None more so than leading up to this summer has women’s football been in football fans’ attentions. Media coverage, the quality of players, even record attendances – everything seems primed heading into these World Cup finals in France for it to make that final push to be accepted on equal footing to the male counterpart.
As the world prepares for the opening clash between France and South Korea in the Parc des Princes in Paris, a spotlight is once again being shone upon the female side of the most popular sport in the world.
Four years ago, as Canada played host to the premier women’s football tournament, approximately 1.35 million people attended the 52 matches on show.
France’s offering is expected to see a similar or better turnout according to Fifa, but it is the TV viewing figures most noteworthy. The world football governing body expect the numbers to easily surpass the 750 million people who watched the event four years prior.
Back in 1995, in Sweden, just 4,500 people attended each game and a total attendance figure for the tournament ran in a little over 112,000 people. There was little coverage of games.
Certainly, women’s football is starting to grow by greater and greater numbers each iteration of the tournament, and year by year. This year’s competition in France will likely be the biggest spotlight so far for the sport, and as such its greatest stage to show off the true talent, pedigree and passion on offer in the women’s game.
Women’s football still falls woefully short in commercial backing when compared to the men’s game, and while some of that comes down to a lack of audience in domestic leagues compared to the men’s game, tournaments like the World Cup are offering advertisers and sponsors that vast audience.
There will be some of the finest stars on display in France this summer and there will be plenty eyes watching the action.
Sadly, though, there will not be all the top stars. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg – the first ever recipient of the female Ballon d’Or and the highest-paid female footballer – will not be present. Hegerberg made the personal decision to boycott the World Cup, walking away from the Norwegian national team in 2017 after becoming increasingly frustrated by what she deemed a “lack of respect” for female players.
Despite being the highest-paid female player, the 23-year-old Olympique Lyonnais striker earns only around $450,000 (£354,000) a year.
While that’s not a figure to be sniffed at, it is 325 times less than Barcelona star Lionel Messi – one of men’s football’s greatest current players – earns in the respective annual period.
Similarly, prize money still falls well short for women’s football as it currently stands.
The 2019 tournament will see a record $30m (£23.6m) in prize money – which is double the prize pot from 2015 – which is progress, but ultimately the winner’s $4m (£3.1m) share is still just 50% of what each of the 16 men’s teams eliminated in the group stages (the earliest stage) took home last summer in Russia.
Clearly, there are issues remaining in women’s football and while the wheels of progress are turning, they’re doing so still at a sluggish pace.
That is why France 2019 has the potential to be quite so significant for the female side of the sport. With the world’s eyes on the game, and with the quality of the players undeniably at its finest, it is truly a chance for these women’s national teams to prove just why those responsible for the commercial boom in football to pay attention equally to both genders.
There will always be more money in men’s football, for many years to come, due to its more established popularity and therefore easier financial returns, but tournaments like France have the potential to demonstrate just how much potential exists in the women’s game.
While there would undoubtedly mean a smaller initial reward financially for investors, there would also be a lower price of entry, and unlike the men’s game – which is already at its peak as the global superpower of sport – there is still so much space to grow.
Investors who join now can reap the ever-increasing rewards for many years to come, and women’s football is only going in one direction right now; upwards.
France has the opportunity to be the turning point for women’s football. Canada, four years ago, started the process of truly legitimising in the image of those key decision-makers and money-holders that there was true investment to be had in the women’s game.
Now, the country of the men’s World Cup holders, could leave it’s mark on the game of football once again by propelling the women’s game upwards into the bright future it deserves, and will one day reach, one way or another.
Women’s football is here to stay and to continue to grow and improve. A magnificent tournament hosted in one of Europe’s top football nations could be the moment those who watch the men’s game already finally sit up and take notice.
That is the legacy France 2019 has the potential to make of itself.