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World Cup turns up the pressure for TV to embrace Women’s Soccer

When the US Women’s National Team won their second consecutive World Cup on a blazing summer day in Paris four years ago, it was supposed to be the dawn of a new age for soccer.

The US women weren’t just a dominant force on the pitch. Players including Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, who sealed the final victory over the Netherlands, had become symbols of female athletes’ fight to receive the same financial rewards as men.

The team’s success on the field, and on TV, where their final victory drew 260 million viewers around the world, helped secure a historic pact that etched equal pay to their male peers into a new contract. Interest in women’s soccer surged, with fans packing club matches and a stirring 2022 European Championship, won by host England, attracting 365 million viewers worldwide.

That backdrop has made the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which will kick off in Australia and New Zealand on July 20, the most anticipated female sporting event ever. The US will be vying for its third straight championship and fifth title overall — an accomplishment matched only by Brazil’s men’s team. More teams than ever will play, with the field expanded to 32 countries from 24.

Ticket sales for this year’s tournament hit 1.25 million as of Thursday, while viewership and the number of sponsors have reached new heights in recent years.

Yet the same forces that shadowed women’s soccer before the US team’s victories are keeping a new generation from capitalizing on their sport’s popularity. To pay larger salaries and bigger prizes, women’s soccer must generate more broadcast revenue — the financial lifeblood of major sports. Broadcasters, however, remain reluctant to pony up big sums for the Women’s World Cup media rights.

For months, there has been the threat of a media blackout that would make it difficult or impossible for fans in some of the world’s biggest markets to watch World Cup matches. A deal with European networks including the UK’s BBC was finalized just last month, while Japanese broadcaster NHK closed a pact to air the tournament on Thursday, just a week before the opening games. Deals with top sponsors were also clinched with weeks to spare before kickoff.

Gianni Infantino, the president of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, wants to elevate the women’s game. He has been a vocal advocate of improving conditions for players and reaching fans in developing countries where passion for the sport is growing. He has called low-ball bids from media companies “a slap in the face.”

An infusion of media cash will be needed to help Infantino meet his goal of offering equal prize money for the men’s and women’s tournaments within a few years. The women’s prize pool has grown from zero 20 years ago to $110 million this year. Of that, the winning team in this year’s tournament is set to receive $10.5 million, with $6.2 million earmarked for distribution to its players.

That still pales in comparison with the pot for the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, which was $440 million, with champion Argentina netting $42 million.

This year, for the first time, every player participating in the Women’s World Cup is guaranteed at least $30,000 – more than twice the $14,000 global average annual salary for professional women’s footballers. Players on the winning team will each get $270,000.

The US Soccer Federation was the first national organization to pool and equally divide all World Cup prize money, for both men and women, in collective bargaining agreements last year. (The US men advanced to the knockout stage at the 2022 World Cup, but were bounced out of the Gold Cup tournament this week by lower-ranked Panama.) Canada followed suit in an interim deal, and other countries have taken smaller strides toward equal pay.

Increasing the financial rewards for players is likely to have a substantial impact for poorer countries, especially with the expanded tournament field. A deeper prize pool could improve players’ standard of living, their health and the quality of their training facilities.

Eight countries are making their World Cup debut this year, including Panama, the Philippines and Zambia. Haiti qualified despite having no corporate sponsors and no home field, as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere grapples with hunger and political unrest.

Haitian defender Milan Pierre-Jerome, 21, remembers vividly the decisive 2-1 victory over Chile in February that secured the team’s fate. Players stormed the field after the final whistle. They danced on benches and sprayed water around the locker room, she said.

Pierre-Jerome has played for Haiti’s national team since she was 15. She said that after having to travel to neighboring Dominican Republic for training and matches, beating superstar teams including Chile and Mexico to qualify was all the more special.

“It felt like such a pause from everything that’s going on,” Pierre-Jerome said. “We’re just trying to lift up our country and play for them every time we step on the field.”

While Haiti is an extreme case, conditions during the 18-month qualifying phase for the World Cup were uneven. According to a survey of 362 players, nearly 30% weren’t compensated. A third of respondents said there wasn’t enough recovery time between matches, while 54% said they weren’t given a medical check-up before the grueling battle for a ticket to Australia began.

