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Women’s soccer appears to be having a ‘moment’. But can it last?

Scott Rosner, Professor of Professional Practice; Academic Director, M.S. in Sports Management Program, School of Professional Studies, Columbia University.

Scott Rosner

The growth of the world’s favorite sport in the United States in the past 20 years and globally in the past 5-10 years has been noted by many observers, including in these pages.

The evidence is both data-driven and anecdotal. Fandom is growing. Women comprise a large part of these new soccer fans. Television viewership for the 2019 Women’s World Cup tournament exceeded one billion and smashed records for women’s soccer in many soccer-obsessed countries. Match attendance for the same tournament exceeded one million. Engagement on social media for the tournament was at an all-time high.

Beyond the spectacle that is the Fifa Women’s World Cup, female participation in the sport is on the rise in many regions across the world, with an estimated 13.4 million playing organized soccer globally. A handful of domestic women’s leagues across the world – most notably in Spain, England and the United States – have seen increased interest.

Back in March, I attended a match between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona with one of my colleagues at an absolutely electric Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid that drew 60,739 fans, the largest crowd ever for a domestic women’s match. We returned to the same stadium for a men’s friendly between Venezuela and Argentina five days later – featuring the great Lionel Messi playing all 90 minutes – and the crowd was a paltry, largely unenthused 20,000. The women’s match was better than the men’s across every metric, both on and off the pitch.

The growth of the women’s game in Spain was given an enormous boost when Real Madrid announced its addition of a women’s team via the acquisition of an existing club that it will rebrand, a long-overdue move. That was followed by the Spanish electric company Iberdrola extending its league-wide entitlement deal for six years and the Spanish federation requiring each professional club to invest in youth soccer by featuring at least three girls grassroots teams.

In the United States, the NWSL saw a post-World Cup boost in attendance, viewership, social media metrics, and overall buzz. Perhaps most importantly, the league reached deals with ESPN for its exclusive worldwide linear and digital rights for the remainder of the 2019 season and with Budweiser for its exclusive beer rights in a multi-year deal.

But there is still a very long way to go. Beyond the much discussed disparity in pay and prize money, inequitable (and in many cases, just poor) treatment and little investment beyond the Fifa requirements in many countries throughout the world, women’s soccer needs sponsors to invest in greater volume on an ongoing basis. This is particularly true at the domestic league and team levels, where the need for cash and exposure is greatest.

The aforementioned Iberdrola sponsorship, A-B/InBev’s deal with the NWSL and Barclays entitlement of the Women’s Super League in England via a three year, $12.7m deal are instructive. In addition, Procter & Gamble, Visa and Lucozade have made investments with national teams and international governing bodies…but where is everyone else? Major brands cannot just bootstrap themselves to a quadrennial major event if the sport is to grow and the ‘moment’ that women’s soccer appears to be having is to last.

The message that the biggest brands convey when they make a significant, ongoing investment in women’s soccer is that they care about women and all that comes with the values of diversity, inclusion and equal treatment for all. The potential reputational advantage is undeniable, and the corresponding business impact of sponsorship of women’s soccer on the world’s biggest brands can no longer be ignored.

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