Why is FIFA’s push for the semi-annual World Cup hurting the women’s game?

Why is FIFA's push for the semi-annual World Cup hurting the women's game?

FIFA and its president Gianni Infantino insist that their initial plan to host the World Cup every two years will be good for football. The problem is that when they say that, they seem to be talking about the men’s side of sports. As usual with FIFA, the women’s competition was an afterthought, although the semi-annual World Cup plan may have had the most impact.

First, let’s be clear about what the biennial World Cup means: It’s the World Cup every year, for both men and women, if FIFA makes it. The result is an unprecedented crowded schedule and there will always be Men’s World Cup Qualifiers or Men’s World Cup Qualifiers. When will women’s football be central? Will women’s football enjoy being the biggest singles league again at some point?

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FIFA has campaigned so hard to convince everyone that the semi-annual World Cup is a good idea, even asking former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger and former USWNT manager (and now NWSL coach, San Diego Wave FC) Jill Ellis to make it happen. Urgently. The organization has released economic studies that are expected to generate an additional $4.4 billion for the World Cup in its first four-year cycle alone, which will drop to $16 million in additional solidarity payments per FIFA member during that period. FIFA also reported that most fans around the world support an increased frequency of the Men’s World Cup (63.7% of those surveyed) and the Women’s World Cup (52.4%).

But what FIFA has not been paying much attention to, at least not publicly, is how the biannual World Cup plan would take women’s football out of the mainstream sporting scene and weaken the Women’s World Cup itself.

More World Cup means fewer windows for something else

UEFA, which has been outspoken against the idea from the start, put together its study that predicted that both World Cups would lose viewers if it became a more regular and less special event – but they both lost the Women’s World Cup. Triple the viewership Men’s Championship. After all, the Women’s World Cup will always face a big, well-known men’s tournament on this proposed schedule – a tough competition for the attention-seeking ladies.

Infantino now says that the men’s European Championships will change every four years to every two years under his plan, which means that the Women’s World Cup will always compete with the European Men’s Championship in a calendar year. But this comes on top of the men’s World Cup qualifiers, which in the past have lasted 10 months in the European Union and more than two years for CONCACAF. It will also be programmed on top of the South American Championships in South America, which may also need to be converted into a two-year cycle, and events already held twice a year, including the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Africa Cup of Nations.

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Meanwhile, the Women’s European Championship – which in 2017 reached the highest viewership ever on television and last set a record – should share the spotlight with the men’s World Cup. As a result, the UEFA study expects European women’s sales to fall by more than half, and media and sponsorship rights to lose value dramatically. The growth of a high-quality women’s tournament with huge potential suddenly slowed down.

This wouldn’t be unique to Europe either. Other regional tournaments around the world will struggle to find an open window to host a tournament, not to mention a window when not to distract from the high-profile men’s tournament. As the fan culture surrounding women’s football continues to grow, the men’s leagues on a crowded calendar will take over the show that would have gone to the women’s leagues.

FIFA will of course indicate the additional revenue that the new World Cup will bring, and promise to spend the money on the development of women’s football around the world. Here’s the catch: FIFA is already generating so much revenue – its latest reported cash reserve was $2.74 billion – and has already failed to implement its first-ever women’s football strategy, which set lofty goals to increase women’s participation in the sport, but delivers little. Through metrics, budgets or concrete action plans.

As rich as FIFA is, it does a poor job of distributing money when needed – countries big and small get the same cuts regardless of need – and a worse job of calculating how that money is actually spent.

“Just a mandate… FIFA enforces everything”

If FIFA is interested in the development and growth of the women’s game, there is one World Cup that the Board of Directors can add: the FIFA Women’s Club World Cup. After all, women’s national competitions around the world are still developing, a byproduct of a sporting scene in which women’s football was virtually banned in countries such as England, Germany and Brazil until the 1980s.

These tournaments are how the game grows and turns professional. The club game builds grassroots fan support and how a football career can become a viable path for women around the world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that when nations invest in their domestic competitions, success on the international stage often follows, as we have seen in the Netherlands, England and Australia.

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Gap Marcotti and Julian Lorenz discuss the possibility of FIFA agreeing to the World Cup every two years.

And the Women’s World Cup itself is still growing. It will go from 24 teams to 32 teams in 2023 when Australia and New Zealand host, and we are likely to see many results, such as the infamous US defeat of 13-0 over Thailand in 2019. These skewed results, which are not unusual in the role of groups were Participation in the Women’s World Cup as a result of the huge Gulf investment in their women’s programs from these different countries.

American star Megan Rapinoe was heavily criticized for celebrating the goals she scored in that 13-0 result, but in the mixed zone, after speaking to reporters, she hit her head: “There are some here. Teams have only played a few games since the last World Cup.” Or just in the qualifiers. It’s embarrassing not only for the federations, but also for FIFA. They just asked for it. They impose all kinds of things.”

Rapinoe was right. FIFA can take steps to ensure that member associations take an interest in and invest in women’s programmes. It may require associations to run active national teams already playing matches, or even invest in women’s domestic competitions. It may be necessary to spend money and resources on specific measures to enhance women’s play, and then verify that this actually happens. FIFA has the ability to prioritize the women’s game, rather than viewing it as an afterthought.

Instead, FIFA just wants to increase the burden of resources that countries have to spend trying to qualify and participate in the Women’s World Cup without any additional incentive to do so. Some may not even bother. If the leagues get away with just paying attention to their men’s team, they probably will.

The Nigerian women’s team organized a sit-in to protest the unpaid bonuses owed by their federation in 2019. Some women in the Brazilian national team resigned in 2019 to protest the lack of support for their federation after years of complaints. The Australian women’s team went on strike in 2015 to demand higher wages from their union. Players from Trinidad and Tobago begged for donations on social media in 2018 so they could participate in the World Cup qualifiers. And so on and so forth.

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Let’s take Jamaica’s first Women’s World Cup qualifier in 2019 – it only came after Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, spent her own money to revive the team after the association stopped funding it. It was, of course, intended as a victory for the Reggie Girls, but it was also a failure of a system that allowed unions to ignore female programming.

FIFA could incentivize unions to show more interest in the Women’s World Cup by raising the prize money for all entries, but so far they have refused to do so, although there is no clear justification for this.

For the previous World Cup, FIFA offered 13 times more prizes for the men’s tournament than the women’s tournament, but if you ask FIFA why 13 times specifically, it’s inexplicable. The 13th Men’s World Cup doesn’t generate double the revenue – media rights and sponsorships for the men’s and women’s tournaments are sold together as one package, and I haven’t tried to figure out how many women’s event was worth where the prize money was distributed. The men’s World Cup does not attract 13 times more TV viewers – the last time it was only about 4 times. Tickets for the men’s World Cup were not sold 13 times – the last time it was about 3 times.

In fact, when FIFA doubled its prize money for the Women’s World Cup from 2015 to 2019, it significantly increased the prize money for men, while widening the gap between the men’s and women’s tournaments rather than narrowing it. Given the women’s tournament’s recent record growth, it looks like the gap should narrow.

It’s hard to see FIFA’s logic in widening the gap unless you consider the possibility that FIFA doesn’t care as much about women’s football as you say. It’s really hard to give FIFA the benefit of the doubt after years of treating the women’s game as a secondary concern.

From the artificial turf at the World Cup to the former FIFA president’s comments that women’s shorts can help the sport, to the blatant lack of investment, women’s football has suffered the treatment of FIFA that men’s football has not. Unfortunately, this plan for the semi-annual World Cup, which ignores the potential negative impact on women’s play, is the latest example.

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