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“Women’s football is about so much more than what happens on the pitch” | Fifa’s Sarai Bareman

SportBusiness speaks to Fifa's chief women’s football officer, Sarai Bareman, to get her reflections on the 2019 Women's World Cup in France and hear how she is hoping to leverage the momentum gained from that event to further develop women’s football around the world.

This week, Fifa confirmed it would follow the success of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France by expanding the next edition to 32 teams, as it continues to focus on the growth of the women’s game, both commercially and on the pitch. SportBusiness spoke to the governing body’s chief women’s football officer, Sarai Bareman, to get her reflections on France and hear how she is hoping to leverage the momentum gained from that event to further develop women’s football around the world.

SportBusiness: How did the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France measure up against Fifa’s pre-tournament expectations?

Sarai Bareman: It was the first World Cup I’d overseen since I’ve taken up this role at Fifa and since the women’s football division was established, and it completely blew away all my expectations. In terms of fan engagement, it was incredible – in the stadiums, around the host cities in France, but also online in terms of the digital following and engagement. The TV viewership was incredible, really strong in some surprising markets.

The highlight for me was actually the football on the pitch. The level of the game has improved so much since the last edition [2015 in Canada]. And it was beautiful to watch. The thing that stands out for me the most in that respect is, speaking to a lot of my male colleagues, some of those who maybe weren’t so keen on women’s football in the past, how this Women’s World Cup and the football being played has really changed their perspective.

In concrete terms, we were targeting at least one million tickets sold, and at final count we hit 1.16 million. If you do a comparison exercise to Canada, the numbers are a bit skewed because this is actually the first Women’s World Cup where we’ve moved away from double-headers. In Canada the attendance was more than 1.3 million, but a vast majority of those tickets sold were double-header matches, so there was a double count.

I advocated that we should move away from double-headers for the Women’s World Cup, so seeing that we were able to still maintain high levels of audience attendance was really important and really pleasing to me personally. In terms of audience participation and people actually showing up to the stadium to watch the matches, it was also really high and really positive. The average attendance was 75 per cent per match.

Italy and Australia were two of the biggest media markets for the 2019 Women’s World Cup (Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

On the broadcast side, we were aiming for a billion viewers globally. That was to build on the 750 million we were able to reach in 2015. We are still finalizing some of the numbers from certain territories, but we definitely have exceeded the one billion mark. I know that in 24 of the territories we had already had 850 million viewers across all platforms even before the final, so that was already a good indication.

In Brazil we saw some incredible figures. For the France vs Brazil match, we had more than 35 million viewers in Brazil. I think Italy for me was a standout. The previous high in terms of viewership there for a women’s football match was 468,000, and for their match versus Brazil we went just over 7.3 million. It’s a football country. They love it, and we may have benefited from the men’s team maybe not performing so well in recent times. I think that it’s quite a lovely story, how the women’s team has really carried the pride of the nation, and that’s evident through those viewership numbers.

Italy’s game against the Matildas drew a bigger audience in Australia than the National Rugby League fixture that was on that same afternoon. That must have been pleasing.

It’s massive. Particularly coming from that region – NRL is massive, so to see a stat like that is amazing. I think England as well was impressive; England v USA recorded in excess of 8.8 million on the BBC, in a country where the previous high [for a women’s football match] was just short of 2.8 million. We saw similar things in France when they played the USA. Their record previously was 4.1 million and we were able to exceed 11.5 million for that game. The figures have been great. For me, the comparison from those previous records has shown that when the big broadcasters invest and actually show it, there is a big audience out there that is willing to consume it.

Is that a strategy you’ll continue to pursue? Would you eschew higher media-rights fees in order to ensure the Women’s World Cup remains on free-to-air television in as many territories as possible?

One of the best things we can do to increase the popularity of the game, and in turn participation and raising the profile of our players, is to get more eyeballs on the game. And free-to-air is the best way to do that. The engagement in the UK was one of the standout success stories of this World Cup, and it showed a clear benefit of making football available free to air, on major channels. It has a big, big impact in terms of popularity, viewership and just creating that buzz – the same kind of buzz you would see a linked to major men’s competitions, we saw this summer linked to the Women’s World Cup. Performance obviously has a big part to play in it, but the fact that anyone and everyone could watch it on free-to-air also made a big difference.

How are you working to ensure the fans you picked up this year stay engaged with the women’s game throughout the next four-year cycle?

I think you’ve touched on what is indeed the biggest challenge for us now. We have the momentum, we have this high level of interest, so how do we sustain that across the World Cup cycle? Our president [Gianni Infantino] has spoken about introducing new competitions at international level, including a Club World Cup and a World League for women. I think that will be key. At the moment, when you look at the competitions landscape for female players, the opportunities to play at the highest level are very low when you compare it to the men, particularly in regions like Africa, the Pacific, and in South America. Introducing new competitions at the highest level to give more opportunities for our players to be seen and therefore to be seen as role models, and to continue to keep the sport in front of those fans that we were able to engage at the World Cup, will make a big impact.

