Just a few years ago, pre-season training for Stoke City’s women sometimes included painting the dugout and removing litter from the pitch at a former working men’s club in central England.
Now, in line with a global boom in women’s football, they are being paid, receive instructions from a full-time coach, enjoy the same multi-million pound training facilities as the men – and no longer moonlight as rubbish collectors.
“In such a short time, we’ve seen massive changes,” said 24-year-old midfielder Molly Holder, in her third campaign at Stoke. “We go early to use the gym, we have access to the physio, 20 minutes in the video analysis room, maybe some darts and food with team mates. We feel part of Stoke.”
That professionalisation has underpinned the success of the ninth Women’s World Cup, which ended on Sunday with Spain beating England by a single goal in a final that pitted the two European countries with the strongest domestic leagues against each other.
Attracting record crowds and television audiences, the tournament buoyed hopes that the women’s game can start to bridge the yawning financial gap that exists with the men.
According to consultancy Deloitte, the women’s teams of the highest revenue-generating clubs in world football accounted for only 0-1% of total club revenues, in the 2021/22 season.
Spain’s captain Olga Carmona – the scorer of Sunday’s deciding goal – plays for Real Madrid, where the women’s team generated revenues of 1.4 million euros in the 2021/22 season, according to Deloitte.
That compared with the Real Madrid men’s teams revenues of 713.8 million euros in the same season.
In broadcast rights, the women’s game has struggled to compete. The FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, threatened Europe’s “Big 5” nations with a TV World Cup blackout unless their broadcasters upped their offers.
According to FIFA, broadcasters from Britain, Spain, France, Germany and Italy offered only $1 million to $10 million for the right to show World Cup games. That compared with the $100 million to $200 million paid for the men’s tournament.
“We had to arm-wrestle some people to take the TV deals,” said Jill Ellis, the coach who led the United States to back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019 and who now leads FIFA’s technical committee.
The question now is whether the vast audiences that tuned in to the World Cup can lead to larger broadcast rights and sponsorship deals for national sides and the domestic clubs that are needed to sustain interest outside of major tournaments.
“Women’s football domestically is still in start-up phase,” Lisa Parfitt, director of Women in Football and co-founder of sports marketing agency The Space Between, told Reuters of the game in general. “So it’s a matter of investing.”
England’s success in Euro 2022, when 17.4 million people tuned in to watch the Lionesses beat Germany in extra time, has shown what can happen when a team’s success becomes part of the national conversation. The viewing figures did not include those watching in big fan parks and pubs.
Players like Jill Scott, Chloe Kelly and Ella Toone have built up huge social media followings and signed multiple brand sponsorships, keeping their names and the game in the spotlight.
Kieran Maguire, at the University of Liverpool, said the England national side then surpassed expectations by selling out Wembley stadium twice for matches outside major tournaments.
But he said the domestic Women’s Super League (WSL) had a tougher challenge as it, like other sports, has to contend with the monster that is the men’s Premier League, which dominates the media and broadcast schedules as the world’s best players line up for the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Still, attendances at the WSL rose by 170% on the year before to an average of 5 222, with a record of 47 367 fans set by Arsenal. The number of women registering to play soccer in general rose by 16%.
The women’s game also has something different to offer.
According to Simon Chadwick at the Skema business School in France, major brands have always advertised around the men’s game because they know they will reach millions of viewers and make a return on their investment.
But both Chadwick and Carlota Planas, a Spain-based women’s’ football agent representing several World Cup players, argued that the women’s game now offers the values of tenacity, resilience and togetherness, which can appeal to advertisers.
“(The players) have had to fight a lot, overcome many barriers, break many ceilings, to get to where they are,” Planas told Reuters. “That dream, that enthusiasm, that we have fought for and achieved, is what excites people and makes them hooked.”
Back in Stoke that determination is on display, both among the newly semi-professional women’s team and on myriad pitches in nearby villages where eager parents cheer on their daughters.
“Hopefully, after this World Cup, more and more people are going to wake up on a Sunday and think ‘Our local team are playing, let’s go and watch them’,” Holder said.