NOT ALL that long ago, female football players struggled to find a pitch they could play on—let alone someone willing to pay them. Between 1921 and 1971 the Football Association (FA), which governs the sport in England, prohibited women from using the grounds of professional men’s teams, claiming that the sport was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. (Perhaps the men in suits had been irked by the enormous crowds, sometimes exceeding 50,000, that had flocked to women’s games during the first world war.) A similar ban in Germany was lifted in 1970. In 1972 the United States passed Title IX, a law that banned organisations that receive funds from the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sex. This forced universities to spend as much on women’s sport as on men’s, and kicked off the long rise of women’s football in the country.
Fast forward nearly 50 years, and women’s football seems on the verge of going mainstream. Television records have been tumbling at this summer’s World Cup in France. Nearly 10m viewers in the host country tuned into the opening match against South Korea, accounting for almost half of all French people watching TV at the time. Some 6m Britons saw England beat Scotland 2-1. A similar number of Germans enjoyed Die Nationalelf’s 1-0 victory over Spain. The winning squad, regardless of which country they come from, will become national treasures at home.
The unprecedented popularity of this World Cup reflects two encouraging trends. First, the quality of play in the women’s game has improved drastically, especially since the last tournament. Second, money is starting to flow into women’s teams, making professional careers more viable. The two patterns are linked, and reinforce each other.
The rising standard of women’s football is obvious to long-time spectators. Until fairly recently female players received far less coaching than male ones did. No longer. This tournament has been notable for some superb team moves and remarkable goalkeeping (an aspect of the women’s game that some male viewers used to criticise). However, actually quantifying improvements in footballing skill is hard. Goals are a flawed measure. A good pub side can find the net as often as Barcelona does, and the rarity of scoring at any level means that an outlier can skew the sample. Just ask Thailand, who conceded 13 goals against the United States in their opening game of the World Cup.
A much better metric is the number of passes that occur in an average game, a figure that decreases as you move down through divisions (see chart). A typical Premier League fixture includes more than 900 passes, falling to around 650 for contests in the fourth tier of English men’s football. The most compelling explanation is that high-quality games involve teams who are good at retaining possession, and low-quality ones feature those who spend most of the time hoofing the ball in the air and tackling each other. Figures provided to The Economist by Opta, a sports data firm, show that the average game at this women’s World Cup has featured 825 passes, up from 750 at the last tournament in 2015. (The knockout matches, which will probably include even more passes, are yet to come.) That 10% increase exceeds the rise in any major men’s competition over the same period (see chart).
This increasingly artful rendition of the beautiful game has caught the eye of some forward-thinking sponsors. Historically, rights to a women’s football team or tournament have been bundled as part of a broader package with the men’s equivalent. “Commercial partners and broadcasters have tended to primarily focus on, and value, men’s clubs or competitions, with the women’s game not valued on its stand-alone merits,” says Izzy Wray of Deloitte, a consultancy.
However, in November 2017 UEFA, which governs football in Europe, unbundled the region’s rights to the women’s competitions. “This opened up a pathway for brands with a specific interest to enter the market, having been previously shut off,” says Ms Wray. Given the saturation of the market around men’s football, with plenty of industries—generally bookmakers and brewers—incessantly targeting the same audience, the opportunities in women’s football are considerable.
Around 60% of women’s football teams in major leagues around the world now have front-of-shirt sponsors that are different to those for the men’s equivalent at the same club, according to Deloitte. That figure could approach 100% by the next World Cup, the company reckons.
Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the professional women’s game, says that these new, multi-million pound sponsorship deals have been transformative. Visa is now spending as much promoting the women’s World Cup as it did on the men’s competition. “It might not pay back in terms of ROI immediately, but we’ve invested for the long term,” acknowledges Stephen Day, its European sponsorship director. The total amount of prize money on offer at the tournament has soared to $30m, twice as much as last time.
Female-focused brands have been especially eager to get involved. Avon, a beauty and cosmetics company, became the first such firm to sponsor a women’s professional football club, after agreeing to an exclusive deal with Liverpool Ladies FC. Boots, a pharmacist, has finalised partnerships with the national teams of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales.
This growth in funding has allowed European leagues to flourish, so that America is no longer the promised land for aspiring youngsters (as it was for the two teen-aged girls in “Bend It Like Beckham”, a British film from 2002). The number of professional and semi-professional female players in Europe almost doubled to 3,600 between 2013 and 2017 (see chart), the latest year for which data are available. Manchester United launched a women’s team in 2018, making it one of the last big clubs to do so—a decision no doubt motivated by how much Manchester City has invested in their ladies’ side. In 2017 Norway’s football association announced that it would become the first to pay the men’s and women’s international teams the same amount.
A game of two halves
But although some of the headline figures are impressive, they mask a murkier financial picture overall. Around the world, the average wage for a female professional footballer is around $7,000 a year. Even in the English Women’s Super League (WSL), one of the wealthier competitions, the average annual salary in 2017 was around £27,000 ($34,400), barely one-hundredth of the £2.6m that the average Premier League player took home. Some 58% of WSL players have considered quitting for financial reasons.
Norway’s deal for equal pay, meanwhile, was largely a public-relations stunt. International fees make up only a tiny fraction of most players’ earnings, and the 6m kroner ($710,000) annual sum will be split among the entire female squad. The women’s team had instead asked for an increase to their marketing budget, a request that was denied. Embarrassingly for the association, Ada Hegerberg, a striker who last year became the first ever recipient of the women’s Ballon d’Or, a prize for the world’s best player, has boycotted the national side since 2017. She claims that the officials have a fundamental lack of respect for the women’s game.
It may take at least another decade before pursuing a career in football becomes a genuinely lucrative option for most women, rather than a sacrifice for the love of the sport. Even then, higher salaries at the elite levels will not necessarily fix all the problems in the women’s game, says Ted Knutson, co-founder of Statsbomb, a football statistics firm that has recently made access to women’s data free: the challenge is “more about equalising support at the grassroots and investment in the future”. That applies not only to players, but also to staff on the touchline. At a recent conference aimed at professional coaches, your correspondent made up half of the female contingent.
Nonetheless, the day when women’s football becomes regular, worldwide, mass entertainment—a day that might have come much sooner, had the FA allowed the teams from the first world war to continue drawing large crowds—is fast approaching. Most countries are broadcasting the World Cup on free-to-air channels in prime-time slots. The last 16 of the tournament features teams from six continents. In April, Argentina got its first ever professional women’s club. Who would bet against the country that raised Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi producing a worldwide superstar in women’s football?