The aftermath of the Women’s World Cup is always a great time to reflect on its great trifecta of beautiful sport, generally positive feelings of sportsmanship, and… the media storm around it. If you follow it at all, you’ve already seen the reactions and the statistics. The age-old question, “Why aren’t people interested in women’s sports?” was trotted out, there were missteps in publicity, there are charts upon charts comparing the paltry prize money at this Women’s World Cup (double that of 2011!) to the relatively astronomical amount of prize money awarded to the teams at the Men’s World Cup last year. In between celebratory praises for individual players and team accomplishments, there are calls for an end to the air of misogyny that always surrounds the Women’s World Cup.
Of course, sexism doesn’t just go away in the off years; and the issues in the WWC are symptoms of sexism in each individual federation. They are also a symptom of FIFA. At the top level, FIFA’s own history of sexism is pretty staggering, from egomaniac misogynist Sepp Blatter’s suggestion that women should wear tighter shorts in order to drum up interest to a recent article on US striker Alex Morgan that describes her as “easy on the eyes, with good looks,” to their mandatory “gender verification” tests, to the entire turf debacle in Canada. Also, the money. The money’s a huge problem, not just as an indication of how little FIFA officials care about the WWC, but also as an impact on the future of women’s soccer.
First, a breakdown. The U.S. received $2 million for winning the WWC this year. The total payout to all participating teams was $15 million, with $200,000 going to the teams that were knocked out in the group stage. Last year, World Cup winner Germany was awarded $35 million. The U.S. men’s team took home $9 million for making it to the Round of 16. Ghana, which finished last in its group and didn’t advance, received $8 million for participating. I bring up Ghana because during the group stage, its players threatened to strike over promised financial bonuses, and Ghana flew in the promised $3 million to Brazil so that they would show up to play against Portugal. Over 40 women from multiple countries filed a lawsuit against FIFA (some without their own country’s support) because they don’t have the power to threaten a strike over artificial turf, and Ghana’s men’s national team successfully threatened a strike for more money than the championship prize of the Women’s World Cup.
In a statement that should shock no one, FIFA doesn’t see anything wrong with this. FIFA official Jerome Valcke told The Guardian, “We played the [20th] men’s World Cup in 2014, when we are now playing the seventh women’s World Cup. We have still another  World Cups before potentially women should receive the same amount as men. The men waited until 2014 to receive as much money as they received.” And, after all, the World Cup brings in enough revenue to fund the Women’s World Cup (which turned a small profit in 2011), as well as Youth World Cups. But it’s not enough to look at just those numbers.
FIFA also spends more resources on men’s soccer. Of the $900 million it invests in promoting and supporting soccer programs annually, only 15% is allocated exclusively for women’s programs. It spends more money and time hyping the World Cup. In 2014, it spent $18 million on FIFA Fan Fests in Brazil, essentially massive parties where fans could watch matches for free. That’s an active investment in accessibility and gaining future followers that FIFA would never consider spending on women’s soccer. Heck, FIFA would much rather throw money at self-promotion — last year, it invested $27 million in a flattering documentary about itself, United Passions, which flopped at the box office.
Some say that the sexism of sports media is to blame. How can FIFA expect to make a profit or break even when people just aren’t interested in women’s sports and there’s no proof of profitability (as though interest and demand can be spun out of zero exposure or accessibility). This, I can say with statistical certainty, is complete bullshit. Somehow, in spite of the supposed lack of interest and the minuscule four percent of sports media coverage devoted to women’s sports, the US vs Japan final last Sunday was the most-watched soccer match on network television ever. Ever. Even more than the Germany vs Argentina men’s final from last year. And it only took the Women’s World Cup seven iterations to do it. It helped that the US was in the final, and that the final was in a convenient time zone for Americans, but could you imagine a world where so many national teams have the support and depth to compete at an international level that regardless of where the Women’s World Cup takes place and who is in the final, it’ll be convenient for a massive number of ardent fans to watch it live? That’s almost certainly the case for the World Cup, and the WWC just showed that it can put up equally impressive numbers.
The myth of disinterest and low economic potential in women’s sports comes up every four years, and every time people get tired of disputing it, but hopefully, with the success of this WWC, we’ll see this notion being left behind by the people in power in sports media. In the lead up to the final, Fox Sports announced that it would expand coverage with 30 more hours of programming, clearly seeing some potential worth investing in. Not that that lets FIFA off the hook. Capitalism is not a good reason to continue being sexist. Instead of setting an example for equality in payment and screentime like international tennis tournaments did after years of campaigning by the Women’s Tennis Association, FIFA used the status quo as an excuse to avoid even considering making a change. Only time (and new leadership) will tell whether it’ll finally let go of these outdated assumptions.
