Winning the World Cup is a moment that every footballer dreams of, but few experience. Knockout competitions are unpredictable. Games can be won by millimeters or seconds. This year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup is a case in point.
When the final whistle blew on August 20, many observers were stunned by what the Spanish women’s team had achieved, after entering the competition in sixth place and facing the reigning European Champions in the finals. Winning the World Cup could have been a fairytale underdog story. Instead, the turbulence beneath the surface exploded onto the global stage, highlighting the need for a women-centered approach to women’s football.
Women’s football has long been in overshadowed by men’s. While impressive strides have been made in the last few years — with the 2023 World Cup total matchday attendance nearly doubling since 2019, and a similar trajectory seen for domestic league attendance and season ticket sales following the 2022 euros — it remains less prominent than men’s football.
Of course, geographical differences exist. North America has a stronger women’s football (soccer) culture thanks to Title IX and its impact on youth girls’ soccer.
But what this World Cup has shown is that aiming for commercial parity, or a sporting trophy, is not enough. Instead, it’s made clear what can go wrong when women aren’t central to their own game.
From our experience having worked with leagues, clubs, and government bodies globally in women’s sport, adopting a women’s first approach is critical. This means reimagining women’s football from the ground up, catering to their unique biology and socialization.
This needs to permeate across every part of the organization, and especially these three areas: leadership and governance, player proposition, and commercial.
- Engage leadership and mobilize team
Getting it right starts at the top. Prioritizing women’s football requires time, dedication, financial resources, and an appropriately skilled organization. It requires a leader who believes in the women’s football as an elite sport, and a social agent. The organizational setup and governance model should allow the sport to flourish. There is no “one size fits all”. Some clubs which have both men’s and women’s programs, might need a separate Women’s Board to ensure the women’s program priorities receive sufficient attention, resource, and accountability. Others might benefit from a structure spanning both men’s and women’s programs.
- Player proposition
Given the current state of women’s football, and the social role many women play in society (for example, greater caring responsibilities), women athletes don’t have the luxury of “only” being professional footballers. They need education and work experience, so that when their playing careers end, they have employment options. They need child minding facilities and support to balance parenting with on-pitch responsibilities. And they need wages that allow them to focus on football.
Women’s football game is unique and accessible, attracting a broader audience like families and casual sport fans. Based on research from one US-based club, there is only a 30% overlap between the demographics of season ticket holders for women’s and men’s football. And this fan base wants to engage differently. Women’s football fans are more occasion oriented, more entertainment driven – they’re there for the experience, not just the game.
Despite the compelling opportunity — a broad, higher spending audience — few organizations, especially in Europe, have cracked the monetization nut. The American clubs fare better. Based on our proprietary Brand Aperture survey on women’s football, 50-70% of fans of NWSL clubs agree they have a strong connection and experience to their club, compared to 30-50% of fans of most European clubs.
Connection and experience define whether a brand is "go-to", which correlates with revenue growth and resilience. We’ve seen this reflected with higher sponsorship deals and matchday attendance. The prime example is Angel City FC, who saw a $2.5 million shirt sponsor in their first season and around 20,000 average matchday attendance, supported by an owner group of high-profile celebrity women.
The Spanish World Champion footballers achieved the pinnacle of their sport amidst trying circumstances. Yet, despite winning the cup, the press coverage remained dominated by their relation to men. The season started with a heavy atmosphere. Winning the World Cup should have been the catalyst for the growth of the Spanish women’s game. Instead, it’s shattered the illusion that one can expect basic respect and human dignity even as sporting icons on a global stage.
It’s no longer enough to aim for commercial parity with the men’s game, to celebrate the breaking of a new audience record, or be able to buy the entire squad’s kit in the merchandise store, including the goalkeepers. For women’s sport to truly thrive, women need to be placed at the center of their own game.