The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 was the biggest in history and generated a whopping US$570 million in revenue, meaning the tournament broke even for the first time. It also broke multiple records for TV viewership with an expected global audience of more than 2 billion.
But while the various women's teams smashed it and inspired millions, there was still a notable sponsorship shortfall compared to the men's game.
Despite having more sponsors than ever, the 2023 Women’s World Cup expected sponsorship revenue of US$300 million is significantly less than the US$1.7 billion raised for the men's World Cup tournament in Qatar last year, according to analysis provided to Bloomberg
by analytical firm Omdia.
"Unfortunately, women’s football (& sport) have still been underestimated by brands with it being somewhat of a case of women’s sport needing to ‘prove’ itself to potential sponsors rather than many brands seeing the opportunity with the women’s game," says Rebecca Sowden, founder of women's sport agency, Team Heroine.
It is becoming evident, with the recent World Cup serving as a shining example, that the women's game is developing at such a rate that many brands aren't keeping up with the opportunity or that its full value isn't being reflected by the industry or in out-of-date data.
"When compared with men’s sport, research shows people consider women’s sport more progressive, more relatable and more inspiring which are all desirable traits for brands to sit alongside," adds Sowden. "On top of that, we know that fans of women’s sport reward brands that back women’s sport with twice the consideration and intent to purchase than what we see on the men’s side."
“We know that fans of women’s sport reward brands that back women’s sport with twice the consideration and intent to purchase than what we see on the men’s side.” - Rebecca Sowden
As it stands, it will probably take several more cycles for the women's game to catch up in terms of sponsorship dollars because the men's World Cup has been around for more than 60 years. However, the fact that eight new teams were able to compete in this year's event shows that those nations are making greater investments in youth programmes in order to produce quality athletes. With that broader base, the game becomes more widely accessible to fans who wish to participate in the sport and purchase merchandise.
"Value the assets that the women’s game has delivered not always against the men’s game, but rather in relation to the growing momentum around the sport," says Thayer Lavielle, executive vice president at The Collective, the women's division of sports talent agency Wasserman.
In a recent study, Wasserman found that female athletes drive twice the social media engagement than male athletes. Twice!
"We also understand that 72% of women’s sports fans are interested in what these athletes are doing off the field, so huge opportunity awaits brands who create captivating engagements with this loyal fanbase," adds Lavielle. "Lastly, it is proven that when brands engage with professional women’s sports, fans are 54% more aware of sponsors and exhibit 45% more purchase intent."
Brands still missing out on an open goal
When it comes to female athletes, some of the biggest brands in the world continue to make questionable decisions. The 2023 Women's World Cup was sadly no exception.
In terms of merchandise, data shared
ahead of the final by the London Stock Exchange and Centric Pricing, showed that globally, Adidas had sold out of 24 per cent of its inventory for its sponsored teams competing at the tournament, while rival sportswear giant Nike had sold 12 per cent of its merchandise. Locally, in the home markets of the two finalists, 13 per cent of Adidas’ Spain gear had sold out, while English fans had purchased 17 per cent of Nike’s Lionesses apparel. However, Nike (and other brands) certainly missed an opportunity to increase this number.
"Throughout the World Cup, fans, players and pundits have called upon Nike to produce a replica version of Mary Earps’ goalkeeper shirt," says Shane O’Sullivan, managing director, Prism Sport + Entertainment. "This isn’t just an England or Nike problem. Their was an outcry in Australia over the Matilda’s kit and in addition to this Adidas made the decision not to sell goalkeeper shirts, while fans outside Brazil have reported struggling to buy a shirt with ‘Marta’ on the back for what was her sixth World Cup."
In fact, The Lioness’ kit was unveiled by Nike in April 2023, with images of Earps cut out of the promotional material. Nike’s decision not to sell goalkeeper shirts is based on their commercial strategy, but Earp’s Manchester United Adidas WSL shirt sold out last season and was the third best-selling shirt for the club overall. After receiving huge backlash on this decision, Nike have now put a limited run of select goalkeeper shirts on sale.
"The instances with Nike not producing certain replica kits and the ongoing fallout within Spain shows that while the world is waking up and giving women’s sports more awareness, it is not yet treated on the level playing field it should be," adds O'Sullivan.
Interest in the 2023 Women’s World Cup was at fever pitch
While brands are still slow to catch up with the popularity of women's sport and the opportunities that it offers, progress on and off the pitch is being made. The 2023 Women’s World Cup was the first World Cup where FIFA unbundled its commercial rights from the men’s tournament, a necessary step along the path to gender equality and in growing women’s soccer both commercially and from a participation and development perspective.
"While we can’t speak to the decision-making of brands, we can confidently say that the opportunity for them to reach highly engaged audiences through sponsorship of major women’s sports competitions is highly attractive," says Jon Stainer, global GM at Nielsen Sports. "Nielsen Fan Insights data indicates that 65% of global sports fans agree that female athletes can be role models in society. Aligning brands with female athletes and the competitions and leagues in which they play in can represent a major marketing opportunity and our data suggests that commercial revenues associated with women’s sports will continue to grow."
