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Governing bodies have plans for women’s football but is the pace of change fast enough?

(Gabriel Bouys /AFP/Getty Images)

  • Fifa and Uefa have both unveiled strategies for the long-term development of women’s football
  • Uefa considering expansion of centralised rights to Women’s Champions League
  • Critics say women’s game is still under-funded and federation commitment patchy

The outcome of the Uefa Women’s Champions League final on May 18 – Lyon’s 4-1 victory over Barcelona – might have induced a feeling of déjà vu in the average fan. This was Lyon’s fourth consecutive title – with the same scoreline as last year – and sixth overall. But for those involved in the promotion of the women’s game the match was significant. It was the first time the final venue had been separated from that of the men’s Champions League final.

Yoking the women’s final venue to that of the men’s had not had the desired effect of leveraging interest across from the bigger event. It had arguably diminished the women’s final, turning it into another of the ‘add-ons’ the local organisers had to think about.

In December 2016, Uefa opened a bidding process for the hosting rights for May’s match. The federations of Spain, Scotland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic expressed interest, but in the end the bidding came down to Hungary and Azerbaijan. In September 2017, Uefa awarded the final to the Groupama Arena in Budapest.

“We are making sure that the people who host it, want it”, Uefa’s head of marketing Guy-Laurent Epstein points out.

“If it’s distributed on the back of the men’s Champions League, that remains the main event. The bidders for the Women’s Champions League in isolation really want to do it and will put all their resources behind it. They will focus all their resources on that one event, so that will become the major event. This first event was very positive. The stadium was sold out and there was a very strong push from the federation in Hungary,” he adds.

In the Groupama Arena, just under 20,000 fans watched the game, up on the 14,000 that watched the 2018 final in the Valeriy Lobanovsky Stadium in Kiev. In France, the average live television audience was 1.3 million, split across the Canal Plus and TMC channels, with a further 0.5 million watching live on the Barça TV and Gol channels in Spain.

The stadium initiative was one of several which Uefa has put in place in the last three years to develop women’s football. Others include the unbundling of sponsorship rights to its competitions from those of the men’s events and increasing the funding from its Women’s Football Development Programme to national associations, from €100,000 ($112,000) per year to €150,000 per year by 2020.

Olympique Lyonnais women, celebrate winning the Uefa Champions League. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

Five-year plan

This month, Uefa unveiled ‘Time for Action’, it’s five-year plan to double participation in the women’s game by 2024. In tandem with the wider developmental objectives of increasing participation, improving playing standards and increasing the representation of women on Uefa bodies, the strategy contains some specific commercial commitments. These include:

  • creating innovative solutions, commercial revenue and media-rights models with sponsors, partners and broadcasters
  • doubling the reach and value of the Women’s Euro and the Women’s Champions League.

Most rights-holders who have properties in a development stage of their evolution put reach first and look for revenues later. But Epstein argues that a natural symbiosis between the two is possible as the technical and tactical quality of the football improves.

“The viewership of women’s football is growing organically. The audiences on free-to-air in some markets are very significant for the Women’s Euro and the Champions League final. This is something that today we can monetise in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. If it is delivering audiences, the revenue will grow with that.

“You can increase reach and revenue at the same time by improving the quality of women’s football. With better quality, you’ll get bigger audiences and more revenues. With more established products there is a trade-off between reach and revenue. But for women’s football it is compatible because we were starting from further away,” he says.

Uefa is also looking at changes to the format of the Champions League and is considering extending the central sale of media and sponsorship rights to the competition, which currently only applies to the final. The commercial rights to matches up to and including the semi-finals are sold directly by the competing clubs.

Fifa

The Women’s World Cup in France from June 7 to July 7 will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the growth of the women’s game globally. Fifa is expecting a cumulative global television audience of over a billion, up from the 750 million who watched part of the 2015 event in Canada.

In June 2015, Fifa launched its Female Leadership Development Programme, aimed at increasing the number of women leaders and role models in football. In 2016, it established its own Women’s Football Division.

Last October it unveiled its own strategy for the women’s game, based on three objectives:

  • increasing the level of female participation in football globally to 60 million players by 2026
  • shaping new revenue streams and optimising existing ones around women’s events
  • creating a more sophisticated women’s football ecosystem and encouraging leadership roles for women to modernise management of the game.

Fifa has also doubled prize money for the Women’s World Cup from $15m to $30m.

Patchy and unequal

Fifa’s former head of women’s football, Tatjana Haenni, broadly welcomes the Fifa and Uefa initiatives but argues that the confederation zeal is not translating into the same kind of action across all associations.

“National federations like the Football Association in England or the FFF in France invest a lot and have had a lot of success but there are many that just pay lip service. In Europe, the federations are generally doing OK with supporting women’s football. But in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean some countries are far away. Women’s football is not respected. There is progress all over the world. The question is how fast and in what relation to the men’s game.”

As a consequence of this patchy commitment, she points out, there is still a two-speed World Cup. “You have the likes of Germany, the USA, England and France, with top professional players who work in a proper environment. Then you have countries like Jamaica and Thailand and others who do not compete on the same level. It’s ridiculous that these federations cannot create a proper structure and environment for women’s football.”

Haenni believes that two underlying problems are lack of representation – not just of women, but of experts in women’s football – and under-funding.

