Almost 30 years after the inaugural Women's World Cup in China in 1991, women's football has exhibited spectacular development. Levels of participation, competitiveness, global awareness and exposure have grown at an unexpected, swift pace in recent years, while major domestic and international tournaments offer good football, eliciting passion and excitement, as well as growing commercial appeal. However, the women’s football eco-system is still fragile: the industry is characterized by less established professional leagues, low salaries, a narrower scope of opportunities, uneven sponsorship deals and feeble corporate investment.
The vulnerability of the women’s football industry is even more palpable in the current coronavirus pandemic, which presents “an almost existential threat to the women’s game”, according to a recent position paper by FIFPRO, the global players' union for professional footballers. It was published as a supplement to FIFPRO’s 2020 Raising Our Game report, which captures the recent, pre-Covid growth and development of the women’s football industry.
The report, which was realised in association with KPMG Football Benchmark, showed the significant upward trends that the women’s game had recently begun witnessing prior to the pandemic. Its findings draw on information collected from multiple sources and through various methods, including a player survey targeting players from the 24 nations at the 2019 World Cup as well as five other countries, stakeholder surveys, primary interviews with executives and experts, and secondary research focusing on women’s football. More than half of the players interviewed complained about not having enough backroom staff (physiotherapists, team doctors, massage therapists and assistant coaches) to support them, and about a lack of proper sporting infrastructure (training facilities and equipment), demonstrating that the overall conditions that female players are competing under were far from the standards one might expect.
The FIFPRO documents sum up the key realities of the women’s game prior to the pandemic, as well as schemes within the context of the global health crisis to keep women’s football on track to establish the basis for a long-term, sustainable industry. They emphasize that financial investments in the game and economic growth do not necessarily lead to improved or proper conditions for the players, nor do they automatically translate into a better game. FIFPRO concludes that an emphasis on setting global labour standards and protecting players’ rights and wellbeing, with a common objective of safeguarding the women’s game, is more relevant now than ever, and that the women’s game needs special measures that account for the unique conditions of female players, clubs and competitions.
The primary objectives detailed in the FIFPRO report include:
- global minimum employment standards, which guarantee that professional players have appropriate contracts, compensation, workload, training and match environments, health and safety measures, freedom of association and access to remedy;
- global minimum standards at international tournaments to ensure that players participating in elite global competitions—both club and national team—are protected and can perform at their peak, on an equal footing on the world stage;
- collective bargaining as a universal industry standard so that professional players around the world have a fair say in the development of their sport; and
- new global club and national-team competition formats and scheduling that permit professional players to enjoy a long and sustainable career.
Women’s football is proving its value
FIFPRO argues that women’s football is an asset of great value, including important forms of social capital, ties to local communities, player solidarity, and opportunities for education that can steer the industry in a positive and sustainable direction. In order to leverage this value and limit the damage the pandemic may cause, FIFPRO is calling for investing in the women’s game rather than curtailing it, looking for innovative pathways that facilitate rather than hinder the social capital behind the game. The overall objective is to create working environments in which players are not exploited, their rights are valued, and they are accorded full respect.
The industry is growing
Women’s football has been growing steadily in past decades, enjoying greater commercial interest, rising attendance and broadcaster viewership in league and national team competitions and many new, high-profile sponsors.
For companies who cannot afford sponsoring men’s football brands, the women’s football market is available at a relatively low fee, offering high rewards especially for first movers and pioneers. As the women’s game is still in the early stages of professionalisation, annual sponsorship deals are generally valued below the EUR 1 million mark.
For the latest Women’s World Cup (WWC) in France last year, FIFA had six main partners: Adidas, Coca Cola, Wanda, Hyundai/Kia Motors, Qatar Airways and Visa, while six national event-specific sponsors joined in, too. Although the six key FIFA partners are all present at both the men’s and women’s World Cups, the rest of the sponsorship pyramid is different for the two events: the men’s World Cup boasts a three-tier structure, while the women’s tournament currently has only so-called national partners as a second tier.
Some other key metrics also reveal that women’s football is still an inferior segment of the game. The allocated prize money to women’s and men’s World Cups is telling. Despite doubling the prize money of WWC 2019 compared to that of the previous one (2015), that amount is dwarfed by the USD 400 million prize money distributed at the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018. As our chart shows, in spite of a further doubling of the prize money in the women’s top tournament in 2023, the gap remains huge.
With Coronavirus having disrupted the world of football, the commercial interests, sponsorships and investments that had recently started moving into women’s football are now at risk of retreating. In order to limit damage, FIFPRO is recommending to give professional women’s football priority access to facilities, times and situations that enable fans to attend games, sponsors to drive revenue, broadcasters to reach wide audiences, and players to perform in optimal conditions.
International tournaments are key
As international tournaments of national teams represent the major driver in women’s football due to their reaching much larger audiences than club football, such successful tournaments can help grow interest in domestic football as well, something which is key for further development. The premier international tournaments, such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic Games, provide the boost that drives visibility, increases popularity, and gives prestige to the sport.
However, the report reveals that overall attendance in women’s club football has been relatively stagnant in recent seasons, including the flagship UEFA Women’s Champions League competition. While attendance at the tournament’s finals had increased for some time, the 2018 event in Kiev, Ukraine attracted only 14,000 fans, just days before the men’s final was played in the same city in front of over 60,000. Furthermore, average attendance in most countries’ top domestic leagues is still under 1,000 spectators per match.
Nonetheless, the international game, and by extension national associations, are key to players’ economic earning potential through sponsorship, pay-to-play or central contract models for remuneration, and the opportunity to get scouted for employment opportunities in one of the few professional leagues throughout the world. FIFPRO is urging the consideration and prioritization of the international game in the re-build of the women’s football industry, and further, as it promotes the professional game.
Professionalism is underway
Women’s football has enjoyed a period of professionalization in recent years, with leagues and clubs at the domestic level being formed and reformed, and elite competitions taking new shape. However, the trend is now at risk of receding. FIFPRO warns that without having secured solid structural foundations for long-term sustainability, some leagues and clubs may release players, cut contracts and even close down. It urges building a common vision that unites national strategies and implements regulatory interventions to achieve sustainable growth and employment, with a priority on securing the positions and career paths of female players.
Commenting on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the football industry as a whole in KPMG Football Benchmark’s latest club valuation report, FIFPRO’s General Secretary, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, called the prospect of losing clubs to insolvencies, losing wages and losing jobs for players, sporting staff and other club officials a real concern. He called for innovative business solutions for players, clubs and leagues alike, saying that “the solidarity, courage to change and collectivism between players, clubs, leagues and federations will be essential to find fair and sustainable measures for the future of the football industry.”