World Football Summit

"Investing in women's sport is not charity"

A round table at the World Football Summit debated what needs to be done to ensure a bright future for women's sport, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Investing in women's sport is not charity"

433 attendees were online to watch a round table discussion on ‘Women’s Sport: The Necessary Steps for a Progressive Future’, as part of the World Football Summit, being held online for this edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Host Alexandra Gómez Bruinewoud, Senior Legal Counsel at players association FIFPro, was joined by three former players from women’s football, Tatjana Haenni, now the director of Women’s Football at the Swiss FA, Khalida Popal, the founder and director of Girl Power Organisation, Bex Smith, Global Director of the Women’s Game at Copa 90, along with the president of Spanish Basketball Association Jorge Garbajosa.

The round table focused its discussion on the progress that has been in made in women’s sport, particularly in women’s football, what still needs to be done and the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Success of the Women's World Cup and the future of the sport

The incredible success of the Women’s World Cup in France last summer was the starting point, with all the panellists in agreement that the women’s game has come a long way since there playing days. Bex Smith stressed the importance of “more data and technology” in the game, which has hugely increased the level of quality, which has also gone up with far higher participation in the game.

“Also,” she continued, “I think that there's been more interest from broadcasters and media which is so important for the visibility of the sport so that people know who the characters are, so that fans can then follow those stories and get interested in the sport and for me that's kind of the next step that the sport needs to be taking.”

Overall, said Tatjana Haenni, the major difference now is that there is “more respect towards the players”, saying that previously women were expected to play just because they loved the game, whereas now in many countries women can earn a living from their football, and “live their dream.”

What still needs to change, according to all the panellists, is the structures that are in places. Tatjana Haenni made the point that society in general is very supportive of women’s sport, but the problem actually lies in the places where changes could be made very quickly: the sports organisations themselves. “These organisations quite often in my opinion do a bit more talking than actually doing and they could really reinforce the case of women's sports so much quicker if they would put the right structures in place”.

Importance of structures in women's sport

In terms of promoting women’s sport, Khalida Popal was convicted that mistakes have been made trying to compare the women’s versions to the men’s, when in fact they are different. “Women’s football is a beautiful product in itself and needs to be sold as its own thing. We should sell the fact women’s football is different to the fans.” In her opinion the women in the game are “incredible role models” and their stories and their journeys should be used to promote the game. “We have to tell those stories,” she added.

Doubling down on the idea of women being powerful role models, the host Alexandra Gómez Bruinewoud noted the difference between the approaches of men and women using the example of the acceptance speeches for best player at the Best Awards last year from Leo Messi and Megan Rapinoe. While the USA star was overtly political in her speech, Messi was far more personal. “Women need to push for change to get where they want to get.”

Jorge Garbajosa explained the approach of the Spanish Basketball Federation where they consider that they are not promoting two different sports, men’s and women’s, but one: basketball. That means the bonuses for the men’s and women’s teams at the World Cup are the same, the “money for practicing or playing is the same, because the effort is the same for men and women, so they have to get the same.” He stressed that women’s sport at times is seen as “a charity” by some people in the men’s game and that that viewpoint is completely wrong.

Importance of social and media impact to women's sport

According to a poll run during the round table, 45% of the attendees who voted felt that the most important area in order to see more improvement for women’s football to keep growing was social and media impact, following by education and training (20%), working conditions (19%), tournament conditions (12%) and playing conditions (7%).

The panel were fully in agreement with the finding of the poll saying that increased media exposure was vital for the game, as well as focus more on the sport itself, rather than “secondary things, the looks of the players or whatever”, according to Alexandra Gómez Bruinewoud, although she said things are improving in that front.

Bex Smith said the media “has a much bigger role to play, because the time devoted defines what the product is worth, so people thing women’s football isn’t worth as much; women’s sport needs more investment and more time on the media.”

The opportunity for brands to be involved with the women’s game and help them grow and reap the benefits of that growth was highlighted by all the panellists.

Impact of Covid-19 on women's sport

As to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which FIFPro has said could “pose an existential threat to the very existence of the women’s game”, the panellists returned to the importance of having the right structures in place to help the women’s game recover from the Covid-19 crisis and grow in the future. BEx Smith said, “having the right structures in place, like the DFB solidarity fund that put money into women’s football [to help with the coronavirus pandemic], they help people make the right decisions, get the right investments and ensure there is more money for players which in turn improves quality to help the game grow long term.”

In finishing the round table, Alexandra Gómez Bruinewoud noted just how much work is still left to be done, pointing out that FIFA, a non-profit organisation, has a rule on its statutes that says it will not discriminate on gender, “yet the prize money at the Women’s World Cup is 7.5% of the prize money at the Men’s World Cup, and it’s not even connected to revenue.”