“From Uefa and Fifa development programmes you have at least a minimum of funding that each association must put in. But if that is, let’s say $100,000 out of $1m, it is not fair. It cannot be that only the amount earmarked as the minimum for women’s football goes to women’s football and all the rest goes into men’s football. This funding to the federation is for development work. So whatever money goes in should be 50:50. Right now, there is a minimum for women’s football and for the rest it is up to the federation, so you get a huge difference in the level of investment from country to country. You will never close the gap if you don’t invest more in women’s football.”

Haenni, who is currently head of women’s football for the Swiss Football Association and has been president of FC Zürich women’s club since 2000, accepts that female representation has increased in recent years but believes women’s “football know-how and expertise” is still not adequately represented.

“There have to be proper women’s football structures at the associations and Fifa and the confederations have to insist upon this. This is the biggest issue. Take women’s football seriously, which means proper structures and experts in the decision-making bodies. As long as women and women’s football experts are not sitting on the decision-making table it will only develop in little steps.”

The US women’s team have filed a complaint in a California district court against gender discrimination. (Photo by Brad Smith/isiphotos/Getty Images)

Haenni does not go as far as demanding equal pay for men and women representing their national teams – an issue she describes as “a very delicate and sensitive topic that has to be looked at in a pragmatic way” – but there are others that do. In March, all 28 members of the USA women’s squad that will start among the favourites to lift the World Cup filed a complaint in the District Court of California accusing the United States Soccer Federation of gender discrimination.

The complaint said: “Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts.”

For Haenni, it ultimately boils down to a question of respect. “Women’s football needs to be treated fairly and respectfully. Every federation has to decide what that that means in practice. There is so much more money in men’s football, that it might be legitimate that prize money is different. It’s a different market, and my first instinct is that you can’t expect it to be exactly the same. But what can’t be accepted is the conditions for female players representing their country being inferior to the conditions for men. That is not right. There are so many areas in which there is shocking discrimination against women players.”

Unbundling working

If driving greater revenues directly from the women’s game is a key plank in closing that wealth gap between the men’s and women’s games, one prong of Uefa’s strategy which does appear to be delivering immediate results is the unbundling of sponsorship rights.

“It enables us to identify brands that want to be associated with women’s football, that really want to support women’s football, that have a drive for it, to help improve the quality and the story-telling around it, and that will put resources behind it,” Epstein says.

In December, card payments services brand Visa became a partner of Uefa’s main women’s football properties in a seven-year deal, from 2018-19 to 2024-25. The deal is worth over €2.5m per season, according to research by SportBusiness Sponsorship. The deal covers the Women’s Euro at full national team, U19 and U17 levels, the Champions League and the Women’s Futsal Euro.

This was followed in March by a three-year deal with US sportswear manufacturer Nike, under which Nike will become supplier of the official match ball across all women’s competitions.

“Visa have a strong willingness to push women’s football. We have Nike, a partner we don’t have in any other competition and who came specifically to support the women’s game. We also have other brands joining us, where we are about to finalise the contracts,” Epstein says.

He says the response generally from the market has been “very positive” and vindicates the decision to unbundle. “The growth in participation in women’s football reflects wider changes in society and commercial entities are clearly prepared to attach themselves to this movement to push it further.”

Visa is also a long-standing partner of Fifa and for many observers its commitment to spend the same amount of money activating around this summer’s Women’s World Cup as it does around the men’s World Cup is one of the clearest signs yet that the women’s game is finally starting to punch at a higher commercial weight.

Rival credit card company Mastercard has also thrown its weight behind the women’s game through a series of deals with clubs, including Lyon and Arsenal, and top players including Lyon’s 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, Lyon team-mates Kadeisha Buchanan, Saki Kumagai and Wendie Renard, former England captain Alex Scott, Wolfsburg striker Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr, Chicago Red Stars forward and Australia national team captain.

Arsenal players Katie McCabe and Louise Quinn posing with the trophy after their victory in the FA Women’s Super League football match between Arsenal Women and Manchester City Women at Meadow Park on May 11, 2019 (Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images)

Banking group Barclays became the first ever title sponsor of the FA Women’s Super League in a three-year deal, from July 2019 to July 2022. As part of the deal, the bank also becomes Lead Partner of the FA Girls’ Football Schools Partnerships – a player development scheme that will roll out in 100 locations across the UK.

Phil Carling, managing director of football at the Octagon Worldwide agency, believes that the brands are not looking at these investments as traditional sponsorships based on media value and exposure but in terms of values.

“All the traditional metrics that apply to sponsorship don’t currently apply to the women’s game. It doesn’t do the numbers of the men’s game and there are more efficient ways of reaching the kinds of audiences that women’s football delivers than sponsoring women’s football.

“However, there is a whole different reason why brands want to be involved and that has to do with values. Many brands are trying to find ways to be good corporate citizens, promoting diversity and inclusion and equality in the workplace. If you think of women’s football as a metaphor for how you drive those values, that is the basis on which you are seeing all this investment. That’s not to say that events like the Women’s Champions League final don’t get an audience but it doesn’t stack up as an opportunity from that perspective.

“But from the values perspective, it’s very good value. Increasingly, brands are being asked by consumers to stand for something. Diversity and inclusion – what CEO in the world doesn’t have that on their agenda for their company?”

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