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Women's football as a new success engine for the sports industry

The football industry has always been characterized by a significant gap between men’s and women’s competitions. A difference that is evident in the level of competitiveness, growth, and revenues. On the other hand, this gap is set to narrow over the years, especially in the Old Continent.

Women’s football is gradually finding more and more space and recognition – as it should – in terms not only of visibility in the media and stadiums but also and above all at an economic and financial level. A striking example of this new course is certainly the UEFA Champions League. As of the 2021-2022 season, the competition has introduced a new format involving a larger number of matches and, as a result, increased and guaranteed more revenue for the teams involved.

According to the commercial and audiovisual agreements signed by UEFA, the new UEFA Women’s Champions League guarantees EUR 24 million to be redistributed in favor of European women’s football: four times the previous figure. The most important aspect is the idea of using 23 percent of these 24 million as ‘solidarity payments’ to clubs that do not participate in the competition but are registered in the Women’s Champions League.

In addition, UEFA has defined and guaranteed a €400,000 bonus – dubbed the ‘entry list’ – to all clubs that qualify for the group stage. There are also some performance-related bonuses: 50,000 euros for every win and 17,000 euros for every draw in the three matches each team plays in its group, with the group winner then receiving an additional 20,000 euros. Participation in the quarter-finals guarantees a prize of €160,000, while the semifinals €320,000. Finally, winning the Women’s Champions League guarantees a match prize of €350,000. Triumphing with a clean sweep (i.e. winning all matches in the round) would bring the club €1.4 million; this is a very high figure considering that in the first ten years of the event, no prize money was guaranteed.

It is important to say that just getting into the quarter-finals for several clubs would already represent an achievement of considerable economic importance. Many clubs participating in the Women’s Champions League have an annual budget of less than EUR 400,000.

The case of USA

The growth of this movement, especially in terms of revenues (broadcasting, OTT platforms, and commercial partners), visibility, and social and economic recognition for footballers is evident in the case of the United States; a country that has always been at the forefront of the sports industry.

In early 2022, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA), and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association (USNSTPA) signed an equal pay agreement based on the idea that the men’s and women’s teams would share all World Cup earnings. In this way, US Soccer became “the first federation in the world to equalize the FIFA World Cup prize money” awarded to teams for participation in the World Cup. An agreement that has the potential to inspire and change the game and even the business of women’s football worldwide.

The USMNT earned $6.5 million by reaching the knockout stages of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while the USWNT earned $6 million in total for successive World Cup victories in 2015 and 2019: $2 million in 2015 and $4 million in 2019.  Under the US equal pay agreement, the USMNT will take half of the USWNT’s prize money in the future. This agreement has put more pressure on FIFA – which has always treated the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought – to invest (more) in women’s football not only on a solidarity principle. The reason for this is that the lack of resources for women can have a direct impact on the business of men’s football and means that women’s football is turning out to be a real money machine in this field.

The men’s World Cup in Qatar was the richest in history: the prize for the winner was $42 million and the total prize pool was $440 million, more than 14 times that of the women’s edition of the tournament.

On the other hand, the Women’s World Cup is still growing strongly: the total prize money in 2019 was $30 million, doubled from $15 million in 2015, and the winner received $4 million. FIFA has decided to expand the Women’s World Cup from 24 to 32 teams in the next event in the summer of 2023 and to double the prize money from $30 million to $60 million and – according to the latest predictions – possibly $100 million.

The UEFA Women’s Euro 2022

In general, as in men’s football, women’s competitions involving national teams are generally more lucrative than club competitions. The latest European Championship to be held in England in the summer of 2022 set new standards for women’s competitions by not only providing a prize fund that was doubled compared to the previous edition (UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 in the Netherlands provided for 8 million) but also by guaranteeing for the first time in history a benefits program for clubs.

This amount – non-existent in the world of men’s football for this purpose – consisted of a total of €4.5 million to be divided among the 16 participating European clubs to guarantee the participation of female players.

Growth of the movement

The continental event has a significant impact on the development of the women’s football movement: the first step in a project that aims to attract and involve more and more investment.

Considering the movement’s interesting growth forecasts, UEFA has drawn up – for the first time in history – the Women’s Football Business Case. This is a document that analyses the potential and the all-around challenges of the women’s football movement currently and in ten years.

