‘It boils down to money’: England and Spain prepare for Women’s World Cup face-off
‘It boils down to money’: England and Spain prepare for Women’s World Cup face-off

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Sunday’s FIFA World Cup final between England and Spain will feature women’s football’s best squad; it will also showcase elite players from two domestic leagues that have become centers of talent for the sport.

Nearly a quarter of the tournament’s players play in England’s WSL and Spain’s Liga F, both of which have seen more investment since the 2019 World Cup in France, attracting broadcasters, sponsors and fans, while also Get more support from strong team owners. Men’s clubs such as Barcelona and Chelsea.

“It’s fitting that they have a very strong league,” said University of Portsmouth academic Christina Philippe. “What it comes down to is money going into the game. That leads to better resources and training, which is very attractive to athletes.”

After decades of being ignored by male-dominated authorities, women’s football still struggles.

Compared with the billions of euros and pounds generated by the top men’s leagues in Spain and England, the revenues of these two leagues look like rounding errors. The best male players make more money in a week than many female players make in a year.

But Tom Corbett, managing director of WSL title sponsor Barclays, believes the comparison to the men’s game is misleading.

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“It’s important to remember that women’s football is in the early stages of its development cycle,” he said. “It’s increasing and improving every day. It’s just not right to compare it to the men’s game today.”

He added that the Lionesses’ victory would bring commercial benefits to the league, its sponsors, broadcasters and other partners. “Winning means a lot, but getting to the final is also a real plus,” he said.

England has been particularly successful in professionalizing women’s football. Semi-final losers Australia and Sweden have nearly 20 players in the WSL, far more than the Spanish league.

In the women’s championship, for the first time, British clubs also outnumbered the US team, which dominates international competition and won in 2019 and 2015.

Less than a year after England finished fourth in 2019, the WSL has entered a “new era of full-time careers”. Barclays has committed £30m to women’s football from the 2022-25 season. The tournament’s £7m-a-year media rights deal has also paid off, with Sky Sports recording a peak viewership of 482,000 for the 2022-23 season opener between Liverpool and Chelsea.

Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp battles England team-mate Alessia Russo for Manchester United during a Barclays Women’s Super League match © Lexy Ilsey/PPAUK/Shutterstock

The Football Association said it was “committed to working with the league and clubs to ensure their growth and development are supported on and off the pitch”.

In a government-backed review published in July, former England player Karen Carney said the governing body should consider finding “strategic” investors to help ease the cost burden of growing women’s sport.

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In Spain, the top flight has just wrapped up its first year as a professional league after it changed its name to Liga F and signed a five-year media rights deal with sports broadcaster DAZN worth around €35m.

“There is no doubt that the stronger and more developed the domestic league, the better it is for the national team,” said Liga F president Beatriz Álvarez.

“Professionalization, led by Liga F and its clubs, is a crucial step in taking women’s football in Spain to the next level,” she added.

Spain’s victory ahead of the final dimmed memories of the tumultuous period leading up to the World Cup, but did not fade away. Fifteen players rebelled last September, clashed with coach Jorge Verda and refused to play for the national team until management issues affecting their “emotional state and performance” were resolved. In the end, only a handful made it to the World Cup squad.

Despite these challenges, the Spanish women’s team is still on track to claim the sport’s top prize. Not wanting to let the team’s progress go down the drain, Liga F is working on a strategic plan to strengthen its brand, club development, facilities and broadcast offerings.

“Without a sustained and attractive domestic competition, interest in major events such as the World Cup will disappear,” Alvarez warned. “We are working hard to make Liga F the place to play.”

But the success of a handful of top professional women’s leagues has also prompted comments from Fifa president Gianni Infantino that the professional game needs to be developed more broadly.

“It’s impossible for all female players to go to a handful of clubs in Europe or America,” Infantino said. “We need to create the conditions for them over the next four years to be able to play professionally domestically and that’s the biggest challenge we have to face.”

Additional reporting by Barney Jompson

VIDEO: The business of football: Inside Barcelona’s women | FT scoreboard


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