to organizing competitions like the Women’s World Cup, youth tournaments, beach soccer and so on. Without the men’s World Cup, none of these things would exist because none of them can pay for themselves — at least that was the case in the past.
Take the current cycle from 2015 to 2022: those rights were sold off between 2010 and 2012, and FIFA would sell its international tournaments to broadcasters as a package deal by territory. You’d pay for the men’s World Cup, primarily, and FIFA would throw in competitions such as the Women’s World Cup, the under-20s, futsal and beach soccer for “free.” Infantino vows to change that when the next set of rights — for the 2027 World Cup — comes on the global market and, on a regional basis, possibly earlier.
He pointed out that the men’s World Cup, with its global reach of around 4 billion, generates $6.5 billion in revenue. If the Women’s World Cup in France reaches a quarter of that audience, it should generate a quarter of the men’s World Cup revenue, or around $1.6 billion. Instead, because the commercial and broadcast rights are bundled with the men’s, it has generated close to zero: some ticket sales, minor local sponsorships and some merchandise and/or concessions.
When he took charge of FIFA in 2016, Infantino appointed a dedicated head of women’s football, Sarai Bareman. Now the goal is to market the Women’s World Cup as a separate competition. If you look at the numbers and audience, surely sponsors and broadcasters will come on board. That’s a huge first step, and when it happens, it will be easier to increase prize money as well. But the goal, as far as FIFA is concerned, has to be development, grassroots and access to the game.
Q: What about the top end, the women we saw at the World Cup in France?
A: Here again it’s complicated, and this is where the biggest decisions need to be taken, not so much by FIFA but by those who care about the women’s game. Some see professional women’s leagues as a key stepping stone to promote and grow the sport. I’m not so sure.
Q: How come?
A: There are basically two models for this. Neither has had much success thus far, though it’s still early. In Europe, they’ve tried to piggyback off of men’s clubs. On the surface, it makes sense since you already have a strong brand, ready-built facilities and a fan base that loves the club. Commercially, though, it has been tough.
Atletico Madrid drew more than 60,000 for the visit of Barcelona last season in Spain and 39,000 showed up to watch Juventus take on Fiorentina in Italy. In reality, those are one-off, heavily marketed games that saw many tickets given away free or at deep discounts. Atletico’s average attendance is about 600 a game, while Juve attract less than 500.
Even in England’s Women’s Super League, or WSL, the only fully professional league in Europe, attendance is less than a thousand people per game. The Times reported that the FA, which runs the WSL, “did not see the women’s domestic game as a long-term project” and “were not the ones to take it forward.”
In the United States and Australia, they’ve opted to create leagues and clubs from scratch with a franchise system. The first attempt at a fully professional league was the WUSA, launched in the wake of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which lasted three years before investors pulled the plug. (There’s an excellent ESPN 30 for 30 about it.) Another league, the WPS, was started a few years after that and also went bust shortly thereafter.
Now there’s the NWSL, in its seventh season. They’ve tried to avoid mistakes of the past by being more conservative in their spending (an approach also taken by the W-League in Australia) and their attendances, around 7,000 a game, are the highest in the world. (Those numbers are swelled a little by the staggering success of the Portland Thorns, who average 20,000 a game, which is higher than 14 of the 24 MLS clubs.)
Q: OK, so the numbers aren’t huge in most cases, but it’s still sustainable professional football, right?
A: Well, yes and no. The three fully professional leagues have very tight salary caps. The average NWSL salary is $21,000 (with a minimum of $16,000) and in the W-League, it’s $14,000 (with a minimum of $7,000). If that’s your only income, it puts the player close to the poverty line. In the U.S. in particular, where many of these players are college-educated and have more lucrative career options, it can be a tough sell.
In England’s WSL, the average is around $34,000, but many teams are losing money: both Manchester City and Chelsea, for example, lost more than a million dollars last season on their women’s teams. Elsewhere in Europe you have a mix of professional teams paying high wages and being bankrolled by benefactors, and amateur sides, with players taking second jobs.
So I guess it depends on your definition of sustainability. For now, it’s sustainable under the European model if someone subsidizes it. And it’s sustainable under the U.S./Australian model if you pay players a pittance.
