The 2023 Women’s World Cup will take place across multiple countries for the first time in the event’s history, following in the footsteps of major soccer competitions such as the 2002 FIFA men’s World Cup, and the 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2020 UEFA European Championships.
It is a testament to the continued growth in popularity and general interest in women’s soccer that it can split its showpiece tournament offering to multiple nations, both of which are eager to just be involved.
The bidding process itself highlighted the global interest in the game, with official bids coming in from Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Japan, and Colombia before Australia and New Zealand were awarded shared rights.
Building on the global growth angle, the 2023 competition will mark the first soccer World Cup in Oceania, with the previous nine competitions having been split evenly across Asia, Europe, and North America.
Women’s soccer is no longer being regarded as a secondary product, where it has often felt like a charitable token of clubs and federations to invest in.
These soccer properties are now understanding the potential power and appeal of women’s soccer and are investing more money, time, and effort into maximizing its potential.
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In recent years, there has been a notable improvement in the marketing of the women’s game, such as a greater recognition of players as elite athletes, as well as an improvement in the quality of play in matches – all by-products of this greater level of time and investment.
The 2023 World Cup stands as the first edition of the FIFA-led tournament where its broadcasting rights have been packaged as a standalone product instead of being bundled with the men’s competition. In short, women’s soccer is thriving, and brands and media outlets are all desperate to get involved.
The greater global interest and improved quality of soccer is further evidenced by the fact that the Oceania-based tournament marks the first time the World Cup has expanded from 24 to 32 teams. This replicates the size of the men’s edition, despite talk of the 2026 tournament expanding to 48 nations.
With more teams involved in the World Cup, FIFA and event organizers are committing more time and money into the success of the tournament and can do so without the risk of diluting the overall quality of the product.
Adding more teams helps profile the sport to more areas of the world, which in turn helps inspire younger generations in more markets to get involved in the game. Professional routes into the sport are no longer being limited to bigger national markets in the likes of Europe and North America.
The World Cup, as a result, will welcome eight debutant teams in 2023 – Haiti, Morocco (the first Arab team to appear) Panama, the Philippines, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia.
The greater depth in player quality globally means that we can realistically expect more competitive matches, whereas at previous tournaments there has been a noticeable gulf in class between the best teams and the rest of the field.
With that being said, there will likely still be some big scorelines when the likes of those aforementioned debutant teams face powerhouse nations such as England, USA, and Germany. Nevetheless, the tournament expansion is a necessary move to further promote the game to new territories.
It also offers smaller nations a chance to compete at the top level of the game and experiences which have historically been difficult to forge, which in turn will aid the development of standards in these nations.
With more games on offer, it seems almost inevitable that this year’s World Cup will again break records for attendance figures. This optimism comes despite the tournament arriving in a new continent, away from traditional locations where fan travel is more of a guarantee in Europe and North America.
The current record for the event came in France 2019, where just over 1 million fans watched the live action across 52 matches, hitting an average of 21,065 per game.
Only two matches fell below the 10,000 mark, whilst the final broke the single-match record at the event, with 57,900 fans watching. The stadium capacities in Australia and New Zealand range between 18,435 and 83,500, meaning there is no structural reason why these figures cannot be beaten.
The final will be played at the Sydney Olympic Stadium, which has the largest potential capacity (83,500) providing an opportunity for the tournament to smash the single-game World Cup record this year.
An area where an increase on the 2019 numbers is perhaps less of a certainty is TV viewership. This is due to the time difference between Australia and New Zealand and the biggest soccer markets.
Whilst all England group games have been afforded the later scheduling (between 9.30AM and 12PM BST), matches will be broadcast between 1AM and 11AM throughout the competition, meaning it is hardly being aired at prime time.
The same issue surrounds the US market, where the most successful team in the event’s history and defending champions will have their group matches aired at 3AM and (two games at) 9PM local Eastern Daylight Time. This means that those on the American east coast will have all matches shown between 8PM and 6AM local time.
FIFA has made good strides in contributing to the evolution of women’s soccer, as previously stated, with the expansion of more teams and taking the game to new markets. In March 2023, it went further by announcing its plans to bridge the gap to the men’s game when it comes to tournament prize money.
These plans include an aim to offer equal prize money between the World Cup equivalents by 2027. The 2023 competition has already seen a huge increase in the overall prize pool from the 2019 event, jumping from $30 million to $110 million.
How FIFA plans to distribute the same winnings remains to be seen, but the most recent 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar offered a total prize pool of $440 million, meaning there will have to be a huge jump between the next tournament editions.
Despite all the positive steps taken by FIFA to support women’s sporting growth, there remains despairing evidence that it still does not fully understand everything that is needed to support the women’s game.
One of the biggest own goals scored by FIFA in this regard came in early February when the organization announced Visit Saudi as a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup.
Saudi Arabia as a state has been a huge investor in global sport over the past five years and there have been many voiced concerns around this investment being used as a means of sportswashing, used to deflect from ongoing human rights abuses by the state.
These groups, as well as many leading federations, organizations, and players themselves, denounced the partnership as a disgrace. Away from the inflated price likely paid by Visit Saudi to partner with the event, it seems incomprehensible that nobody at the organization understood the negative connotations which were attached, particularly against a women’s sporting competition.
Despite some small efforts by the Saudi government in recent years to address the gender imbalance nationally, there remain big issues around the position of women’s rights in the country.
The nation ranked within the top 10 countries in the Global Gender Gap report published by the World Economic Forum.
Women were only legally allowed to drive cars themselves in 2018, whilst there are numerous examples of situations where women still require a man’s approval to do things like marry, have an abortion, or leave a domestic abuse shelter.
Their secondary class status in national society is further illustrated by the restrictions faced when it comes to clothing and visual appearance in public, as well as claims of continued gender segregation in some public places and in certain workplaces.
Reports have recently emerged that FIFA is planning to drop the Visit Saudi partnership amid the mass public backlash, but it still feels like a massive step back in FIFA building its reputation and aiding the advancement of women’s soccer.
A second pre-World Cup own goal by FIFA came in early March when it announced Brazilian supermodel, Adrianna Lima, as its first global ambassador of the tournament.
Irrespective of how knowledgeable or supportive of women’s soccer Lima may be, it feels like a missed opportunity for FIFA to get it right in showcasing that the sport is open to everyone and anyone.
Rather than being judged on appearance, young girls need to be inspired to follow their interests and understand that these opportunities are available to them.
The appointment of Lima, on the face of it, just sends out the wrong message as to how FIFA views women in sport and how it wants to market the 2023 World Cup.
Image: David Rogers/Getty Images