It wasn’t that long ago that female football players had to fight to find a patch of grass they could play on, let alone someone happy to pay them for their trouble. Between 1921 and 1971, the British Football Association (FA) prohibited women from using the same grounds as professional men’s teams. According to the FA, the sport was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
A similar ban in Germany wasn’t lifted until 1970. Soon thereafter, in 1972, the United States passed Title IX, a law banning organizations from receiving funds from the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sex. In turn, universities were forced to spend as much on women’s sport as on men’s. Thus began the long rise of women’s football in the country.
Nearly half a century later, and women’s football seems finally on the brink of going mainstream. Television records have tumbled at this summer’s World Cup in France, with nearly 10 million viewers countrywide tuning in to watch the opening match against South Korea- almost half of all French people watching TV at the time. Some 6 million Brits watched England beat Scotland 2–1, and a similar number of Germans celebrated a 1–0 victory over Spain.
The newfound popularity of this year’s World Cup reflects two trends: first, the quality of play in the women’s game has improved significantly and, second, money is starting to flow in the direction of women’s teams. Professional careers for aspiring sportspeople are more viable than ever before.
Moreover, these two trends are linked and build on each other. Until recently, female players received substantially less coaching than their male counterparts; this year’s tournament has built a reputation for showcasing superb team moves and outstanding goalkeeping. The number of passes in an average game has increased ten percent since the last tournament in 2015, a rise that exceeds any in major men’s competitions over the same period.
The improvement in play and increase in viewership has predictably caught the eye of the more forward-thinking sponsors. In the past, rights to a women’s football team or tournament have been bundled as part of a broader package with male counterparts. “Commercial partners and broadcasters have tended to primarily focus on, and value, men’s clubs or competitions, with the women’s game not valued on its stand-alone merits,” says Izzy Wray of Deloitte.
In 2017, however, European football authority UEFA unbundled the region’s rights to women’s competitions, opening up a pathway for brands with a specific interest or market to enter the scene. Given the market saturation of men’s football, the opportunities in women’s football are comparatively countless.
The result is already an impressive step in the right direction for women’s football: Visa now spends as much on promoting the women’s World Cup as it did on the men’s competition. The total amount of prize money at the tournament is now $30 million, twice as much as last time.
In the grand scheme of things, fifty years is hardly an extortionate period of time for such radical change in female professional sport. Thanks to the collective efforts of sports authorities and brands today, the day that women’s football becomes a mainstream form of entertainment appears imminent.