Bareman speaks during the inaugural Fifa Women’s Football Convention in Paris earlier this year (Photo by Fifa via Getty Images)

In addition, we have to look at specific communication and marketing campaigns for women’s football. Women’s football is about so much more than what happens on the pitch. You see the conversations that come around the game, around women’s empowerment, gender equality, equal pay: all these things are part of a bigger movement for women’s empowerment that has been happening globally. And I think it’s incredible that women’s football can embody that, and our players really become proponents and role models for that movement. I think that’s something that is really important that we can leverage between the major competitions to keep that engagement.

And for that we need to think outside the box. We need to look at very specific communication and marketing campaigns that are different to what we do on the men’s game. We want to get 60 million women and girls playing by 2026. And now it’s a particularly important time to drive those participation numbers higher. At the moment, we have approximately 13.7 million who are playing organized football.

Something that we gave a massive push to [during the World Cup] was increasing digital engagement and the number of followers we have on our platforms. And that for me was another area where I think we did amazingly well.

The way that our fans and the target market are typically consuming the game is quite different to the traditional model. We know that young girls, aged from 12 through to 15, the way they consume is very much around their smart phone and using mobile devices, and we were able to see some awesome numbers also coming out of the digital side in terms of engagement. We had more than 1.2 billion content views across all of our platforms. We were able to increase our followers [to Fifa’s official Women’s World Cup channels across platforms] by 25 per cent, to 2.2 million. Video views since the Women’s World Cup began are at 200 million by the last count, and this is continuing to grow as the videos remain online.

Is that digital audience even more important to the women’s game than the men’s, because you’re targeting a younger and more digitally-engaged demographic?

I think so, yes. But it’s also about being able to monitor the women’s football landscape. It’s evolving so quickly, it’s important that we’re able to capture that, see that data, and follow the game as it evolves so that we can adapt accordingly. The men’s game is, you could argue, saturated in terms of global viewership and popularity. It’s the biggest sport in the world. The women’s game in comparison is still relatively young and continually growing. And I think these kinds of numbers that come out of the big competitions are important for us to track because it also shows us, over time, how the women’s game is evolving.

We’ve now had confirmation that the Fifa Council has approved the expansion of the 2023 World Cup to 32 teams, bringing it in line with the men’s tournament. What impact do you hope that will have?

Obviously having more teams participating will engage more countries. It’ll make a big difference in terms of participation. So right now, when you look at the number of teams that are participating in the qualifying pathway for the Women’s World Cup and you compare that to the qualifying pathway for the men’s game, the numbers are very low, and there are many reasons for that. But I would say that increasing the number of slots that are available for teams to compete in at the World Cup level will have a really positive impact in that respect.

I can give you an example: in Africa, 24 out of the 54 African nations entered into the qualifying pathway for the Women’s World Cup, as opposed to 53 out of 54 who did the qualification process for the men’s World Cup. Offering more opportunities to play in a World Cup will hopefully reduce that disparity. I think creating new playing opportunities like the World League, introducing a Women’s Club World Cup, having a real focus on the grassroots level and improving the domestic leagues in combination with expanding the World Cup, those things combined will definitely help to make an impact. But even if you just look at it on its own, the 32-team World Cup will have a direct impact just on the number of countries competing and playing football.


Bareman is hoping to create more opportunities for women’s footballers in territories like Africa (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Do you have specific methods for measuring the legacy of the 2019 World Cup, in France and beyond?

The legacy for us is really important. Nationally within France we’ve really invested more than €1m into legacy programmes that we’ve been working on with the French Football Federation for the past two years. That’s something that we’ve been doing very directly as a women’s football division together with the FFF. Fifa will also make a contribution of €3m toward an ongoing legacy programme to the FFF now that the Women’s World Cup has finished.

It’s about leveraging the momentum that hosting a mega event will have in that country. There’s going to be increasing amounts of interest, particularly from new participants, in the women’s game. It’s important that we support the FFF to be able to engage and retain that new level of interest that the Women’s World Cup has generated.

We have programmes like the Fifa Forward programme, our flagship development programme, which is how we offer the member associations money to grow football in their own countries. We’ll put a big focus on communicating with the member associations now, post-World Cup, on looking at ways that they can invest their Fifa Forward funds into the women’s game.

We are launching also a football for schools programme, to increase the level of kids playing football; for me, the big focus here is obviously on young girls. These are all programmes that are ongoing programmes for Fifa. What we do now, with the momentum of the Women’s World Cup, is we double down on our efforts to encourage our members to invest in women and girl’s football.

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