2019 – A HISTORIC YEAR
2019 signaled a major turning point for female football. After a decade of somewhat steady growth the game took a leap forward. Appetite for watching the game, both in stadiums and at home, reached unprecedented heights.
The World Cup Final saw 1.2Bn viewers tune in across TV and digital platforms, the first time a female match has surpassed the 1Bn mark (1). Across the tournament, average live match audiences were up 106% from the 2015 World Cup in Canada (1).
The extent of this progress was further exemplified by increased match day attendances, with records obliterated across the game. November saw the international record broken at Wembley, with 77,768 turning out to watch England vs Germany. Domestically, Women’s Super League (UK) attendances were averaging 4,112 mid way through the season, up 465% from 2014 (2).
GROWING GRASSROOTS MOMENTUM
Research compiled by FIFA shows the total number of girls and women playing organized football now stands at 13.36M (3). Importantly, youth participation is up, with the number of registered players under 18 standing at 3.12M out of a total 4.07M (3).
Unfortunately, the stark reality is that this growth is not truly global. Only nine countries have more than 100k registered female players, making up 72% of players worldwide. Six of these are western European nations siting under UEFA – Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, England and France – who all reached the quarter finals of the last World Cup, proving that in a minority sport where most countries struggle for players, the size of the national talent pool precedes success.
UEFA has recently developed a Strategy “Time for Action”, providing a blueprint for what is required to grow and improve women’s football globally. A key factor is the opportunity to participate, namely through places, programmes, clubs and leagues. Take clubs as an example. Western Europe now possesses the world’s densest network of amateur clubs. Since these began opening to women, the number of registered female players across Europe rose six-fold between 1985 – 2019, to 1.5m (3), with an increase of 300,000 in only the year following the launch of the strategy in 2019(4).
For the female game to reach the next level, a truly global approach to development is required. National Associations not yet as active in the sector must embrace the process and begin embedding the women’s game in all aspects of decision-making.
WHY CARE? THE VALUE AND OPPORTUNTIY OF FEMALE FOOTBALL
Gender equality aside, the case for growing female football participation is an economic one. In England, an active female football player is worth £741 to the economy per year through health savings and socio-economic gains. Currently, female participation - standing at 13% - contributes £2.6Bn to the economy annually. However, compared to those of their male counterparts (39%), female participation levels pale in comparison. If female participation rates were increased to male levels (39%), an additional £5.2Bn in annual value would be generated for the economy.
Across many developing nations, often with largely untapped female populations, significant opportunities exist to grow participation and generate significant value for the economy.
Take India for example. India’s Women’s National Team has steadily been on the rise for a few years, most recently highlighted by the national team winning the 2019 South Asian Football Federation Cup for a record fifth time. Off the pitch, their events bidding strategy clearly demonstrates their ambitions, with India set to host the U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2021 and having recently been confirmed as 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup hosts. Couple this with a population far surpassing 1 billion (50% of which are female) and the growth of the Indian Super League, signs would point towards it being the next big emerging female market, right? However, India currently only registers 12,399 female players, comparative to countries such as Northern Ireland with a population of 1.9M.
If India were to even match England’s 13% participation levels, it would have over 84M female players. Clearly socio-economic conditions vary from country to country, but taking England as a proxy, the socio-economic impact of such an increase in participation on the Indian economy would be over USD 11.5Bn*.
HOW DO WE INCREASE FEMALE PARTICIPATION? DEVELOPING TARGETED STRATEGIES TO RESHAPE THE SPORT
Realizing this value, UEFA, AFC, CONCACAF and CAF have all made significant commitments to grow the female game. However, COVID-19 has inevitably halted the progress of some of this activity. Whilst the financial impact of cancelled fixtures, postponed events and contract disputes is yet to be quantified, national associations will no doubt be feeling the strain. FIFPRO, the global players union, has warned that women’s football is faced with an “existential threat”.
Encouragingly, FIFA has confirmed it will fulfil its commitment to invest $1Bn into women’s football between 2019 and 2022. “This funding will be invested into a range of areas in the women’s game including competitions, capacity building, development programmes, governance and leadership, professionalisation and technical programmes”, FIFA recently confirmed (5).
In the long run, we hypothesize that the challenges faced as a rfesult of the pandemic will ignite discussions around investment strategies to ensure the women’s game becomes a robust, sustainable industry. What is certain is that funding approval processes will be far more stringent, with policymakers requiring National Associations to present targeted strategies that display clear returns on investment.
Our framework below can be used by national associations for a holistic approach to developing the women’s game.
Given the women’s game is at its early development stages compared to the men’s game, national associations can experiment and innovate to create a truly distinctive value proposition. For example, regional super leagues, such as an Arab Super League, could prove more attractive and sustainable than national leagues. Data and insights will also be crucial to develop an understanding of the unique attributes of the women’s game, be it on performance, commercials, or fans engagement.
Our work in multiple geographies clearly highlights the need for a tailored approach, based on the local context. For example, “places” are proving to be particularly crucial across many GCC nations, where socio-cultural factors require many National Associations to pay particular attention to how they can support the development of female-friendly infrastructure through investment in female specific facilities and the programming of female only sessions.
However, whilst local contexts may differ, the key building blocks will for the majority remain the same. If National Associations can build the case for socio-economic value of the women’s game and develop targeted plans across each of the identified strategic areas, they will see considerable improvements in their ability to unlock funding and accelerate implementation.
For more information or to further discuss areas in which we can support, please reach out to one of our global football leads
Wissam Khalaf (email@example.com),
Mark Abberley (firstname.lastname@example.org) or
Patrick Massey (email@example.com).
1. FIFA - 2019: A breakthrough year for women's football (https://www.fifa.com/womens-football/news/2019-a-breakthrough-year-for-women-s-football)
2. The Guardian - Women’s football has seen a decade of progress but there is much more to do (https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2020/jan/02/womens-football-decade-of-progress-2020)
3. FIFA: Women’s Football Member Associations Survey Report 2019 (https://resources.fifa.com/image/upload/fifa-women-s-survey-report-confederations-global-mas.pdf?cloudid=nq3ensohyxpuxovcovj0)
4. UEFA strategy for women's football on track to meet ambitious targetshttps://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/football-development/news/0260-103fcbfdc9df-72ac48d24199-1000--women-s-football-strategy-review/
5. The Guardian - FIFA says planned £800m investment in women's football will not be cut (https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/apr/20/fifa-says-1bn-investment-in-womens-football-will-not-be-cut)
*adjusted for GDP per Capita, PPP (World Bank)