Women’s football is just starting to roar

Published : 19 Aug 2023 10:03 PM

Nothing succeeds like success. Women’s football has already had a series of watershed moments that have drawn exponentially greater audiences and attracted more money and official support into the game. The World Cup that concludes with Sunday’s final between England and Spain may prove to be the biggest of them all.

The tournament hosted by Australia and New Zealand has been a pulsating spectacle, packed with high drama; great goals (Sam Kerr’s heart-stopping solo equalizer for Australia in the semi-final against England’s Lionesses is a standout); upsets (Germany’s first-round exit and the US’s second-round defeat to Sweden on penalties); and controversy (the red card for England’s Lauren James against Nigeria, compared by many to David Beckham’s famous dismissal against Argentina in the 1998 men’s World Cup).  Australia’s semi-final defeat was the country’s most-watched television show on record, with 11.15 million viewers at its peak — astonishing in a nation where rugby union, rugby league, Australian rules football and cricket are all far more popular sports. The tournament has also broken records for ticket sales and attendance. The global audience will surpass 2 billion viewers, potentially double the 1.12 billion who tuned in for the 2019 event held in France, forecasts Euromonitor International.

It would be wrong to suggest that the world has only just woken up to how exciting and enjoyable to watch women’s soccer can be. That happened a while ago. This feels like a major accelerant, though. It will also have many marketing people and investors rubbing their hands in anticipation. 

The catalytic significance of the 2023 final is that it brings together two powerhouse nations of the football industry. Previous winners more often than not have come from countries that aren’t traditional strongholds of the men’s version — where most of the money, paying customers and sporting infrastructure are to be found. The most successful Women’s World Cup nation, with four titles, is the US. However, football is a minority sport there: Major League Soccer, the men’s professional competition, trails far behind American football, baseball and basketball in revenue and television viewership.

By contrast, England and Spain are home to the two richest football leagues in the world. From a business and marketing perspective, then, this was the dream final — keeping interest alive in two of the markets where the women’s game is best placed to grow. At club level in both countries, women compete under the umbrella of men’s teams, and so have access to their vast resources. The squads of Spain and England are packed with players from Barcelona (which has two members of the England team, Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh, on its books), Real Madrid, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal — all among the world’s top 10 clubs by revenue.

It’s important to remember how far and how quickly

 women’s football has come, after being held back 

and neglected for so long. Those barriers  included 

a 1921 ban on women playing on Football Association

 grounds, a prohibition that was reversed only in 1970

In England, the game is still riding the momentum of the country’s successful hosting of Women’s Euro 2022 last summer. The Lionesses engaged a new legion of fans by doing what the men’s team hasn’t been able to for almost six decades — winning an international tournament (they defeated arch-rival Germany 2-1 in the final). Adding another World Cup to the 1966 men’s version would be an even more monumental achievement for the women’s game, and would surely generate another spurt of progress.

Growth rates are already enough to make any venture capitalist dizzy with excitement. Average attendance for the Women’s Super League rose more than eightfold between 2017 and 2022. Aggregate revenue for the 12 WSL clubs increased by 60% in the 2021-2022 season, according to Deloitte. Barclays Plc, which sponsors the English Premier League (the world’s richest men’s soccer competition), tripled the amount it will pay to sponsor the WSL.

Granted, the absolute numbers are still tiny. Average attendance in 2021-2022 was 6,961, according to Euromonitor, whereas the Manchester United men’s team averaged more than 73,000 that season. Broadcast rights for the WSL for the next three years were sold for £25 million ($32 million) — about 0.5% of the £5 billion paid for Premier League rights. The top 20 women’s teams tracked by Deloitte had average revenue of about €2.4 million ($2.6 million) in 2021-22; Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool all made more than €700 million.

At the same time, this means exponential growth is almost certain to continue for the foreseeable future, irrespective of who wins Sunday’s final. The women’s game is “still essentially in startup mode,” an independent review commissioned by the UK government said last month. As a relatively new (offshoot) industry, women’s football also has the potential to attract new customers and revenue streams. The atmosphere at women’s matches tends to be more family-oriented and free of abusive language — a contrast to the men’s game, with its legacy of aggression and occasional hooliganism.

It’s important to remember how far and how quickly women’s football has come, after being held back and neglected for so long. Those barriers  included a 1921 ban on women playing on Football Association grounds, a prohibition that was reversed only in 1970. One measure of how things have changed comes from Gurinder Chadha, director of the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham, an inspiration to many of the current generation of champion women footballers.“It’s a very sweet victory for me because of all the people who passed on making the movie — including the BBC and Channel 4 and everyone else, who just thought it wasn’t relevant and wasn’t cool and just wasn’t a thing,” Chadha told BBC radio after England’s semi-final victory. “Women playing football? How ridiculous.”

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure out of London. A former editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News and deputy business editor for the South China Morning Post.

 Source: Bloomberg