Prize money is funded largely by FIFA’s media and licensing deals. Media rights are expected to account for more than a third of the organization’s projected $11 billion in revenue over the next four-year World Cup cycle, according to a FIFA report.

It’s difficult to determine how the value of media rights for women has evolved, since historically the men’s and women’s tournaments have been bundled together in TV deals.

Fox Corp. paid about $425 million to broadcast the World Cup tournaments in the US from 2018 through this year. It extended its contract through the 2026 tournament for about a 10% markup from previous tournaments. Fox renewed their contract with FIFA in February of 2015 and the women shattered records a few months later.

“Fox Sports assumed the mantle of women’s soccer eight years ago with FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 and from that moment forward made the commitment to put our absolute best effort behind presenting the women’s tournament as a true marquee event,” said David Neal, vice president of production for Fox Sports. “The final match from that tournament is still to this day the most watched soccer game in US television history.”

Telemundo, the international Spanish-language broadcasting giant owned by Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, paid $600 million for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

When FIFA decided to sell broadcast rights separately beginning this cycle, initial offers were coming in as low as 1% to 2% of the men’s rights. BBC TV and ITV Plc firmed up a deal likely worth between $9 million and $10 million. FIFA estimates global media rights for the tournament are worth about $300 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A FIFA spokesman declined to comment on that report, but said “FIFA has also maintained a strong position in negotiations with potential buyers to ensure that the rights fees reflect the growth and current standing of women’s football.”

Separating the men’s and women’s media deals will provide money that can nurture the women’s game, according to FIFA officials.

“It is no secret that we rely on the men’s game in order to deliver our sport, to deliver the Women’s World Cup, to deliver our development programs around the world,” said Sarai Bareman, the head of women’s football at FIFA.

“FIFA’s decision to unbundle the women’s game from the men’s in 2021 was taken to invest specifically in women’s football and by driving that revenue through women’s football, we can feed it directly back,” she continued. “Women’s football has that growth trajectory.”

There is another obstacle FIFA will need to overcome in order to draw the vast audiences that will force networks to pay up for future rights: geography. The US’s games in the tournament’s initial stage are all scheduled between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. New York time, because of the 14-hour time difference with Australia.

“You will never be able to satisfy everybody,” said Andres Canter, the lead announcer for Telemundo. “Something has to give, unfortunately, and FIFA knows what’s at stake here. We all knew going in that it wouldn’t fall in prime time.”

An internal FIFA report had predicted that a large Asian audience could outweigh a decline in viewership from Europe due to the time difference.

Viewers in China, Japan and South Korea — the three biggest markets in Asia — accounted for 59% of global viewers who watched a game at a home TV for 20 consecutive minutes or more in 2007, when the Women’s World Cup was hosted in China. But viewership across Asia fell to 43% and 28% during the Canada 2015 and France 2019 tournaments, respectively.

That made the prospect of a media blackout in Japan, where soccer is enjoying a burst in popularity, especially problematic. Streaming platform Abema recorded an all-time daily high of users last December, when 17 million viewers streamed the Japanese men’s game against Spain.

Australia and New Zealand won the bid to host the tournament in June 2020, receiving 22 of 35 votes to beat out Colombia. Around $230 million in Australian federal and state funding is being used for everything from locker-room upgrades and pitch floodlighting to coaching courses and new playing surfaces.

The World Cup will be among the biggest sporting events for Australia since the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. The flagship stadium, which can hold 82,500 spectators, was originally built for those Games and will host Australia’s opening match against Ireland on July 20. The fixture was moved from its initially scheduled smaller venue as ticket demand exceeded available seats.

Together with the New Zealand-Norway match at Eden Park in Auckland, FIFA hopes more than 100,000 fans will watch in person across the two venues on opening day.

The 2023 World Cup is expected to continue the evolution of the women’s game on the field. Matches tend to unfold at a torrid pace — women have even been, on average, scoring more goals per game than the men at every tournament since the female contest’s inception in 1991.

“We’re not finished,” Pierre-Jerome, the player from Haiti, said. “I like the fact that the whole world is able to see such a beautiful game and more and more people are able to participate. I’m happy to be making history.” Bloomberg

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