FIFA Women’s World Cup is Back – But Does Anyone Care?

At Parc Des Princes, the Chinese women’s soccer team celebrated its first victory in this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, with striker Li Feng scoring the only goal. The last match between the two teams was in Rio Olympic Games three years ago, which ended with a 2:0.

It has been four years since the US women’s football team claimed their third World Cup champion title in Canada. After qualification games in different conferences, 24 teams around the world made into the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals in France.

Despite representing their home countries on the most prestigious football stage, the tournament received less attention among sports fans: People seem to pay more attention to the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Formula One Racing events in Montreal, and the recently concluded French Open Tennis tournament. The elite female football players, despite their superb skills and representation of their respective countries in the quest of seizing the world champion title, fell behind in the competition of attention and media spotlight.

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It remains to be a challenge for women’s sports around the world. Despite enormous efforts put into developing gender equality and women’s professional sports leagues, the effectiveness of the equity awareness campaigns are far from reaching their intended results: The women’s national basketball association games are attracting far less attention than their male counterparts. The FIFA Women’s World Cup are attracting less revenues and media stories than the tournament in Russia last year. Nevertheless, things could even take a turn for the worse: Some women’s sports leagues are on the verge of diminishing. Earlier this year, the Canadian Women Hockey League was forced to close down due to lack of financial support.

In contrast to men practicing sports, women in various countries face severe challenges when pursuing sports due to religious or political reasons. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia did not even send in a team to participate in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualification games. On the contrary, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt made it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals in Russia. The differential treatment between men and women in certain countries are huge, leaving women sports struggling significantly.

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Despite difficulties and obstacles that women sports face around the world, several countries show very supportive attitudes towards the women’s football team participating in the World Cup tournament in France. For some countries, the women’s football team performed significantly better than their male counterpart in the FIFA World Cup. Fans in China, for example, value their women’s football team over their men’s football team. Comparing to the Chinese men’s national team that failed to qualify in any FIFA World Cup finals after 2002, the Chinese women’s national team was once the runner-up in the 1999 FIFA World Cup tournament and was a quarter-finalist in 2015 before losing to the ultimate champion United States.

While losing their first game against Germany in the group stage, the Chinese women’s national team was encouraged by the fans who believed in their efforts. Many remain optimistic of the team’s chances of advancing into the next round. After defeating South Africa with a final score of 1-0, China will be playing against Spain in its final group stage game to secure a spot in the knock-out stage.

Similar to the Chinese women’s team, countries like Japan, Canada, and the United States all have stronger women’s teams in football. The US men’s football team has never won a World Cup champion while the women’s team not only secured three World Cup titles, but also four Olympics gold medals. Japan’s women’s football team won the World Cup champion in 2011, while its men’s team never made it beyond the round of 16. The Canadian women’s national team qualified for the last seven World Cup tournament and reached fourth place in 2003, while the Canadian men’s team haven’t made it to the World Cup finals since 1986.

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However, the good results did not necessarily transfer the praise and attention into concrete financial gains. It remains very challenging for female athletes to maintain financial independence through their competitive leagues and tournaments. While income inequality still exists in many other fields of businesses, the gender income gap among athletes is even larger. While the best male football player can make tens of millions of dollars per year, female football elites are struggling for the tens of thousands which is barely enough to pay the high costs required to remain competitive in the field of football.

Pro-market sports fans and advocates often argue that the lack of attractiveness and biological differences between men and women make inequality an inevitable outcome. However, these arguments failed to recognize the high caliber of skills that women athletes possess. While elite female players might not match their male counterparts, their skills and dedication to sports should at least earn them a decent wage to maintain competitive and active in the game.

When it comes to professional sports, it is necessary to push for gender equality around the world. However, a real issue within sports needs to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of the leagues. While arguably the women’s professional league may attract less attention than their male counterparts, the leagues need to find a solution to be financially responsible to maintain its operation, or at least maintain a break-even status. It is certainly nice to receive subsidies from the government agencies or from other professional leagues, but it is not a sustainable way for the women’s own sports league to grow and flourish. Maybe it is about featuring a different audience group, maybe it is about becoming smart on ticket sales and promotional strategies. But no matter how things work, the women’s league need to build up its unique fan base, and explore ways to establish new income streams to make the sports thrive on both local and national levels.

It is the World Cup season, and while all other major sports events are coming to their ends, why not cheer for the women’s in jerseys. They represent their countries in the competitive quest to become champions, and they definitely deserve our respect.

Featured photo credit to Hupu