Before it has even finished, the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has been hailed as the most successful women’s tournament in history. With record-breaking attendance and predicted viewership of two billion (doubling the 2019 viewership), the tournament confirms that interest in women's football is at an all-time high. Increasingly, brands, nations and football associations are realising its potential.
The Women’s World Cup carries cultural significance that also resonates off the pitch. From gender equality to LGBTQIA+ rights, ED&I conversations are never too far from the women's game. However, as the sport grows in prominence, so does the need for action on equity and inclusion.
Advertising shapes cultural relevance
The 2023 Women’s World Cup has brought in more advertising and sponsorship than previous tournaments, 40% more sponsorship than in 2019, and with it comes a shift in the stories these adverts are choosing to tell.
Gender equality has traditionally been the primary theme in women’s sports marketing. This positioning was taken to new creative heights in a partnership between Orange and The French Football Federation. Using VFX to superimpose the famous faces of the French Men’s team (Bleus) onto the French Women’s team (Bleues), Orange created an advert to “prove that women’s football is as technical as men’s football.”
The campaign directly challenged the representation of women footballers by confronting viewers' gender-based perceptions, with fans calling it one of the best sports adverts ever. This positive response shows the power of brands to influence cultural change, as well as a new receptiveness to challenging prejudices through subversion.
In comparison to previous years, many campaigns are becoming less concentrated on equality and more focused on entertainment (as it is in the men’s game). With the growth in popularity of the women's game, a new crop of recognisable global stars are being leveraged in stylish campaigns from Nike, Adidas and Google Pixel. This shift in focus and tone is cementing women's football as part of the wider culture.
Pay inequity is a global barrier
While this may mean more marketing endorsements for those at the top of the game, the financial realities for most are bleak.
FIFA's last published research showed the average global salary for professional female players is only $14,000 (£10,800), and many countries still lack professional women's leagues. The global players’ union FIFPRO research into the Women’s World Cup qualifying conditions revealed that 29% of players reported not receiving any payment from their national team, and 66% of players reported having to take unpaid leave or vacation time from another form of employment to participate in these tournaments. The Jamaican team were forced to crowdfund, and Canada Soccer were exploring bankruptcy as an option to survive weeks before the tournament.
FIFA’s pay practices have been heavily criticised. The Women's World Cup prize is $110 million, a large jump up from 2019 ($30 million). Still, it pales in comparison to the men’s $440 million prize. While FIFA has committed to equal pay for the women's and men's teams by 2027, this year, they backtracked on the pledge to pay each player competing in the Women’s World Cup $30,000 directly. This retraction reflects a long history of pay disparities.
Pay parity is one of the foundations upon which women’s football will need to continue to grow. When it comes to (gender) pay gaps, actions speak louder than words, and numbers bare all. Without equitable structures and sufficient resources upholding the games, many footballers' dreams will remain a fantasy.
Representation doesn’t equal inclusion
There have been a number of firsts in representation at the Women’s World Cup. For instance, there is a record number of out-LGBTQ+ footballers playing in the tournament (13%), including the first player to identify as trans and non-binary (Quinn). Representation matters; what we see in mainstream culture doesn't just reflect reality – it can also shape it.
Whilst representation is a sign of positive change, it doesn’t always provide the full picture. FIFA have continued the ban on rainbow armbands that visibly support LGBTQIA+ rights – following controversy at the Men’s World Cup in Qatar. FIFA instead provided eight sanctioned armband designs highlighting a variety of social issues (e.g. world peace), none of which explicitly spotlight the LGBTQIA+ community. The ban has led to players showing solidarity in creative ways to get around fines, for instance, dyeing their hair and painting their nails rainbow colours.
There has also been controversy over the BBC’s questioning about LGBTQIA+ players in Morocco’s squad in a pre-match press conference. The question has been described as “unethical” and “dangerous” to Morocco’s players due to the country’s anti-LGBTQIA+ laws. This revealed a lack of understanding and appreciation of global dynamics and a Eurocentric approach by Western media.
Diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably, but they need to be understood as two distinct things. In this case, diversity in the form of representation is accepted, but the lack of overt inclusion prevents difference from being celebrated and protected.
There is no denying that women’s football has come a long way since the last World Cup; growing in fan engagement, media attention and sponsorship. While we’re noticing shifts in platforming and representation, inclusive and equitable practices are needed to uphold this progress in the long term and address the unique challenges faced by women athletes.
Here, social progress has accelerated at a speed which structural and institutional change has struggled to keep up with. For FIFA and various football associations around the world, the challenge will be sticking to their commitments as social expectations advance. Both players and fans will be looking to hold them accountable.
While the focus may be on football’s governing bodies, brands can go beyond marketing and deepen their investment in the future of the sport. For example, in addition to advertising and fan-zone experiences, Weetabix runs the Weetabix Wildcats programme promoting grassroots football and encouraging girls aged 5-11 to get involved in the sport. Not only does this express the brand's commitment to inclusive football it also strengthens its ‘Right to Play’ in communicating about women’s sport.
As we’ve seen in the ED&I space, the gap between commitments and actions can lead to severe disillusionment. Those who were hopeful for positive change become frustrated and sceptical when they perceive little progress, insufficient commitment from leaders, and failure to address systemic issues. At this critical moment, when women's football is set to triumph, it cannot afford to score such own goals.
To learn more about how we help companies hold themselves accountable and deliver against their commitments with inside out inclusion®, get in touch.
This article was written by Rosie Ngugi, Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables.