As World Cup kicks off, women’s soccer ‘poised for exponential growth’ says U.S. Soccer chief

Women’s soccer is firmly in the spotlight after the Women’s World Cup kicked off in host nations Australia and New Zealand on Thursday.

New Zealand pulled off a shock victory over Norway in their opening game in Auckland, registering their first win in a Women’s or Men’s World Cup. Australia then kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 win over Ireland in Sydney.

The U.S. team enters the tournament as favorites, and are chasing a record third consecutive World Cup victory. This year’s competition has been expanded to 32 teams and 64 matches, up from 24 teams and 52 matches in the 2019 tournament in France.

Recent years have seen major changes in women’s soccer, both on and off the field. Last year the U.S. women’s national team won their long fight for equal pay with the men’s national team, a major milestone for the sport.

Related: Women’s World Cup kicks off as New Zealand stuns Norway

Speaking on MarketWatch’s Best New Ideas in Money podcast, U.S. Soccer Federation President Cindy Parlow Cone explained that other national teams are following America’s lead.

“I think we’re starting to see it more and the impact on a number of other federations,” she said. “They’re taking steps to obtain equal pay or move towards it.”

The Canadian women’s national team, winners of the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, has been embroiled in a fight for pay equity with Canada Soccer. And just days before the Women’s World Cup kicked off in New Zealand and Australia, the Australian women’s team called out soccer’s global governing body FIFA over prize money inequity compared with the Men’s World Cup. 

In March, FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced that $110 million of basic prize money will be awarded at the Women’s World Cup, up from $30 million for the 2019 tournament. For this year’s tournament, FIFA is also providing $31 million for teams’ preparations and approximately $11 million in remuneration to clubs whose players are participating in the World Cup, taking the $110 million figure to $152 million. However, that is still dwarfed by the $440 million in prize money available at last year’s Men’s World Cup in Qatar.

Related: Women’s World Cup: Australian team targets FIFA over prize money inequity

Infantino said that FIFA aims to have equality in payments for the Men’s and Women’s World Cups in 2026 and 2027, respectively.

Last month, FIFA also announced a new financial distribution model ahead of the Women’s World Cup, detailing player payments at the tournament. Players whose teams exit the tournament at the group stage will receive $30,000, according to FIFA, with payments rising depending on how far teams progress in the tournament.  

“You’ve seen the steps that FIFA are taking in this World Cup,” Parlow Cone, who is the U.S. Soccer Federation’s first female president, told MarketWatch. “I think it’s great to see, and it’s definitely in the right direction, and FIFA has made sure that a portion of the prize money is guaranteed to go to the players, which every federation wasn’t doing that.”

“But obviously there’s still a lot more work to be done and we’ll continue to work with FIFA,” she added.

Related: Women’s World Cup: Australian team targets FIFA over prize money inequity

“The important thing is that we continue making progress toward equal pay, toward equal investment, whether that’s starting youth girls’ teams or starting your women’s national team, or increasing and improving the programming for those teams or closing the gap in pay between the men’s and women’s programming,” Parlow Cone said.

The U.S. Soccer president, herself a World Cup winner in 1999 and two-time Olympic gold medalist, explained that, across the board, women’s soccer is attracting much more attention. “We’re also seeing sponsors committing more to women’s sports, media and broadcasters investing more in their coverage,” she said. “And obviously more fans are coming to the games and showing up and watching it on television.”

Earlier this week Visa Inc.

renewed its partnership with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Reflecting the ongoing push for parity, the deal now ensures that at least 50% of Visa’s soccer programming investment will be directed to the women’s national team and women’s soccer initiatives.

record 1.1 billion viewers around the world watched coverage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup across all platforms, according to FIFA. The world football governing body expects that over 2 billion people will tune in to this year’s Women’s World Cup.

Related: Women’s World Cup could be worth $300 million in media rights

In 2019, more than 13 million girls and women were playing organized football across the globe, according to FIFA, an estimated 9.5 million of whom were in the U.S. The numbers reflect the growth of women’s soccer. In 2006, for example, there were 4.1 million registered female players around the world.

“All of this progress is fantastic and we’ll continue to push, but this really, I think, is just the beginning for women’s soccer,” Parlow Cone told MarketWatch. “I think the men’s game is going to continue to grow, but the women’s game is really poised for exponential growth.”

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