Fifa is right about Women’s World Cup stand-off – broadcasters must be fair to the game

The Women’s World Cup kicks off on 20 July  (Getty Images)
The Women’s World Cup kicks off on 20 July (Getty Images)

“It will be a massive treat for viewers who will be flocking in their millions to BBC and ITV to watch the coverage,” the statement reads. “We are looking forward to some of the biggest sporting audiences of the year for the World Cup.”

That statement unfortunately doesn’t refer to this summer’s women’s event in Australia and New Zealand, since the broadcast deal is not yet concluded after long negotiations regarding the early timing of games. It is actually from the BBC’s press release about the 2002 men’s World Cup in Japan and Korea, which had many marquee matches at much earlier times.

The highlighting of this statement is not to pick on BBC and ITV, since they are much closer to a deal for July’s Women’s World Cup than their major European and Japanese counterparts. It is that these sentiments were widely shared in 2002, and contradict one of the major arguments from broadcasters in 2023. They have already caused a potential broadcasting blackout of the tournament just 50 days out, while provoking five European governments to release a statement expressing “concern” at the situation, but just don't wash.

No one is arguing that the Women’s World Cup will get anything close to the men’s but then nobody is demanding anyone pay anything close to it. The argument is just for the broadcasters to pay what’s fair, which in this case is just over 5% of what they paid for the 2022 World Cup.

As it stands, the best Italian offer is just 1%. The best German offer is 3%. The best Japanese offer, even though they have no such timezone issues, is around 2%.

In such situations, and from an admittedly long history, the natural inclination is to blame Fifa for greed. This is one example where that is misplaced, however, especially since this is as much about fairness to the women's game as a whole as it is about Fifa.

The broadcasters will of course make strongly asserted arguments about value and shareholders. This is all demolished by some simple facts.

If any of the major nations are playing in a World Cup knockout on terrestrial television, they are guaranteed an audience of millions, regardless of the time of the day. The proof of so many previous tournaments illustrates this. It is all the more pronounced given the current profiles of the national teams covered by those government statements.

Germany are ranked second in the world right now, England fourth, France fifth and Spain seventh. The Spanish are meanwhile seeing the greatest boom of all in the women’s game, given the attendance records constantly being broken in their biggest stadiums.

For their broadcasters to not complement that with live coverage of this summer’s games is staggering. Some sources go even further.

“It’s an absolute disgrace we’ve got to this stage with 50 days to go.”

Ian Wright, a long-time pundit on the women’s game, accuses them of “not stepping up”.

It is all the more striking with Japan, given the time zone issue, and their own record in the competition. Even though the national team’s 2019 group stage match with Scotland was several hours behind, it still generated an audience of 6 million. The 2015 final in Canada against USA generated an audience of 11 million.

That’s why it makes even less sense for Fifa to accept such low offers. It sets a template for future tournaments, where there would be less incentive for others to agree a fair price for 2027.

Ian Wright is unimpressed with the impasse over TV rights (PA Archive)
Ian Wright is unimpressed with the impasse over TV rights (PA Archive)

The real question is, why are the broadcasters undervaluing this tournament? It makes less sense given the various benefits they get for being associated with the game, especially as so many will then market their progressive credentials.

This was also the motivation behind the joint-government statements, since so much of it is about growing the women’s game. “Because of the high potential of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the sport and social issues at stake, we consider it our responsibility to fully mobilise all stakeholders, for them to quickly reach an agreement.”

Broadcasters and sports do tend to develop symbiotic relationships, as the entire history of the Premier League proves. Investment brings improvement, which brings a superior “product”, which becomes more lucrative for those who invested. That is when everyone starts talking about “partnerships”.

Wright talks about it from working on the inside.

“I’m glad the ITV/BBC deal is close. I spoke about it earlier in the week. We are talking about big, important football nations in Spain, Italy, Germany and France with TV deals not even close to being agreed. Across Europe, broadcasters are constantly pushing ‘growth of the game’ messaging. Every broadcast, they want pundits to talk about the growth and success of women’s football. But is it ‘growth of the game’ only on their terms? They are fine when pundits are on TV calling out the FAs and companies for more investment and support but now that it’s on them they are the ones not stepping up. It needs to be sorted.”

In this case, Fifa has been doing much of its part. The long-term goal is to bring equal pay by 2027 and that has already seen the prize money for 2023 – now at £152m – treble from 2019 and increase 10-fold from 2015. It has seen a leap in the women’s game, and another wider hope is that it will gradually erode the problem of a group stage that is largely seen as a warm-up camp filled with one-sided matches. Those in the women’s game point to how men’s football in the 1980s similarly used to have sides like England and Germany battering Albania and even Turkey by huge scores. Those scorelines don’t happen any more because of investment.

All of this is still talking around the main point, though.

Major nations in World Cup knockouts will bring audiences of millions, no matter where they’re played, no matter the time. The broadcasters aren’t yet matching that.