For years women’s football was something Uefa would bundle in as a bonus for companies chasing sponsorship deals with the men’s game. Next week, it has the chance to prove it is no longer a commercial afterthought.
Euro 2022, which kicks off in England on Wednesday and runs through to the end of the month, is expected to set records for a broadcast audience for women’s football as well as attendance figures in the 10 stadiums that will host the 31 matches.
Uefa expects the tournament will generate revenue of more than €60mn, almost four times the amount at Euro 2017 in the Netherlands, led by higher ticket sales as well as the rising value of media and commercial rights.
The tournament caps a banner 12 months for women’s football, which 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’s a real shift,” said Yvonne Harrison, chief executive of the UK’s Women in Football campaign group. “People are watching women’s sport . . . if we can convert people who are excited by the women’s Euros 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, particularly as it does not face any competition for eyeballs from the Fifa men’s World Cup which is being staged in Qatar in November.
Spain’s Alexia Putellas, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and England’s Lauren Hemp are among the star players who the tournament organisers are betting will draw in crowds.
The signs so far are encouraging. Fans have already bought 500,000 tickets, according to the English Football Association, up from a total of 240,000 sold at the Euro 2017 tournament. More than 250mn people around the world could watch the tournament, according to an estimate from consulting firm EY, up from 178mn 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 is paying clubs to release players to compete for their countries.
Amid the excitement in the run-up to the opening game between England and Austria on Wednesday, however, there are reminders that the commercial development of women’s football remains in its infancy compared with the men’s game.
Uefa has doubled the total prize fund for the tournament to €16mn. By contrast, the organisation distributed €331mn to participating national team associations at the men’s Euro 2020 tournament.
But for Karen Carney, a former star for the England team and now a pundit, the most striking feature is how far the game has come.
“When I first started there was no money in the [women’s] game,” she said. “We’ve made it go from a vicious circle into a virtuous one,” referring to how a growing audience draws in money that in turn helps the game reach more people.
With England staging its first women’s football tournament since 2005 and the national team among the favourites, expectations are high for the lift it will give the game in the host country.
Tickets to the final at Wembley Stadium are sold out, which means it will just fall shy of the record 91,000 that attended the Nou Camp in March to see Barcelona play Real Madrid’s clash in the women’s Champions League quarter-final.
“This summer’s Uefa Women’s Euro will be game changing for women’s football in England, with the sport already on an upward trajectory,” said Sue Campbell, FA director of women’s football and 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 £30mn, three-year extension to its sponsorship of the Women’s Super League and Championship in England.
Of more immediate help in building an audience, the BBC and Sky Sports in March 2021 struck a deal to broadcast the WSL, the first time the English Football Association had sold the media rights separately from the men’s game.
“Once one [sponsor] comes on, then you start to get the domino effect,” said Carney. “The game has always been really good . . . the thing that’s really made a huge difference is the look and feel of the game, how it is broadcast, how people are writing about. It’s in pub conversations.”
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 under its commitment to “fostering access and inclusion”.
“Social impact and business goals are no longer mutually exclusive,” said Visa UK managing director Mandy Lamb.
The pressure on the tournament to maintain the momentum for the game is only added to by the wider economic backdrop, with consumers facing a squeeze on incomes in countries where women’s football is looking to grow.
But Harrison of the UK’s Women in Football campaign group urges companies to take a longer-term view.
“People say there’s a finite amount of money but we’ve seen a lot of progress in the women’s game, a lot of interest and exposure,” said Harrison. “Now is the time to invest, don’t wait five years: it’ll cost a lot more. Plus, supporting the women’s game is the right thing to do.”