March 08, 2024

In 2023, Women's Sports saw the most significant leap ever. What's next?

March 08, 2024

In 2023, Women's Sports saw the most significant leap ever. What's next?

On September 20, 1973, at the Astrodome in Houston, United States, Billie Jean King, one of the greatest names in women's tennis, defeated Bobby Riggs, a former world number one who had retired at that time, in three sets. This match would go down in history as the "Battle of the Genders," one of the most significant events in women's sports regarding the fight for equal pay between men and women in sports prizes, with implications extending to other sports. Approximately 48 million people worldwide watched that game, which was not just a three-set victory for King but also a 'serve' to address and discuss gender inequality in sports, reflecting in the prize money accompanying the trophies.

Interestingly, exactly 50 years after this historic encounter, 2023 emerged as the year of the greatest growth for women's sports, marked by a series of records that piled up. The world record for the largest attendance at a women's sports event was set in the United States, where 92,000 fans filled the Memorial Stadium for an outdoor volleyball match between two university women's teams, Huskers and Omaha. The Women International Cricket Council’s T20 World Cup, held in South Africa, became the most-watched tournament in the history of women's cricket, accumulating a total of 192 million viewing hours. The deciding basketball game for the National Collegiate Athletic Association title in the United States, between the women's teams from the universities of Iowa and Louisiana, was watched by 9.9 million viewers on ABC and ESPN2 broadcasts. However, unparalleled in its impact, the sporting event that contributed the most to this growth was the Women's World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand.

In the first World Cup featuring 32 teams, 1,997,824 fans attended the 64 matches, averaging 31,000 fans per game – almost 10,000 more on average than the 2019 tournament in France. The numbers don't stop there: the global audience reached two billion viewers, and 650,000 fans participated in the tournament's official fan zones, showcasing how the event engaged with the host countries' populations, creating a true football festival for that month. In total, the competition generated $570 million (€525.29 million), rebounding from the losses recorded in the 2019 and 2015 editions. The prizes distributed to participating teams increased by 300% compared to the last edition, culminating in a total purse of $150 million (approximately €138.50 million).

The FIFA report titled "Women’s Football: Member Associations Survey Report 2023" confirms 2023 as a disruptive year in women's football. According to the document, the number of women and girls playing football increased by 24% compared to 2019, with a total of 16.6 million registered athletes in clubs in 2023. Currently, in senior women's football, there are 3.9 million players, with 19,064 playing professionally worldwide.

The CONCACAF, the confederation overseeing football in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, has the highest number of registered athletes at 7,072,075, followed by UEFA with 5,236,802 athletes. UEFA, in comparison to 2019, experienced the most significant growth in the number of athletes, adding 3.3 million players. Closing the top three is the CAF with 1,751,255 athletes.

In addition to UEFA establishing itself as the second-largest power in women's football among the confederations, the countries where the sport has seen the most growth are Brazil, with a 5,500% increase in the number of athletes compared to 2019, Mexico, with a 2,900% increase, and England, with a 2,720% increase.


Number of registered players per Confederation

CONCACAF: 7,072,075

UEFA: 5,236,802

CAF: 1,751,255

AFC: 1,541,310

CONMEBOL: 913,084

OFC: 56,283


All this growth context has led to an increase in media coverage of women's sports events. A Wasserman report released at the end of 2023 indicated a growth of 15% in the coverage of women's sports events in 2022 and projected, at this growth rate, that by 2025, these events would achieve a coverage of 20%. According to the document, the dissemination of content through new digital media, the projection of sports on social networks, and streaming channel broadcasts that have won over fans of the sport have significantly contributed to this growth.

It's a snowball effect that is getting bigger, especially considering that history shows that showcasing women's football has had significant results year after year in the growth of the women's side of the sport. If in 1991 the American victory in the first edition of the Women's World Cup created an enthusiasm that today can be seen as a legacy, in a reality where the sport is dominated by women and would establish a dominant national team – winning four World Cup titles – in a country where football is soccer, and gave the world some of the best players ever like Mia Hamm, Carli Lloyd, or Megan Rapinoe. In 2023, England, a finalist, was one of the countries with the highest increase in female football players. The true dynasty of this World Cup, whether among the countries that shone the most, with Spain as the winner, currently home to the world's best women's team, FC Barcelona, and the world's best player, Aitana Bonmatí, or in the host countries in Oceania, where the Australian Sam Kerr, currently playing for Chelsea, is a sports idol.

However, while it is evident that 2023 is significant for the growth of women's sports, it is also clear that this path still faces several barriers. Today, according to the FIFA report mentioned earlier, only 5% (48,202) of the total coaching universe are women, only 9% of a universe of 731,500 referees are women, and only 34% of the top women's football divisions have a dedicated sponsor. To all this, add the differences in generated revenues – if the 2023 Women's World Cup generated more than 525 million euros, the 2022 Men's World Cup generated almost seven billion euros – as well as the prize money – the total prize money to be distributed among the participating teams in the Men's World Cup is 440 million euros, while in the Women's World Cup, this value is 110 million euros. Above all, the narrative that remains continues to show vulnerability. Just think of the year 2023, the historic victory of Spain in the World Cup, and how it was 'overshadowed' by the incident where Luis Rubiales, moments before the trophy presentation, kissed the captain of the team, Jenni Hermoso, in an act that she later considered non-consensual and led to the resignation of the now-former president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.


What's next?


All indications point to 2024 being another stage of sustained growth for women's sports, with the consulting firm Deloitte projecting a total revenue slightly above one billion dollars this year. This forecast is based on matchday revenues, broadcasting rights, and commercial revenues.  The latter, including sponsorships and merchandise sales, is expected to remain the largest source of revenue for women's clubs (55% - $696 million), followed by broadcasting rights (27% - $340 million), and finally, matchday revenues (18% - $240 million).

Of this historic total value, which will surpass one billion dollars for the first time, football is projected to be the sport with the greatest prominence ($555 million – 43%), followed by basketball ($354 million – 28%). According to the study, the most influential markets are the North American (52% - $670 million) and European (14% - $181 million) markets.

In addition to these projections, there are already real numbers materializing that show progress is not confined to the bubble of a year of major events. In February, the Arsenal - Manchester United match in the Barclays Women's Super League had a record attendance of 60,160 people. Days earlier, in the winter transfer market in January, Racheal Kundananji made the most expensive transfer in women's football history, moving from Madrid CFF (Spain) to Bay FC (USA) for 805,000 euros.

Women's sports will continue to be in the spotlight in 2024, with a focus not only on regular season competitions but also on the Olympic Games in Paris, where gender equality is a key priority. With various documented numbers regarding women's involvement in the tournament, the goal is to have more women engaged, both in leadership roles in various committees and in the composition of coaching staff. Will this be another major competition marking the growth of women's sports?