Will the 2023 Women’s World Cup be a game changer?

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The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Australia-New Zealand in July and with 32 teams competing for the first time, it’s anticipated that the tournament will become the most successful with well over with half a million tickets already sold five months ahead of the opening game.

Chief Women’s Football Officer at FIFA, Sarai Bareman outlined the thinking from the governing body as expectation grows ahead of the the competition: “We are very clear and we want this to be the biggest and most successful Women’s World Cup we’ve ever had”.

Testament to anticipation and interest in the tournament are the more than 100,000 fans expected to attend the Australia vs. Republic of Ireland Group B match which has been moved to Sydney Stadium to satisfy the unprecedented demand for tickets for a women’s game. The 20 July clash is expected to eclipse the previous record when 91,553 fans packed Camp Nou for the Women’s Champions League clash between FC Barcelona Femeni and Real Madrid in March of last year.

This trend is a far-cry from the inaugural Women’s World Cup tournaments where only 12 teams competed and attendance levels at some of the group games in Sweden (1995) struggled to hit four figures.

What are the factors that have transformed the women’s football in this 30-year-window and where is the ceiling for the game?

Growth

Investment, development programmes, commercialisation, increased media exposure and changing attitudes have all been instrumental in boosting the growth of the game.

Former England manager Hope Powell who was recently in charge of Women’s Super League side Brighton, is amazed at how much the game has developed over the past decade or so.

“I think if you look at players now in the WSL, it’s a full-time professional league. If you look at the Championship, some of those clubs are professional as well,” she said.

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Leah Williamson of Arsenal tackles Erin Cuthbert of Chelsea Catherine Ivill – The FAGetty

“There are more and more girls playing the game at all levels so the numbers are staggering actually. It’s so different to what it was over ten years ago.”

The view Stateside

The United States has always been at the forefront of the game both on a domestic level and globally with the USWNT the most successful international team of all time with four World Cup triumphs.

The game began to grow Stateside in the 70′s and 80s following the implementation of the Title IX law which allowed girls to have open access to sports and other educational programs as school administrators saw that adding soccer (football) was a cost-effective way to comply with the law as rising interest helped youth leagues swell.

Despite success on the international stage, the US have struggled to develop a strong and sustainable domestic league in the past (a problem facing many countries) with this trend appearing to have been bucked with the creation of the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League).

12 teams now compete in the competition with increased attendances and the league continues to grow thanks to media deals with CBS and Twitch.

Over the years, women’s soccer in the US has thrown up high profile global stars from Mia Hamm, Carli Lloyd through to Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. These players have become household names and it’s this high profile which has helped in attracting media celebrities to want to get in on the act. Eva Longoria, Natalie Portman and Christina Aguilera are some of the ownership team behind newcomers to the league Angel City FC that has been instrumental in the club’s early success and has prompted interest in investment in other NWSL clubs where shrewd business operators see growth and solid long-term return on investment.

Testament to this was Y. Michele Kang’s purchase of a majority interest in the Washington Spirit last year as the businesswoman out-duelled billionaire LA Dodgers and Chelsea FC owner Todd Boehly with the team now valued at over $35 million.

Equal pay

Things have been far from plain sailing in the drive to build, develop and promote women’s football with the battle for equal pay between USWNT players and US Soccer rumbling on for years before finally being resolved in 2022. Over the years, the USWNT had actually generated more income the U.S. men and had infinitely more sporting success than their male counterparts.

“A lot of it has to do with respect,” maintained US captain Becky Sauerbrunn in a recent interview about her team’s equal pay campaign. “We were doing the same work that the men are doing. We were playing on the same pitch, traveling and training and playing games, usually the same amount, if not more. Why would they get paid more than us?

Despite the USWNT campaign eventually being resolved, the issue of equal pay persists as showcased by their neighbours from Canada who are embroiled in a similar situation with their FA over general conditions and a lack of investment in the women’s game. Some other associations have been more proactive in the area with FA’s such as those of Ireland and Norway having put in place an equal pay system for all national senior team representatives.

Level playing field

With four World Cup titles to their name, the US are always firm favourites heading into any major competition but there is a slight shift away from the superpower in the women’s game. Vlatko Andonovski’s side lost two successive friendly games last year to England at Wembley and four days later to a depleted Spain side in Pamplona. Despite retaining their recent SheBelieves Cup title, the US were outplayed by Japan for much of their meeting and played out a nervy ending to their 2-1 win over Brazil.

European champions England, Spain, Germany, France and Japan are all serious contenders to lift the title with the US set for its sternest competition as other nations improve and become serious aspirants for World Cup glory.

United States forward Alex Morgan (C) raises the SheBelieves Cup trophy

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United States forward Alex Morgan (C) raises the SheBelieves Cup trophy PATRICK T. FALLONAFP

Role models

“This is a badass group, we have pink hair, purple hair, we have tattoos… white girls, black girls…yes we play soccer, but we’re so much more than that”. These were the words of Megan Rapinoe on day the USWNT celebrated their 2019 World Cup win in New York City with the veteran player now something of a role model via her social activism, lending her support to causes like equal pay, LGBTQ rights and serving to inspire young girls.

In a recent UK based poll conducted on young teenage girls by educational charity The Female Lead, Lioness stars Leah Williamson and Beth Mead came higher in the ranking than actress Emma Watson, the Duchess of Cambridge and singer Ariana Grande as role models for young women.

Leah Williamson of England

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Leah Williamson of England Naomi Baker – The FAGetty

In their outline vision strategy for the women’s game, FIFA have created a goal of having 60 million players by 2026. The success of the summer’s World Cup with an increased 32 teams will be instrumental in driving that ambition.

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