Women’s football is still a pauper’s game, despite World Cup success

The Guardian, 16 July, 2011

The striker swerves past two defenders and buries the ball in the bottom corner to score the winning World Cup goal in front of a sellout crowd and millions more viewers at home.

But there is unlikely to be fame and multimillion-pound sponsorship deals when the stars of the Women’s World Cup return home after a tournament that has surpassed all expectations, winning over new fans and delighting advertisers.

The women’s game is still a pauper compared with men’s football.

And even if the closest the tournament has managed to come to throwing up a new global star is the US goalkeeper Hope Solo, it’s doubtful she will ever reach the stratospheric earning potential of superstars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Nevertheless, the tournament has been deemed a success in its host country, Germany, despite the home team’s disappointing performance. It is the first time the entire tournament has been broadcast on TV there and the sponsors are thrilled. About 17 million people tuned in to watch Japan destroy German dreams of a third title in a row – and even when the home side was out 6 million watched each of the semi-finals on Wednesday.

“That’s around the same as normally watch Bayern Munich in a Champions League match,” said Hartmut Zastrow, director of Sport+Markt, a consultancy.

About 800,000 of the 900,000 available tickets have been sold for the tournament, including the final between Japan and the US on Sunday.

Wolfgang Niersbach, general secretary of the German Football Association (DFB) has said the huge interest in event was a “world sensation”.

But Zastrow says the tournament will create few superstars because people don’t regularly watch the players play with their league teams. “It’s naturally different when it comes to the men. When someone like Messi plays in the World Cup, you already know him. You need that recognition to become a star.”

Even if there has been a lack of star power, Zastrow says that the World Cup will still give a long-term boost to the sport. “The young girls will think, I’ll try football instead of volleyball. And that is how you create the next generation.”

Alfons Madeja, professor of sports management at the University of Heilbronn, is less sure if there will be a World Cup effect on women’s football in Germany. He says people tuned in out of curiosity but that there wasn’t enough done to make the tournament into a massive event. “A World Cup is only successful when it’s more than just about sport but also a huge social event too.”

And as for Germany’s own disappointing performance, he thinks there was too much pressure on the players to go from being unknowns to world stars. “They usually play in front of 800 people, no one knows who they are. The women’s football results aren’t even printed in the newspapers.”

Daniela Schaaf, at the German Sport University Cologne, says there was a deliberate attempt to push the image of some of the German players as sex symbols ahead of the World Cup to try to give the women’s game a boost.

Yet she argues this strategy doesn’t really produce household names. The players who the advertisers want are not necessarily the ones who perform well on the pitch. She points to 23-year-old midfielder Fatmire Bajramaj, much hyped before the tournament, who even had a Nike contract, yet whose performance was disappointing.

She warns of a “Kournikova effect” where the footballers’ sex appeal becomes more important than their sporting abilities. “In the short term it generates media interest but in the end they are only regarded as sex objects not as sportswomen.”

Schaaf thinks the only player in the tournament who has the potential to become a big star is Hope Solo, the US goalie: “She is successful at the sport and she is very attractive.”

Solo saved a penalty in the shoot out against Brazil to put the team through to the semi-finals where they beat France 3-1.

Whoever lifts the trophy , they will have to make do with glory rather than expecting any huge monetary award.

When Spain won the men’s World Cup in South Africa last year the team came home with a trophy and $30m, from a total prize fund of $420m.

But there is just $7.6m in total up for grabs for the women at Germany 2011, and the winning side in Frankfurt will have to share little more than $1m between the entire team.

Originally published in The Guardian:


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