The 2019 World Cup has been a game-changer for women’s football, and the challenge now is to make the game mainstream and sustainable in the full ecosystem of the sport.
In some parts of the world, media and sponsors have woken up (at least a little) to the opportunity and greatness that is the women’s game, but investment needs to be spread to the full ecosystem of the sport including grassroots and match officials to ensure standards across the sport are always rising and improving for the better so we can see more brilliant football.
From a media perspective, we must keep up the storytelling and build a narrative around the leagues, the teams and the players; to embed the women’s game into all football coverage, and to make the players’ voices heard without over-packaging the experience or trying to replicate the conventions of the men’s game.
To achieve this, everyone who has a voice – organisers, clubs, leagues, brands, officials, broadcasters, players, and fans – needs to include diverse voices from all around the world, so that we have a wider pool of experts and a greater depth of stories to draw from.
At COPA90 we saw the impact of starting the storytelling well before the 2019 World Cup began, making people feel more knowledgeable and therefore more comfortable talking about the game. Now we need to keep that momentum up, and we hope that other media, who’ve done a terrific job devoting resources to reporting on the tournament, also maintain their coverage.
Women must be involved at the top where traditionally it’s been only men, but “women’s football experts” shouldn’t be making all the strategic decisions either – a mix of those who have been involved in the sport, as well as other business experts, need to be involved in driving women’s football forward. Our strategy is to develop a knowledge base of incredibly diverse voices from all around the world so we have a pool of experts, creating a more diverse decision-making body as well as a larger depth of stories at hand when we’re asked.
Once the strategy is in place, the investment must follow. I’m just going to say it: Brands, you have to put as much money into the women’s game as you do into the men’s. I’d even argue, more money, because you’ve underfunded until this point.
Women’s football is a culturally relevant sport that helps brands connect new heroes and values to new audiences. Among others, Visa, Coca-Cola, Barclays, Mars, Boots, and Budweiser, Lucozade Sport and Head & Shoulders have deals with national teams and broadcasters, and adidas even promised its female players would receive the same performance bonus as their male counterparts. Brands playing in this space are getting massive ROI, but not just on the money side; they are able, with continued investment in a credible and authentic way, to see a whole new audience of brand fans grow.
The men’s game is saturated with money and voices, but the women’s game is the biggest growth opportunity in global sport. Sponsors will get a much better return on investment as they’re basically first to market, as long as they also put resourcing and effort into the strategic planning, having a global and local strategy, and getting the most senior executives involved.
For years we have been told that there is no audience for women’s football, but the viewing figures globally tell us this isn’t the case, far from it. The 2019 World Cup proved that there’s an audience for women’s football and the tournament gave people the chance to fall in love with it. In the UK, England’s semi-final match against the USA drew almost 12 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV programme of the year, and more popular than the men’s FA Cup final. The USA vs The Netherlands final attracted 88% of Dutch TV viewers. Brazil's game against France saw over 59 million viewers tuning in, and that's in a culture mired in machismo. Big broadcasters, and there were over 200 at the World Cup this summer, now need to sustain the conversation, keep bringing football to new and existing football fans, grow the audience, be innovative and cover the stories on and off the pitch in a compelling way, in the way they do for the men’s game.
For many different reasons globally, women’s football is still a startup and, in my opinion, one of the most easily foreseeably successful startups in the world. No entrepreneur ever started a company by saying, “There’s no audience and there’s no ROI right now, so I might as well not bother.” They saw a market opportunity, devised a strategy, resourced accordingly and made the investment.
As US captain (and newly-minted cultural and sporting icon) Megan Rapinoe said: “We can’t do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better… It’s time to move the conversation forward to the next step.” It's now time for the collective responsibility of the football ecosystem globally including governing bodies, clubs, leagues, brands, officials, broadcasters, players, fans and everyone who has a voice, to step up their game just as the players have done their job. With the quality we’ve seen this summer, there’s literally no limit to where we all can take this sport.