Building the Women’s Game

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“As FIFA increases its efforts to grow the women’s game for all, the organisation recognises that more can be done to develop the grassroots, sporting and commercial growth of women’s football – a source of growth for football worldwide.”

That is FIFA 2.0 opening paragraph on building the women’s game and bringing it to the mainstream. To achieve this, FIFA has chosen to focus on the following strategic actions:

  • Resourcing and further developing the Women’s Football Division, led by a Chief of Women’s Football;
  • Developing mandatory grassroots programmes for all Member Associations;
  • Providing women with more significant opportunities to showcase their talents at international and club levels;
  • Creating a women’s football-specific commercial plan;
  • Enhancing partnerships with reputable organisations working for the needs of girls and women worldwide.

The question is, can the above-listed strategic actions deliver women’s football development goals, for FIFA. Member Associations and Confederations by 2026.

Resourcing Women’s Football Division

This is a welcome strategic move by FIFA that will no doubt contribute to the development of women’s football. Having a department that focuses solely on running the women’s game will ensure a measure of independence from the men’s game. This is important to reduce the constant comparisons between women’s and men’s football. Perhaps, FIFA should even consider setting up an independent international federation to run the women’s sport complete with the required administrative structure. This would further strengthen the position of women’s football within the global sports arena.

The downside would be that such a venture would not be able to benefit from FIFA’s resources. It would only be the case in the short term and medium term as an international federation for women’s football would be in a better position to start leveraging on the uniqueness of women’s football to drive its growth and development. This is something that FIFA could initially support with the view of having an entirely independent international federation by 2026. Not following such a strategy would mean that women’s football will continue to exist in the shadow of men’s football.

Further, such a strategy would allow the women’s international federation to have its structures at confederation and Member Association level down to the grassroots allowing it to develop its programs that also cater for the economic and sociocultural factors of geographies. With only a football division at the headquarters in Zurich, it would be challenging to scale women’s football, especially at the grassroots level. One might argue that similar divisions could be set up at confederation and member association level, but this would only propagate the fight for resources between men’s football and women’s football.

However, bearing in mind the above strategy, constant knowledge sharing should occur between the men’s and women’s football development programmes. This will significantly affect and influence the following policy below.

Mandatory Grassroots Programmes for Member Associations

Girls football trainingThe success of any sport development programme is almost wholly dependent on the development of an active grassroots programme. Women’s football is no different, and the future growth of women’s football both in sporting and commercial terms will depend on the success of initiatives at the grassroots level. If FIFA is to achieve its 2026 development goals for women’s football, then the proper structures will need to be in place as soon as possible.

The setting and resourcing of the Women’s Football Division is only but a good start or initiative. However, as suggested in the preceding section, more needs to be done to ensure healthy independence from the men’s game right from the grassroots. The long-term goal would be the having an independent governance structure for the women’s game that will be charged with growing the game at grassroots, member association, confederation and ultimately at the international level.

It is the view of the writer that again, grassroots programmes should be tailored to specific geographies to take advantage of existing structures to accelerate development. For example, in Europe, clubs are the obvious choice when it comes to developing grassroots football for both men and women. On the other hand, I see the school system being the structure of choice when growing grassroots football by encouraging participation. In the United States, where women’s football has been popular for quite some time, again the school system seems to work well there.

Commercialisation should occur naturally as opposed to being the outright goal when developing grassroots football. It is usually done through tournaments at international and club level.

Women’s Football Tournaments

Strategic action number #3 talks of providing women with more opportunities to showcase their talents at international and club level. Tournaments, as seen in men’s football, primarily through the FIFA World Cup, is the best way to commercialise the game of football and hence ensure its sustainable growth through reinvestment in the sport. Tournaments provide the space for sponsors and broadcasters to purchase rights, thus providing the much-needed finances.

FIFA U 20 Women's World CupHowever, the growth of tournaments should be natural progress from the increased participation at the grassroots level as opposed to being something to aim. This strategic action should naturally flow from the development of grassroots football to ensure its long-term sustainability. Merely increasing the number of tournaments (opportunities for women to showcase their talent) is not sustainable and could be counterproductive since in normal market conditions increased supply runs the risk devaluing the product. In this case, it could dent both the sporting and commercial value of the women’s game.

Audiences want to be treated to high-quality matches and not merely quantity. Commercial partners, sponsors and broadcasters as well require some form of exclusivity and would rather compete for rights than be spoilt for choice as to which competitions they can sponsor. Also, in developing its tournaments, women’s football should not be seen as competing with the men’s game but rather provide their unique selling point. At this point, fewer high-quality tournaments would serve women’s football better. Focus should be on the development of women’s football to “develop a sporting culture that enables and values the full involvement of women in every aspect of sport (football) and physical activity”, by “increasing the involvement of women in sport (football) at all levels and in all functions and roles”.

Commercial Programme

As suggested above, commercialisation of the women’s game should not be seen to be at the forefront of developing women’s football. Emphasis should be on improving the course of women by enhancing their mental, physical and social status through their participation in football and sport in general. Especially in continents such as Africa and Asia where women have for a long time been restricted in terms of their involvement in social development, open and upfront commercialisation may discourage participation.

Research (though not conclusive) has shown that women are more in the well-being of society as a whole and are not driven by the same wants (usually money and power) as men. Development of women’s football should leverage this aspect to attract more women to the sport. The men’s game could also benefit from having more women participate in its management and administration. This could be the answer to mitigating corruption in the sport.

However, it has to be acknowledged that the sport cannot be sustainable without some form of commercialisation. Entrepreneurial activities would, therefore, be required to see how best to commercialise the women’s game without losing out on the far-reaching potential values of getting more women to participate.

At this time, it would be essential to invest in the improvement of facilities, making them more accessible to women. Increased coverage of the women’s game would also help in its commercialisation while expanding coverage and awareness among all. Coverage should extend to the grassroots level where women’s football and sport, in general, is being used to champion various social issues that improve not only the plight of women but also whole populations. These are great opportunities for partnerships that can help sustain the game.

Enhancing Partnerships

Sponsorships and partnerships are essential in the development of women’s football. With the potential growth in the sport, these should be exploited to the maximum. Enhancing PartnershipsEven without taking an overly commercial stand, it is possible to attract the right kind of partnerships that can help increase participation and awareness while at the same time providing the needed revenue for the sport. The right connections will also enhance the creation of policies that will improve the women’s game while providing an enabling environment for growth and development. For example, working with international organisations such as the UN and other international organisations to promote the rights of women in specific communities can act as a catalyst to the development of the sport. The more partners come on board, the more the awareness and participation which will attract sponsors and broadcasters.

In conclusion, women’s football has the potential to achieve the stated development goals but only if it is allowed to develop independently of the men’s game with the right structures in place which will facilitate the participation of sponsors, partners and other stakeholders for a stronger ecosystem.

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