Broadcasting the 2023 Women’s World Cup: A Chance To Make a Difference
EMERGY - Youths, Work, Sport

Broadcasting the 2023 Women’s World Cup: A Chance To Make a Difference

Why should we buy the rights to the next FIFA World Cup?

In France, on 14 June 2023, M6 and France Télévisions announced that they had acquired the broadcasting rights for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place from July 20 to August 20, 2023 in Australia and New Zealand. After two editions in China, this is the first time that Oceania will host the World Cup. A unique opportunity to “bring women’s soccer to the forefront and show that it is just as important as men’s football”, as FIFA General Secretary Fatma Samoura recently put it. And yet, not everyone will be able to see it.

Double Standards or Lack of Vision?

Even today, some broadcasters are unable or unwilling to finance the rights to broadcast the event, thus depriving millions of spectators of the event. France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom, all historic footballing hotspots, are among the absentees. This is all the more astonishing given that 157 countries out of the 211 FIFA federations will benefit from broadcasting the 64 matches of the competition.

At a time when the 2022 World Cup in Qatar brought together more than half of humanity, with record audiences and revenues despite the scale of the criticism, the question of broadcasting the Women’s World Cup seems incongruous.

All the more so since the last Women’s Euro 2022 in England was a success in every respect, following on from the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

Yet this edition, which is being played on the other side of the world, appears to be the poor relation of FIFA competitions. Broadcasters are stalling and trying to obtain the lowest possible rates. No one is indifferent, articles are multiplying, the pressure is mounting and players like Olympique Lyonnais player Signe Bruun are getting upset. For the Danish striker, “not seeing this World Cup would be a big loss for Europe, and for women’s soccer in general.” Her team-mate Ada Hegerberg said the same to Syanie Dalmat: “We need to find the best solution for everyone’s interests. The huge figures for the World Cup in France show that the desire to watch it is there.” For the first winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or, it’s “impossible that there won’t be an arrangement to broadcast the matches on television”.

Despite the interest aroused by women’s soccer over the last ten years, “the offer from broadcasters, particularly in the five major European countries, remains very disappointing”, if FIFA President Gianni Infantino is to be believed. Although he can’t explain it, he describes the situation harshly. For him, it’s “a real slap in the face for all the women footballers taking part in the Women’s World Cup and even for women in general.” Far from abandoning his accounting approach, which he is often accused of using, he deserves to be heard this time, of not always listened to.

The Need to Show Women Playing

“If we want soccer to change, if we want governance to become more feminine, today’s little girls need to see women playing and be told that it’s possible. To play, to win and to influence the future of soccer.”  These are not Gianni Infantino’s words, however. They come from one of his main opponents, Lise Klaveness, the retired former footballer who became President of the Norwegian Football Association in 2022.

When opponents gather, questions arise, and it’s legitimate to hear them. While audiences for the Women’s World Cup are around 50 to 60% of those for a men’s World Cup, bids from the five major European countries are, according to FIFA, “20 to 100 times lower than those received for the World Cup”. In France, for example, where the men’s World Cup cost the TF1 group 130 million euros to sub-license, broadcasters do not want to exceed or even reach 10 million for the women’s World Cup. The reason given: it will take place in Australia and New Zealand, and can only be broadcast in the mornings in the middle of summer! The risk of losses would be too great.

The situation is surprising for major sports and soccer countries such as England and Germany. As for France, the advent of a new generation of players and the highly-publicized arrival of Hervé Renard do not seem to carry enough weight either. Which begs the question: is this justified?

An Overpaid Product with No Appeal?

Some would say that women’s soccer is not a subject. It would be less interesting and far from spectacular. Others will argue that the event on the other side of the world is of no interest to them, or will not draw crowds. Here again, the problem is badly posed. The question is not one of demand, but rather one of supply.

