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The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 kicks off on July 20 in what is expected to be the biggest women’s soccer event in the history of the sport.
Women’s soccer has a longer past than many realize. The first FIFA Women’s World Cup took place in 1991, but women from across the globe were coming together to compete on the pitch decades earlier. In 1970, the Federation of Independent European Female Football (FIEFF) held the inaugural World Cup-adjacent tournament, called Coppa del Mondo, with eight nations participating in the unofficial event; Denmark defeated the hosting Italians in the final.
That was the first of several non-FIFA international tournaments within the women’s game over the next 20 years before the sport’s massive governing body was finally convinced to accept half of the global population under its wing. But women’s soccer goes back much further than that – the first international match was in 1881 between Scotland and England (though it remains unclear how truly international it was), and its reception was mixed, to say the least. Regardless, the game continued on and grew steadily in Europe into the 1920s.
2023 Women’s World Cup Shakes Shackles of Suppressive Bans
The English FA Sees Enough
This led to several countries around the world – including England, Spain, and Brazil – banning women’s soccer. Citing some truly incredible reasons for the necessity of these prohibitions, the women’s game was forced underground in places where it would have undoubtedly otherwise flourished.
It began with the English Football Association (FA), which had finally seen enough after 53,000 onlookers packed Liverpool’s Goodison Park for a rivalry match between the Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helens on Boxing Day 1920.
“The most remarkable ‘gate’ of the holiday, however, was at Goodison Park yesterday morning [Boxing Day] where the Dick, Kerr Ladies beat St Helens ladies 4-0 in a match on behalf of the unemployed and disabled ex-servicemen,” the Lancashire Evening Post reported on Dec. 28, 1920. “The attendance was estimated at 53,000 and the receipts were over £3,000 exclusive of tickets. This being an easy record for a charity match in England.”
The apparent growth of the women’s game meant money and power outside of the FA’s control, plus it was stealing the thunder away from the men. This was offensive to the FA, so in 1921 it voted on a 51-year ban of women’s football from being played on FA-affiliated grounds.
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged,” the FA’s Consultative Committee ruling read. “Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed into expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.
“For these reasons the Council requests the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”
102 Years Later
This decision held the sport back for generations, but 2023 illustrates a present that has undone a good deal of the damage incurred a century ago.
The newest iteration of the Women’s World Cup will include 32 teams, the largest field the event has ever welcomed. Eight of those countries are appearing in the tournament for the first time, ushering Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia all into their first shots at showtime. Three World Cups ago in 2011, only 16 teams competed in Germany for the international crown – in just 12 years, this event doubled in size. By comparison, the Men’s World Cup needed five tournaments and 20 years to get from 16 to 32 teams.
That alone shows some amount of buzz, but there is plenty more to point to as evidence of its mounting success. In October 2022, FIFA released a report that detailed substantial growth in clubs and leagues’ year-on-year commercial and broadcast revenues. In the United States specifically, the NWSL has seen its salary cap progressively grow since its launch in 2013; back when the league started, it was common for players to make $20,000 or less per year, which is now a bit below the $36,400 minimum for 2023 and a far cry from the $200,000 maximum currently allowed. The NWSL’s salary cap jumped by 25 percent from 2022 to 2023 to sit at $1.375 million. In 2024, the league will expand to 14 teams, and it has already announced its intentions to up to 16 by 2026.
It’s booming outside of America, too. Barcelona has attracted massive crowds to see its women’s team play, including more than 91,600 in April 2022 in the first leg of that year’s Women’s Champions League semifinal, breaking a record the club had set a month earlier in a match against Real Madrid. Even more compelling, the 2023 UEFA Women’s Champions League Final between Barcelona and Wolfsburg sold out weeks in advance despite playing at the neutral PSV Stadium in Eindhoven, Netherlands. That came after the Women’s FA Cup Final saw more than 77,000 fans and the 2022 Women’s European Championship Final drew more than 87,100 match-goers to Wembley Stadium in London.
One of the best signs of the sport’s health lies in the changing landscape of its international portion. This summer marks the first time the event will be held outside of Europe, North America, or China, and many of the favorites have never come close to winning it all before, let alone actually done it. Six of the eight nations with the highest odds to win have never done so, and half of them have never even reached a World Cup Final. Some countries that had decades-long bans on women’s soccer are now among the world’s elite.
There is still a tremendous amount of room for growth, and further investment is required for women’s football to keep up this pace. But its boom coincides with the explosion of other women’s sports as well, a sign that pieces of the world are ready to embrace female sports in ways we haven’t seen in a long time, possibly ever. A rising tide lifts all boats – this can only be good for the women of the pitch.
In 2019, 1.12 billion viewers witnessed that summer’s Women’s World Cup, according to FIFA. The 2022 Women’s European Championship yielded 365 million watchers. The supposed goal of tournament organizers is for the 2023 Women’s World Cup to hit up to 2 billion viewers, a lofty but doable goal considering the roughly 50 percent increase in worldwide viewership from 2015 (approximately 750 million) to 2019.
“We think that’s achievable,” Football Australia Chief Executive James Johnson told BBC Sport in January. “We know we’ll get a good audience from the traditional football markets. We’re also in a time zone where all the big populations are. Our neighbors are China, our neighbors are Indonesia. We’re very close to the west coast of the United States. And we’re also very close to India. So, there’s going to be so many people that would tune in and watch this competition.
“You’re going to have two billion people that are going to watch this tournament from all over the world.”
We won’t know whether or not Johnson was right until after the tournament’s conclusion on August 20, but with everything in the women’s soccer world trending up, it’s tough to argue with his prediction. In 102 years, the sport went from inhumane bans to record-setting fans – where will it be in 2125?
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