Women’s football is growing fast. A report analyses its potential

This past was a summer of broken records for women’s football. On a global scale, it has been already progressing in the last few years. Now, the attention to the sport is advancing at a dazzling pace. More viewers, more engagement, and more money are circulating in, at least, major events. And many, from brands to marketing companies, are noticing the trend.

Even if the comparison to the massive numbers of men’s football is still uneven*, unquestionably, this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup made many heads turn towards the female part of the spot. Fans, sponsors, and media: as many as ever are following the growing trend.

To give some context, according to a (quite controversial) statement released by Fifa’s president, the 2023 Women’s World Cup generated 570 million US dollars in revenue, breaking even for the first time this year. In terms of attendance, between July and August, almost 2 million fans entered the ten stadiums in Australia and New Zealand to follow one of the 64 matches. A number that has abundantly surpassed Fifa’s ticket sales target for the tournament of 1.5 million. It also crashed every previous record of live attendance of former Women’s Football World Cups recorded in Canada in 2015 (1.35 million), China in 2007 (1.19 million) and France (2019, 1.35 million).

Broken records

Thirty-two teams were admitted this year (a first) compared to the 24 of the last event. Yet, the median attendance per match also significantly increased; each game played during the 2019 Cup in France averaged 21,756 fans. This summer, that number reached 30,911. Another first, in terms of highest attendance for female OR male football matches, was the peak number of attendees for a game in New Zealand; before this summer, the biggest crowd in a stadium for a football match was 37,034, reached in Wellington during a men’s World Cup playoff New Zealand vs Peru. By the end of August, six of the nine games played at Auckland’s Eden Park had broken the 40,000 mark.

It can be argued that live events give a local perspective – even though, let’s be realistic, the potential reach, costs and logistics of attending an event in Australia and New Zealand cannot compare to those of a World Cup held in the centre of Europe. To give a more complete look, let’s consider the number of viewers that followed the tournament online/on TV worldwide, starting from the hosting country. 40% of Australian viewers followed the inaugural match of the Matildas (the national female football team), and a peak of 11.15 million watched the semi-final against the English team (the Lionesses.)

In China, 53.9 million viewers watched the country’s defeat to England. The US versus the Netherlands game was watched by 7.93 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo. In the UK, the finale peaked at 12 million viewers, for an average of 13.3 million – the new record in the country for a women’s football game. In Spain, the match that saw La Roja‘s victory had an average of 5.6 million viewers, peaking at 7.38 million.

It is a gold rush—Fifty’s report

The number of spectators, both in the stadiums or on TV/online, already shows and incredible change in the making. The media coverage, companies’ interest and the consequent greater public of female sports (with football first and foremost) is evolving rapidly. “Just this year, we have gone from something that, I felt, we were advocating for to something that is actually happening,” said Simon Shaw, founder and CEO of Fifty, a UK company that, through network science and AI, analyses billions of data and to offer audience understanding based on human behaviour. Introducing their report «The Immediate Opportunity in Women’s Football», published in July, he commented, “Women in sport (and in football above all) is a major global force. And I think it will have a huge positive societal as well as practical impact.”

Before this summer, the interest and coverage of women’s sports were already growing. But, the buzz around this football World Cup and the discussions about women’s sports as an investment opportunity mounted, generating an incentive to explore further. Judith Clegg, Board Advisor at Fifty, commented: “In the last year, we have been digging into that in quite some depth because we spotted and saw the massive opportunity for women’s sport. We think it has been undervalued.”

The report came out in a time of global momentum for women’s football especially, with no sign of slowing down. As the UK’s Google Trend data for the past five years clearly show.  Above all the others, it “is growing faster than any major male challenger sport.” The Women’s Super League (WSL) has almost twice the number of followers of most other major male golf, sailing, or basketball competitions. Moreover, the Lionesses records the highest engagement – more even than any male challenger sport – with spikes around major international events.

Followers, engagement and interests

Women’s fans are not necessarily women’s sports fans. Interestingly, women’s sports still have more male audience members than female. Yet, compared to men’s sports, women make up a relatively large part of the audience that follows female sports. “Per-capita – they underline from Fifty – there is far more female engagement with women’s sport than with men’s sport. Compare the Lionesses with the England men’s team: (for the first) around 38% of the audience is female. While it is 20% (for the latter).” And there is an even starker contrast considering the numbers of WSL’s female fans (50%) and those following the UK Premier League (15%).

The evidence gathered from major social platforms (Instagram, Facebook, X – former Twitter -, TikTok and YouTube) illustrate the value of the “female reach” for brands. They are powerful consumers from a commercial perspective but can also impact societies. In fact, according to the report, women’s sports collect far more positive sentiment than men’s. The underlying positivity surrounding the sport represents an important element for brands and sponsors, but it also drives constructive social outcomes. Its “positive, vibrant culture” offers an alternative to the harsher environment around men’s football. “Women’s football – confirms the report – doesn’t have the same tribalism as the men’s game. Its influencers are more mainstream, less controversial and have far fewer haters.”

Positive sentiment

The interest, the money generated, and the prizes offered to teams and athletes (even if the difference with male players is still enormous) are all growing. And so is the potential reach. In the end, it translates into more investments and greater visibility for female players on the one hand. And on the other, in an expanding engagement of younger generations of fans and players worldwide.

Today, the US is the only country where more women than men say they play football. But according to a survey carried out by Statista, Mexico has the highest percentage of women kicking the round ball (22%), followed by Brazil (17%), the UK and the US (10%). And even if the three big countries in the EU remain under double digits, with France at 8%, Germany at 7%, and Italy at 5%, the interest is rising. Not only but undoubtedly boosted by the World Cup, in Spain, for example, almost 100,000 women and girls are registered as players, with a 55% rise since 2014.

Simon Shaw concedes, “We will see more female athletes progressing through different pipelines as the opportunity to compete, and the pathways to compete become clearer. Because it all comes down to the commercial side effect, the funding available, and I like to think that more money coming into the sports will drive change in creating (more possibility) to progress. Again, these things will happen in a relatively long time. But I see no reason why this wouldn’t directly connect.”

* To give some examples: In the 2022 World Cup, Argentina received $ 42 million; this year, the prize for the winning Spanish female team was $ 10.5 million. Professional male footballers earn $ 60k on average, while their female counterparts earn $ 14k.

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