Q: So are you saying that we should just abandon women’s professional club football?
A: Not at all, but we need to remember that the men’s game has a hundred-year head start and didn’t turn fully professional in most cases until 50 years ago. In other words, it grew organically, which is why it’s so important to grow the base, develop the game and get people playing, perhaps more so than seeking out investors to bankroll professional clubs.
The reality is that investors, whether they’re NWSL owners or big European clubs bankrolling their women’s teams, want to see a return on their investment at some point. And if it doesn’t materialize soon enough, they often walk away, as they did with the WUSA and WPS. Reaching profitability from scratch takes time.
Q. So what should they do?
A: First of all, realize that the landscape across the globe is different and what’s good for women’s football in the U.S. may not work in China or Brazil or Germany.
Second, don’t automatically mimic the professional men’s game and its structures, whether it’s the European setup or the U.S. version with franchises and no promotion/relegation. Those models developed over time for different reasons, neither is perfect and, most importantly, they may not fit the needs of the women’s game.
In Europe, where a number of countries have a couple of professional teams and the rest are amateur, that might mean creating cross-border leagues to raise the standard and generate commercial critical mass. In the U.S., where distances are vast and travel costs massive, that might mean regionalizing play.
More broadly, rather than insisting on the word “professional” (i.e. paid) maybe the emphasis ought to be on “full-time,” meaning ensuring women have a guaranteed certain number of hours to train per week, along with mechanisms that allow them to take time off. That would expand the base and help the club game grow organically.
Most of all, maybe they could learn from other sports, like cricket and rugby.
Q: Oh? Why those sports?
A: Because cricket and rugby, despite having been around for a very long time, face some of the same challenges — and have some of the same strengths — as the women’s game. They’re not mass participation sports the way men’s football is and, like women’s football, they have to compete for attention. But they do have a thriving international game that commands huge audiences — think the Six Nations in rugby or the Ashes/Twenty20 in cricket — and the Women’s World Cup showed that women’s football can attract comparable audiences. So maybe the objective should be to monetize international women’s football since the interest is already there.
Infantino wants to create a Global Nations’ League, along the lines of the very successful UEFA Nations’ League. That could well move the needle, and you already kind of see it in the U.S. with the women’s team’s “Victory Tour.” Indeed, this is one of the starkest differences between men’s and women’s football and, perhaps, one that the women’s game ought to embrace: stars are identified more with their national teams than with their clubs.
Megan Rapinoe was all over the mainstream media after the World Cup, yet very few casual fans could name the club for which she plays (the Seattle Reign). It’s evidence of the different balance of power that exists in women’s football. You couldn’t imagine, say, Manchester United releasing Paul Pogba two months before the World Cup and then letting him go on a France national team victory tour for a month afterward the way many U.S. women did.
Q: OK, but they can’t just make a living playing for the national team, they need club football, no?
A: Sure. But maybe the answer is, if the international game is lucrative enough, putting a pool of players (say the top 50 or top 100) on central, or “national team,” contracts with the federation. (This is how it works in cricket.) That would give you a talent base from which to choose and relieve the pressure on leagues like the NWSL and others to pay the players.
And maybe, at the high end, you can create seasonal tournaments for the world’s top players.
Infantino talked about a Club World Cup: it was one of his five proposals on the eve of the Women’s World Cup final this summer. You take the world’s top 24 club sides, put them in one place for a month and host a tournament. With fewer travel costs, centralized promotion and more stars, maybe it can work. Or — and I admit this is out of left field — you have mini-tournaments where the stars are drafted in, like the Indian Premier League does for cricket, to play in short, offseason competitions outside of their club careers.
The point is there are creative solutions. Men’s elite football, with its polarization, imbalance of power and Euro-centrism, doesn’t need to be the model for the global women’s game.
These are all conversations that need to be happening. FIFA can help — and after decades of hindering, it’s finally on board — so too can sponsors and investors. (But, remember, their help comes with strings attached.) What the women’s game needs most is for the people who care about it to sit down and figure things out. And that needs to happen before the window of opportunity generated by France 2019 closes.