For years, women’s football was something UEFA offered as a bonus to companies seeking sponsorship deals with the men’s game. Next week he has the chance to prove that he is no longer a publicity stunt.
Euro 2022, which kicks off in England on Wednesday and runs until the end of the month, is expected to set audience records for women’s soccer broadcasts, as well as attendances at the 10 stadiums that will host the 31 matches.
UEFA expects the tournament to generate revenue of more than €60 million, almost four times the amount of Euro 2017 in the Netherlands, driven by higher ticket sales as well as the increasing value of media and commercial rights.
The tournament caps a banner 12 months for women’s football that has attracted bigger audiences, more lucrative broadcast deals and higher-profile sponsors, helping to reverse years of neglect by clubs and football’s governing bodies.
“There is a real shift,” said Yvonne Harrison, chief executive of the UK Women in Football campaign. “People watch women’s sports. . . if we can convert the people who are excited about the women’s euro to the rest of the game, that will be huge.”
But the momentum generated over the past two years also brings pressure to ensure the tournament builds on it, especially as it faces no competition for eyeballs from the FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar in November.
Spain’s Alexia Putelas, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and England’s Lauren Hemp are among the star players tournament organizers are betting will draw crowds.
The signs so far are encouraging. Fans have already bought 500,000 tickets, according to the English Football Association, compared to a total of 240,000 sold for the Euro 2017 tournament. More than 250 million people worldwide could watch the tournament, according to an estimate by consultancy firm EY, up from 178 million in 2017 .
In a sign of the injection of money into women’s football over the past two years, the tournament is the first in which UEFA pays clubs to release players to compete for their countries.
Amid the excitement ahead of Wednesday’s first leg between England and Austria, however, there are reminders that the commercial development of women’s football remains in its infancy compared to the men’s game.
UEFA has doubled the total prize pool for the tournament to €16 million. In contrast, the organization allocated €331 million to participating national team associations in the Euro 2020 men’s tournament.
But for Karen Carney, former England star and now pundit, the most impressive feature is how far the game has come.
“When I first started, there was no money there [women’s] game,” she said. “We’ve made it go from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle,” referring to how the growing audience brings in money, which in turn helps the game reach more people.
With England hosting its first women’s football tournament since 2005 and the national team among the favourites, expectations are high for the success it will bring to the game in the host nation.
Tickets for the final at Wembley Stadium are sold out, meaning they will just fall short of the record 91,000 who attended the Nou Camp in March to see Barcelona take on Real Madrid in the Women’s Champions League quarter-final.
“This summer’s UEFA Women’s Euros will be a game-changer for women’s football in England, with the sport already on an upward trajectory,” said Sue Campbell, FA Women’s Director of Football and a member of the House of Lords.
The prospect of deepening interest in the English game comes after a seismic 12 months for the sport. In December 2021, Barclays agreed a £30 million, three-year extension to its sponsorship of the Women’s Super League and Championship in England.
More directly helping to build an audience, the BBC and Sky Sports in March 2021 struck a deal to broadcast the WSL, the first time the FA has sold media rights separately from the men’s game.
“Once one [sponsor] came, then you start to get the domino effect,” Carney said. “The game has always been very good. . . the thing that really made a huge difference was the look and feel of the game, how it aired, how people wrote about it. It’s in the pub talk.”
Payments group Visa, sportswear brands Adidas and Nike and brewer Heineken are among the companies sponsoring Euro 2022. Visa says its role in growing the women’s game falls within its commitment to “fostering access and inclusion”.
“Social impact and business objectives are no longer mutually exclusive,” said Visa UK managing director Mandy Lamb.
The pressure on the tournament to maintain the game’s momentum is only added to by the wider economic environment, with consumers facing shrinking incomes in countries where women’s football is looking to grow.
But Harrison, from the Women in Football UK campaign, is urging companies to take a longer-term view.
“People say there’s a limited amount of money, but we’ve seen a lot of progress in the women’s game, a lot of interest and exposure,” Harrison said. “Now is the time to invest, don’t wait five years: it will be worth much more.” Plus, supporting the women’s game is the right thing to do.”