 The focus immediately falls on the turnover produced by the transfer market, which has reached the €2 million mark in the 2021-2022 season. This is an impressive figure when one considers that there has never been a market related to female football players and that – as emerges from the report on the international transfer market compiled by FIFA – more than 95 percent of transfers in women’s football take place without an actual movement of money. However, the situation is changing and approaching the reality of men’s football: in 2021, there were 1,304 transfers in professional women’s football (+26.2% compared to 2020 with 1,033 and even +87% compared to 2018).

The UEFA report also revealed some important and interesting data, especially for investors and sponsors (the stakeholders of the sports industry), on the real potential of this movement. The EURO 2022 women’s tournament attracted 574,000 spectators, while the UEFA Women’s Champions League final alone attracted 91,648 viewers and TV viewers. Estimates predict as many as 328 million women’s football fans in 2033 and, as a result, the revenue generated could rise from the current 116 million to between 552 and 686 million, of which around 295 million from sponsors alone – an increase of +427.5% from the current 69 million.

FIFA report

According to the second edition of Setting the Pace: the leading benchmarking report published by FIFA, women’s football is experiencing an increase in revenue globally thanks to sponsorship, broadcasting, and merchandising deals, as well as increased fan interest. The game’s governing body’s survey on women’s football – published in October 2022 – highlights the success factors of women’s football clubs and leagues. The growth is fuelling excitement in anticipation of the next Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in the summer.

The report reveals the changes and developments that have taken place in elite women’s football since the first edition (published in May 2021), focusing on data from 30 of the top women’s football leagues and 294 clubs to pursue FIFA’s goal of accelerating the growth of women’s football globally. In this survey, club revenues were not affected by the effect of the pandemic and, as a result, thanks to growth in matchday, broadcast (+22%), and commercial and prize money sources, the 30 clubs analyzed saw their revenues grow by 33%.

It is important to highlight the impact of sponsors, who show a greater interest in the sport: the FIFA report reveals that 77% of leagues have a title sponsor, compared to 11% in 2021.

Furthermore, the women’s football product shows high growth margins, as only 7% of clubs globally recorded more than $1m in revenues from matches, broadcasts, advertising, and prizes. Investing in the sport is becoming increasingly profitable: an opportunity to engage and capture new fan segments and increase revenues for companies in other sectors (sponsors, broadcasters) as well.

There is unprecedented interest in the game, as demonstrated by the friendly match between the US and England at Wembley (almost 78,000 fans and sold out in 24 hours) and the UEFA Champions League quarter-final match at Camp Nous (91,000 fans).

Conclusions and new horizons

We are living in a period characterized by significant changes in this field and more will continue to come. The potential of women’s football is enormous, even if uncertainties remain about the sustainability of those costs that will certainly – as a natural consequence of the increase in turnover – progressively increase. It will be necessary to ensure a certain standard of quality to meet the expectations of fans and stakeholders and (increasingly) the needs of professional clubs.

In other words, it seems that the time has come to capitalize on the good things that have been built so far to ensure the growth of a football movement on the launch pad. Finding the right balance from an economic point of view will not be easy, considering how utopian it seems to be to build and preserve a system in which wealth is distributed more fairly. Avoiding the creation of economic imbalances is the key to ensuring competitiveness.

In any case, it is important to say that women’s football intends to continue promoting those principles – especially of fair play – that have made it attractive and interesting even to those who initially underestimated its impact: the messages of positive growth, inclusiveness, and gender equality that are the core values of the sport.

Valerio Mancini

Professor and Director of the Rome Business School Divulgative Research Centre. Lecturer and coordinator of the Department of Linguistic Sciences of the SSML “Armando Curcio”. He teaches at the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’, the Italian Design Institute – IDI in Milan, and the SSML Unicollege (Florence). He has been a visiting lecturer at several universities in Italy and abroad. He has worked with several international (UNODC, UNICRI, MAOC-N, and OECD) and national organizations (MISAP, MASTERY, and the Youth Committee of the Italian National UNESCO Commission). He has published several articles, reportages, and academic research; he was a foreign journalist for the Colombian newspaper ‘El Espectador’ and, since 2010, he has been the correspondent for Italy of the radio program ‘UN Analísis’. His latest publication: ‘Football & Geopolitics (Mondo Nuovo, 2021). He holds a degree in Political Science with specialized studies in International Relations and European Integration from the Catholic University of Milan. He holds several academic degrees in Italy and abroad, including an LL.M. (Master of Laws) from the University of Teramo and a Master in Economic Security, Geopolitics, and Intelligence from SIOI in Rome.