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Kailen Sheridan during a friendly soccer international between Canada and Australia in Sydney, Australia on Sept. 6, 2022. She is Canada’s undisputed No. 1 at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press

Over the phone the other day, Shawn Redmond, the man who oversees sports for Bell Media, sounded wary of anyone thinking that his company might be broadcasting the Women’s World Cup out of some noble corporate citizenship impulse. “I don’t want to position this as something we feel some obligation to do,” he said. “It’s a massive tournament.”

Some numbers to bolster his position: In 2019, FIFA said 1.12 billion viewers across the globe tuned in to TV and digital coverage of that year’s Women’s World Cup. This year, FIFA is aiming for an audience of two billion.

In March, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, announced the prize money for this year’s tournament will reach US$110-million, more than triple than in 2019. He added that he wanted the prize pool for the men’s and women’s World Cups to be equal by the next cycle, in 2026 and 2027.

A guide to the 2023 Women’s World Cup

Still, Ann Pegoraro, a sports business professor, acknowledged that supporting women’s professional sports – as a club owner, broadcaster, sponsor, merchandiser – had long been regarded as at least a partly charitable undertaking.

“I think we used to think that investing in women’s sport, or supporting women’s sport‚ was about doing the right thing,” Pegoraro, the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, said during a recent interview. “Now, I think wise people are seeing it as a return on investment.”

Some more numbers: Last year’s UEFA Women’s Euro tournament pulled in an estimated 365 million viewers who watched at least some of the tournament on TV, out of home, or on streaming. About 50 million tuned in for the final between England and Germany.

The economics are improving on this side of the Atlantic, too. This year, the franchise fee paid for new teams in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League hit more than US$50-million. That’s a whopping 1,400-per-cent premium on the US$3.51-million valuation of the Seattle Reign in 2019.

But not everyone is convinced yet that there’s money to be made.

For the 2022-23 men’s and women’s World Cup cycle, FIFA insisted that broadcasters in some countries bid separately for the women’s tournament, rather than it being thrown in as a bonus with the men’s, as had been tradition. Last month, Infantino called out broadcasters who hadn’t yet signed deals for the women’s tournament, saying they had made “very disappointing” bids that were a tiny percentage of what they had paid for the 2022 men’s competition. Calling the offers “a slap in the face of all the great FIFA Women’s World Cup players and indeed of all women worldwide,” he threatened to black out the tournament in the “Big Five” European countries where broadcasters had not yet signed on – Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and Britain – as well as Japan.

The European broadcasters did eventually sign on, but total rights sales were in the range of US$200-million rather than the US$300-million FIFA had been eyeing, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Japan’s NHK finally signed on last Thursday, with only one week to go before kickoff. (Bell Media, which will broadcast games on TSN and French-language channel RDS, with playoff matches and Canadian team games also airing on CTV, secured rights for the tournament in 2015.)

Last week, the British government issued a report saying UEFA had projected the commercial value of women’s soccer in Europe could reach €686-million (more than $1-billion) by 2033. The report, by the retired British soccer player Karen Carney, also pointed out that women had been banned from playing on Football League grounds until 1971, and that the Women’s Super League “only became a fully professional league for the first time in 2018.”

Critics tend to forget that historical backdrop when they criticize the women’s soccer economy for not being at the level of the men’s.

In analyzing the state of the women’s game, “we’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples, in terms of the development, the investment and the time that’s been given,” to men’s soccer, explained Pegoraro.

“We often compare women’s sport, where they are today, to men’s sport, where they are today. Essentially, women are still 20, 30 years behind in the development pathway. If we compare women’s soccer now to men’s soccer 30 years ago, that would be a more equitable comparison: What was the viewership like for them? What was the investment like? What was the valuation of clubs?”

Pegoraro says that the unevenness in the playing field is easily grasped by looking at the difference between the 77-year-old NBA and the 27-year-old WNBA. “If you go back to when the NBA was at the same time that the WNBA league is now, they pulled the same kind of attendance. The valuations of their franchises were very similar. And then there was an explosive growth for men in the seventies in that sport, and that’s what you’re starting to see in the WNBA.

“I think we’d probably find that there are comparisons that show the women’s [soccer] game is either equal to where the men’s was in development, or probably moving at a faster pace.”

Though Canadian viewership for last year’s World Cup in Qatar set records, Redmond won’t make public predictions of what he expects for this year’s tournament: There are too many variables at play – and besides, Team Canada is playing its three group-stage matches during time periods when many Canadians would usually be sleeping.

Still, “we’ve seen the passion for soccer. We’ve seen the passion for Team Canada,” said Redmond, the vice-president and general manager of Bell Media Sports. “I think when we have a team that is this likeable – in a sport that’s growing this much – that actually has a chance of winning, that’s a recipe for a significant amount of fandom and engagement.”

For marketers, associating with women’s soccer offers an opportunity to burnish their brand by touting their feminist bona fides. Two weeks ago, Bank of Montreal played host to a panel discussion at Toronto’s BMO Field on the subject of gender equity in soccer. The bank had just signed on as an official supporter of the Women’s World Cup, and the event was designed to inspire.

In front of a few dozen community leaders and young women soccer players, TSN’s Kayla Grey talked about the improving landscape with Team Canada’s Janine Beckie (who is missing the World Cup after tearing her ACL in March); Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of advocacy group Canadian Women & Sport; and Sonya Kunkel, the head of loyalty and sponsorship marketing for BMO.

After the discussion, Kunkel told The Globe and Mail that BMO had signed on as a sponsor after FIFA had committed to equal prize pools for the next cycle of World Cups. “That’s an extremely important step forward for the women’s game overall. And I think it already reflects the growth and popularity of women’s soccer,” Kunkel said. “And that’s something that we just feel we need to get behind.”

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