No one has forgotten the packed stadiums from the Parc des Princes to the Camp Nou (91,553 on March 30, 2022), the Euro final at Wembley, the growing crowds at the National Women’s Soccer League in the USA or the increasing investment in women’s soccer by the major leagues. The arrival of Michele Kang, owner of the Washington Spirit franchise, in the capital of the Olympique Lyonnais women’s club is another weak signal. The way we look at it needs to change, because women’s soccer is not what it used to be. Today, it is just as appealing as other women’s sports. But they still need to be broadcast.

Women’s Euro 2022, held in England at the beginning of last summer, was the most-watched edition, with a cumulative worldwide audience of 365 million viewers. This was more than double the audience of the 2017 edition in the Netherlands (178 million) and more than triple that of 2013, in Sweden (116 million). By way of comparison, the cumulative audience for Eurovision 2023 (162 million) is half that figure.

Let’s continue with the numbers. The final won by host nation England over Germany was seen by almost 50 million people worldwide, three times more than the 2017 final between the Netherlands and Denmark. Admittedly, the final’s audience is still lower than that of a Formula 1 Grand Prix, particularly since Liberty media’s takeover of F1 rights. But in terms of live performances and cumulative audiences, women’s soccer offers unhoped-for audience prospects. They are also considerably less expensive for broadcasters, especially as the World Cup product is still in its infancy.

A record audience was set for the quarter-final between France and the USA at the World Cup on June 28, 2019, with 11.8 million viewers, according to Médiamétrie figures. Given that the event was sold to TF1 for a total cost of 19 million in France, and that TF1 has sub-licensed part of it to Canal+, the question of its broadcasting is worth asking. Beyond the current negotiations, the matter is not just a question of the “right price”, but also of the desire to consider the women’s world championship and to show it off.

Women’s soccer has never been so appealing, both on and off the Old Continent. For the time being, however, broadcasters are refusing to pay and are reluctant to give up hope of lower rates. The main reasons put forward are predictable: the economic context is unfavorable, the price is too high for limited profitability, and the time difference is the main reason for this disaffection.

An Argument That Masks Clumsy, Short-term Negociation

Those who put forward these arguments have a selective memory. Explaining that this World Cup will not be of interest because of the time difference, omits other men’s precedents. Men’s World Cups have been held on several occasions far from European time zones. From the 1994 World Cup in the USA to Qatar 2022, there is no shortage of examples.

These are probably the same people who also forget the success of the Sydney or Beijing Games, the ratings for the 2002 World Cup co-hosted in Japan and South Korea, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals or the future international competitions that will be held from the USA (United World Cup 2026, Los Angeles 2028, Rugby World Cups 2031 and 2033) to Australia (Rugby World Cup 2027, Brisbane 2032) over the next decade.

As for economic profitability, broadcasters also need to build an offer capable of establishing the women’s soccer product and enhancing the value of the investment made, in order to fully make the most of an event that is bound to attract attention and generate buzz in the long term. Indeed, it’s surprising that among the countries without broadcasters are three contenders for overall victory and maximum audiences: England, Germany … and France.

Reason should prevail and mobilize broadcasters, who are always keen to target female spectators. So, why such disaffection?

A Lack of Vision and Blinding Short-Termism

Investing more in the rights to a Women’s World Cup played in the morning in Europe would be neither profitable nor worthwhile. The argument is simple. It seems unstoppable, but it comes up short when you compare the rights involved, their supposed costs, their returns and the broadcasters’ priorities. By way of comparison, if Le is to be believed, season 23 of Koh Lanta and its 17 episodes cost TF1 almost the same amount as the 2019 World Cup…

The Women’s World Cup should be seen as an investment, not just a gamble on future ratings and immediate profitability. Economic reasoning only works in the short term. We need to think and see further ahead.

More than 50% of our employees are women. They set the standard. The growth of our audience shows this. The reservoir is immense, but we need to prepare and build the appeal of the product. Women’s sports and soccer are a segment to be developed and a real potential growth driver. For broadcasters and advertisers alike.