In the meantime, though, FIFA’s nominal payouts to and investment in the women’s game has repercussions on national women’s soccer federations, which slows down the development of their programs. Let’s circle back to Ghana’s men’s team from 2014. The result of the threatened strike was more of an example of individual nations taking their male players more seriously than their female players, but it was informed by FIFA’s decisions. Ghana was comfortable conceding to a $3 million payout because it knew it would receive at least $8 million at the end of the tournament. What happens with the remaining $5 million? There are coaches and support staff bonuses to be paid, sure, but beyond that, FIFA doesn’t really know. Ideally, it would stay in the federation, to help grow youth programs and bolster the national leagues. Again, the U.S. women’s team only received $2 million. How much will be left after player and coach bonuses? The team received a $1.5 million bonus from U.S. Soccer for winning the gold medal in the London Olympics, and assuming that the federation places equal or greater value on winning the Women’s World Cup, that leaves less than $500,000.
Hopefully, that money will go toward the women’s professional league, the National Women’s Soccer League. It needs as much help as it can get. In the years since the iconic 1999 WWC win, there have been two other attempts at starting a professional women’s league in the U.S., sparked by the interest that surrounds any big international tournament. The exposure is great! More young women are playing soccer than ever, and it looks like the rate will keep rising. Interest isn’t a problem. Retention is.
The reason that the NWSL is predicted to flourish where previous leagues like Women’s Professional Soccer and Women’s United Soccer Association failed is that it’s the most economically realistic, given the lack of media interest and small show of support from U.S. Soccer. The reality is that if you want to be a professional player in the NWSL, your salary ranges from $6,842 to $37,800. If a player is a member of the U.S. national team, U.S. Soccer pays their salary separately, but otherwise, the higher salaries go to international level players, and the lower salaries go to recent graduates who could grow into their athletic prime in the NWSL and provide a deep pool of talent for future U.S. national teams — if they weren’t expected to live on less that $7,000 a year in a major U.S. city.
At least U.S. players have a domestic option. Before the NWSL formed, many national team players went overseas to play for club teams in countries like France, Sweden, and Germany. In fact, Germany, which banned women’s soccer altogether from 1955 to 1970, has more FIFA-registered professional female soccer players than the U.S., a fact that Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight can only vaguely explain with, “They take soccer more seriously.” Even though the NWSL routinely draws bigger crowds than the women’s games in Bundesliga, the German professional soccer league, it hasn’t been able to capitalize on it. The German federation does take soccer more seriously, and while their pay still isn’t great, it’s enough for young players to stay on and get better.
A complaint when it comes to the Women’s World Cup is that it’s routinely dominated by the same rich countries simply overpowering other teams, which is why they’re boring to watch, which is why they’ll never be worth airtime, which is why they’ll never make money, etc. But that’s changed immensely in the last decade. National federations of women’s soccer have been on the rise since 2000, with varying success. For example, Japan began revitalizing its program in 2002, was eliminated during group stage in the 2003 and 2007 Women’s World Cups, and finally saw its efforts start to pay off in 2011. Colombia didn’t embark on an organized program until 2006, and this year the women’s team pulled off a huge upset against heavily favored France during group stage. England’s women’s team, despite a 50-year federation ban on women’s soccer (because it became too popular in 1920) and a patriarchal national attitude, became the second-most successful English team of all time in the 2015 World Cup (the most successful was the men’s team that won the 1966 World Cup, during a time when, you guessed it, women were banned from playing).
The thing is, federations like U.S. Soccer have money. It can afford to keep national team members on its payroll without much help from Women’s World Cup winnings. It can afford to, and more importantly take the responsibility to, support the NWSL. That isn’t the case with other World Cup countries. Costa Rica, which has a rich, nigh-revolutionary history of women’s soccer, gives so little support to its women’s national team that the majority of the players have day jobs, even when they’re in training. Mexico’s women’s team was formed in the late 1960s against the wishes of the Mexican Football Federation (MFF), flourished, and then languished when the MFF and FIFA became involved. Now, though Mexico has thriving girl’s soccer programs (made up mostly of grassroots leagues and schools established by former players), the MFF leadership is out of touch and doesn’t invest much energy or time into developing that into a fully realized, competitive national team. There wasn’t even an official national-level league until 2007. Supporting and inspiring youth soccer is important, of course it is, but it’s also important to follow up and provide support in the transition to professional play. That’s where federations like Mexico’s and Costa Rica’s are lagging, and that’s where FIFA’s money could make a huge difference in elevating the Women’s World Cup, not only for the women who are playing, but also for the negligent officials.
It basically comes down to this: if you want competitive, high-quality play, the kind that draws the record numbers of viewers and subsequent lucrative sponsorships that you want, you can’t just wait for players to present it to you, fully-formed with built-in funding. You have to actually invest in and incentivize local or national organizations to put in the work to grow a fanbase. You have to be willing to see improvements and continue investing. If you want to capitalize on the interest and excitement that the Women’s World Cup always generates, you have to give that energy somewhere to go.
The hype from the Women’s World Cup has been great so far for the US league. Tickets are selling faster than ever, and Fox made a deal to broadcast ten of the matches left in the NWSL season. Most of the NWSL matches are shown live via Youtube, so if you’re like me and you don’t live near a team but still want to 1) watch soccer and 2) register your support for the league, this is an opportunity that we didn’t have two World Cups ago, when television networks still determined what games would be broadcast-accessible.
There’s always a surge of interest and support for women’s soccer around the World Cup. Here’s hoping that the people in charge will finally seize the opportunity and give it the consistent attention that it deserves.