Furthermore, 69% of Women’s World Cup fans believe brands are more appealing when they participate in sports sponsorships according to Nielsen Fan Insights data.
"That’s a full 15 points higher than the general population," adds Stainer. "It’s important for brands to consider that positive consumer feelings tend to translate into concrete actions such as purchases."
Nielsen Sports conducted an analysis of the most influential athletes at the Women’s World Cup ahead of the competition and came away with some interesting insights. Alisha Lehmann, the Swiss forward who plays for Aston Villa ranked number one on the list. Even before the start of the World Cup, her Instagram following had increased by 75% in the last 12 months to more than 13.4 million. This made her the most popular Swiss sports person on the platform—even more followed than tennis legend Roger Federer.
Before the competition started, Alexia Putellas from the tournament winning Spain team, had grown her following by 65% over the past year. Arsenal forward Alessia Russo increased hers by 280%, and VfL Wolfsburg and Germany’s Jule Brand’s following went up by an eye-popping 517%, the highest growth by a player in Nielsen’s top-10 most influential players.
"And while some female athletes may currently have smaller media reach than some of their male counterparts, they often deliver higher engagement with their social media content translating into considerable marketing opportunities for brands," says Stainer. "In our list of the top 10 breakthrough athletes on Instagram at the Women’s World Cup, all 10 of them scored higher engagement rates than half of the creators on Instagram."
"While some female athletes may currently have smaller media reach than some of their male counterparts, they often deliver higher engagement with their social media content translating into considerable marketing opportunities for brands." - Jon Stainer
A push for equity and consistency
Women have historically been underestimated in the workforce due to decades of injustices that have established a systemically sexist society, and athletes are no exception. Professional women athletes earn 82% of their income from opportunities off the field and yet only 10% of available sponsorship dollars are allotted to them. But as more qualified agents get into the game to represent women appropriately and negotiate what is fair, that disparity of market value begins to narrow.
"Fans of women’s sports are proven to be more loyal, affluent, educated and younger, so the opportunity for brands to reach this highly engaged crowd is very real," says Lavielle. "Lastly, it is proven that when brands engage with professional women’s sports, fans are 54% more aware of sponsors and exhibit 45% more purchase intent."
"When brands engage with professional women’s sports, fans are 54% more aware of sponsors and exhibit 45% more purchase intent." - Thayer Lavielle
In terms of fairness, what will change the game for women's football?
On a global scale, the Women’s World Cup was absolutely a big moment. China recorded the highest TV audience for a single game at this year's World Cup with 53.9 million tuning in for their loss to England. Continued expansion and the astonishing spread of fan interaction were observed in the more developed countries like the United States, England, and Sweden. Supporters were behind their teams in the way we're used to seeing only in men's football, from families to diehard football fans.
Alongside the spike in fan interest, sponsorship for future women's sporting events is expected to follow suit.
"For me, the biggest factor is how it entered the cultural zeitgeist and how the World Cup has exposed new fans including marketers to women’s sport via either physically being there, talking to their Uber driver or seeing it covered on pub screens and front pages," says Sowden. "Once people ‘experience’ women’s sport they tend to ‘get it’ more so I’m hopeful that marketers will start to understand the unique opportunity and connection that women’s sport offers."
However, Sowden adds that we are still a far way off parity and marketers need to better understand the nuances of women’s sport sponsorship and set metrics and activations relevant to the women’s game to fully unleash the power of women’s sport sponsorship.
Although there is a significant trend in favour of gender equality in sports, progress is being made at varying rates globally. Through the historic Equal Pay for Team USA Act (EPTUSA), which was enacted in January 2023, nations like the U.S. are leading the way. This mandates equal pay and benefits in their sport for all athletes who represent the United States in international sporting tournaments including the World Cup, Olympics, and Paralympics, regardless of gender.
Moreover, based on the significant interest in the Women’s World Cup, growing fandom around women’s sports in general and the undeniable value of women athletes as influencer marketers, it's likely we are going to see the sponsorship market grow.
"It’s possible that women’s sport properties could be an even better long-term investment than their male equivalents based on more opportunity for audiences to develop and time for sponsorship and media rights to increase in value," says Stainer. "Taking this into consideration, the investment community is starting to make some plays. For example, Monarch Collective
and Mercury 13
are two organisations building investment strategies around women’s sports with football leading the charge."
This World Cup was a turning point for women's football since there were so many nations represented with truly elite programmes, while others made significant investments in the sport at home. This World Cup met all of the requirements for intense on-field action, which increases attendance and attention in sports like football.
"More and more brands will begin investing which, in turn, will help drive pay and better facilities," says Lavielle. "But it’s ultimately equity and consistency that will change the game for women’s football."