Brands are not mistaken. The values of women’s soccer are more attractive. They are “strategic targets”(Nathalie Boy de la Tour). Vincent Cottereau, Arkema’s Sponsorship Director and main sponsor of the women’s Division 1, sees “sponsoring women’s soccer as a major lever”. As he explained to Ecofoot, “for employer brand awareness, investing in women’s sport is very beneficial.” Investing in top-level women’s sport not only enhances the value of products and services, it’s also an excellent tool for “contributing to the feminization of the workforce and reaching out to new audiences.”

From employer branding to reaching out to other audiences, accompanying the visibility of women’s soccer is emerging as a major issue. For companies and more surely for our societies. Broadcasters need to consider it in their negotiations.

A Question of Responsibility: Inspiring and Promoting Equality in Practice

Even if people are indifferent to the World Cup, the stakes involved in broadcasting it go beyond the sum of corporate and individual interests, or the amount of advertising revenue generated. It’s not simply a question of broadcasting costs, production conditions or profitability for FIFA or broadcasters.

Other things are at play.

The visibility of the event is necessary for the players, for our daughters and, more generally, for our children. On February 5, ARCOM, the French audiovisual and digital communication regulatory authority, called for action to combat the “very low rate of women’s sport broadcast on screens” in its study dedicated to the media coverage of women’s sport. The proportion of women’s sport broadcast on French channels has thus risen from 3.6% in 2018 to 4.8% in 2021. It must increase, and only voluntarism will allow it to do so. Broadcasters are on the front line. Either they get involved, or they’ll be criticized.

Tomorrow is being prepared as early as this summer. Former top-level cyclist Marie-Françoise Potereau, now vice-president of the French National Olympic and Sports Committee in charge of gender diversity for Paris 2024, is explicit: “It’s important to keep showing women’s sport to make young girls dream. They need to be able to tell themselves that they can also aspire to do top-level sport, particularly by achieving results. It’s also a way of making the general population aware that there is women’s sport in general.”

The French Minister for Sport, Amélie Oudéa Castéra, also made a point of getting involved, making “a commitment that there will indeed be retransmission” before adding that “our broadcasters, as they have committed to me, need to do their bit for women’s soccer and, no doubt, raise their offers a little so that everyone does their bit, even if the distance to be covered by each party is probably not quite equivalent. I’m confident.”

A Market Opportunity, an Investement to Work On

The message is clear, and in line with the FIFA President’s position: “So, to be very clear, it is our moral and legal obligation not to undersell the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Therefore, should the offers continue not to be fair (towards women and women’s football), we will be forced not to broadcast the FIFA Women’s World Cup into the ‘Big 5’ European countries. I call, therefore, on all players (women and men), fans, football officials, Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and journalists all over the world to join us and support this call for a fair remuneration of women’s football. Women deserve it! As simple as that!”

Money is important, but it’s not everything. The effort must be shared. History proves that daring pays off. French men’s soccer took a long time to make its mark on our screens. Its first live broadcast dates back to 1952, and its broadcasting has been far from linear. From the Coupe de France final between Nice and Bordeaux to the France-Germany match in October, televising soccer has never been easy, in France as elsewhere. The 1966 World Cup was a breakthrough, but it took more than twenty years for the game to become firmly established on our screens.

No channel was willing to broadcast championship goals, for example, until TF1 and the birth of Téléfoot in 1977. And we had to wait until Canal+ in 1984 to see the first live championship match, Nantes-Monaco. The lessons of the past must be understood. The history of televised soccer underlines the fact that supply prevails over demand and the supposed reality of the market. The winning broadcaster is the one who innovates and takes risks. It’s the broadcaster that creates the product that will make it a success. TF1 and Canal+ have demonstrated this in the past. It’s up to today’s broadcasters to remember this and draw inspiration from it.

Today, soccer has become a flagship product of our audiovisual landscape and our daily lives. It is at the heart of millions of images watched and shared on our screens. This was no easy task in the 1980s. Women’s soccer is no exception to the rule. It needs to be supported and accompanied. Taking risks is not a risk. You can’t use the women’s soccer product only when it works and lose interest at the slightest difficulty. To proceed in this way is to deprive yourself of what it can offer in the medium and long term. At the risk of regretting it all.

Bringing soccer to our screens is as much a question of market opportunity as it is of daring and determination. Daring is never in vain.

Broadcasters’ responsibility and the Issue of Representation

Aside from the economic and financial logics accompanying the 2023 World Cup, we also need to consider the question of the social and moral responsibility of all the players involved. Starting with the broadcasters involved. The women’s competition to be played in Australia and New Zealand carries with it issues of representation that few consider. And wrongly so.

According to Anja Mittag, the former German international and current RB Leipzig coach, “we need all the Sam Kerrs and Pernille Harders in the world to keep soccer moving forward and for more and more young players to be inspired by their example.” But to do that, you have to see them. She herself deplored the situation. “When I was young, I wanted to play for the men’s national team because I didn’t even know there was a women’s national team”. For lack of broadcasting…

The sight of young women playing soccer at the World Cup remains the pinnacle of women’s international soccer. The first challenge is therefore one of visibility and equality. The first necessity is to broadcast the competition and show it in favorable conditions. But we need to go further. Media representation of women footballers is political.

The Need for Inspiration and Identification: Role Models, Another Face of Soccer

Seeing women play and the best female footballers express themselves is an opportunity to develop sport for women and our children, but it’s also an opportunity to highlight the place they occupy and can occupy in our societies. Whatever their origins, social extraction, nationality or convictions.

Sport is a vector for new representations, a lever for development and inspiration. Here and elsewhere. Through the example it sets, women’s soccer is a factor for change. In the case of the 2023 World Cup, the issues of representation and inclusion that accompany its broadcasting are crucial. It’s not “just sport” as we too often hear.

Broadcasting this World Cup is an opportunity to offer our daughters and our youth other inspirations and different role models. Megan Rapinoe has been one of those faces. For present and future generations, such a competition is important. It brings out strong, engaging female role models like Alex Morgan, talented, competent women who win and perform like Alexandra Popp or Beth Mead.

An event like a World Cup is ideal. It encourages women and girls, by example, to play soccer and take part in sport. And even if it sometimes doesn’t last, such an event leads them to consider their place on and off the pitch as normal!

These are precious images, given the inequalities they experience and suffer. To see is to feel like doing, to imagine that it’s possible. Spreading the word about women’s sport and giving it media coverage means contributing to the idea that women can exist on their own, flourish and win. Just like men.

At a time when the most obscurantist conservatisms are targeting women in Europe and elsewhere, at a time when the stakes in sport and health have never been higher, it would be a shame to miss out on the chance to see women footballers from all over the world competing against each other. The level of development of our societies is measured by the place we reserve for our girls and women. In soccer, on our screens and beyond…

Through this event, other behaviors are also asserting themselves. Other standards are displayed. A World Cup is about women from all over the world coming face to face and, above all, meeting each other. They all confront and question the experiences they have undergone. It’s a school for overcoming oneself and one’s stereotypes. Other images of soccer, sport and the world are possible. Other referents and other incarnations are proposed. Far from the daily violence of the stadiums, far from the stands shouting racist or homophobic chants, women’s soccer conveys other values. It offers other commitments and doesn’t conjure up the same detestable images as elsewhere. Even if no one has forgotten the attack on Kheira Hamraoui, broadcasting the world’s biggest women’s soccer event is also a question of social responsibility, a political issue.

It’s an opportunity to show that a different society, a different kind of soccer, is both desirable and possible.

The 2023 World Cup is one of the keys to this change, and perhaps even a turning point for the next generation. Broadcasting the World Cup is a question that goes beyond the pitch and its visibility. It’s a trade-off between cost, profitability and medium – and long-term benefits. And not just for broadcasters.

As Fatma Samoura, FIFA General Secretary, recently said, “everyone talks about equality, parity. We would like to see these words turned into actions.”