There has been an uproar on social media about the U.S. women's soccer team getting $2 million from FIFA for winning the World Cup after Germany's men last year got $35 million when they won in Brazil. How can this be, especially as FIFA reports record attendance and TV ratings from the monthlong event in Canada? We all see that the popularity for women's soccer continues to rise, not just in the United States but globally as well. Fox shattered TV records in the United States, making the World Cup final the most-watched soccer telecast ever (male or female). Canada, France, England, Japan, Australia, Brazil, China, South Korea and Norway also broke TV records.
When asked about the discrepancy, FIFA defends paying the women's winners less by telling you that FIFA makes a lot more money off the men's game. True. FIFA then points to the fact that the men's World Cup brought in $4.5 billion in direct revenue to FIFA versus the pocket change it makes from the Women's World Cup. True again. Fox will tell you it brought in an estimated $17 million in ad revenue (which is nearly triple what ESPN made in the last Women's World Cup). FIFA will tell you that is still a small number when you look at the $529 million ESPN took home with the men's World Cup in Brazil. True once again.
But our uproar over $2 million versus $35 million is misplaced.
FIFA will tell you the men get more because the market says so (cue the lava coming out of my ears). Of course it does because what, really, has FIFA done to help the market care about women's football?
Our uproar should be focused on why the women's game is not attracting bigger numbers in general. Why are sponsors not motivated to get behind the women's game? Why are FIFA sponsors doing little to no activation at the Women's World Cup? And what is FIFA doing to get its member associations (i.e. soccer federations) to support the women's game?
First, let's rewind a bit.
If you asked me 16 years ago, after the success of the 1999 Women's World Cup, to predict what the future of women's soccer would look like in the year 2015, I would have guessed that 1999 would have inspired a positive global revolution for the women's game. I would have guessed that a lot of countries (not all of course, but a lot) would have seen the positives to investing in young girls and sports. I would have guessed that many would have seen not just the financial potential in this untapped market, but more important, the social benefit. I would have guessed that development programs for girls would be thriving or at least growing in many countries. I would have guessed that cultural barriers to women playing would be shattered or at least starting to crumble.
And how very wrong I would have been.
Because, you see, back in 1999, you could count on one hand the number of soccer federations that put sufficient resources behind their women's program. And guess what? In 2015 we are still counting only with just about one hand (United States, Germany, Sweden, France, Japan ... and England in the distance). Yes, you could argue that we just get onto that second hand with the likes of Australia and a few other European countries, but it's a stretch.
And that is the unfortunate reality. In fact, I would argue that Brazil has taken a step back since the team's peak in the mid-2000s (and that is with five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta). Mexico has regressed as well. Spain has had the same national team coach for 27 years. Yes, I said 27 years. And it just qualified for its first World Cup this year. At that rate, Spain's next World Cup with coach Ignacio Quereda will be in 2042.
I could go on and on in listing the countries that have made little to no strides forward since 40 million Americans saw at least some of the Women's World Cup final in 1999. And that is the sad truth: 16 years later the women's game has barely grown outside of a few countries.
I understand that comparisons of opportunity are difficult when the United States has Title IX and legislation that allow women to play sports. I also get that many countries do not culturally accept women playing sports. But I also know that without an urgency to do more, an urgency to change, and most important, courageous leadership in each federation, nothing will change. And that urgency has to come from FIFA. That directive has to come from the top.
Just imagine the potential. Imagine if 16 years ago (instead of merely last summer), FIFA had not only created its "10 key developmental principles for women's football" (which are excellent, by the way), but backed them up with resources to help countries actually implement them. Imagine if FIFA tracked how each federation spent its FIFA bonus money annually on the women's game. Yes, FIFA mandates that 15 percent of that bonus must go to women's programming, but who in FIFA is checking that and how?
Imagine if soccer federations around the world started actually investing some time and energy in their women's program. Imagine if they started developing girls and young women on a more consistent basis. Imagine if just ONE person woke up every day within a federation thinking about how to best help the women's program. Right now in most federations there is no one.
Well, fortunately, you don't have to imagine. This Women's World Cup gave us three wonderful examples: France, England and Australia. All three had directives from the top of the federation to grow the women's game. All three federations invested in developing girls and young women. All three support a women's league. All three, with a relatively small investment, got huge returns on that investment. Sure, the potential and need to do even more are there, but look at the enthusiasm in these countries for how their teams performed. Look at the attention. Is it there all the time? No, not yet. But you see the potential.
Imagine if more presidents and decision-makers within federations had the courage to start the movement. What if more said "I want to build our base of female players. I want to give girls the chance to play and dream and compete." Because when you build the base, you build more successful players. And when teams start winning, you bring attention. And attention leads to market support. And -- no surprise -- we are right back to where we started this rant. That is the golden cycle. And that is the broken cycle that we should be up in arms about: the fact that FIFA, as guardian of the game, has done so very little to build the base for women. To build the market.
So let's start that uproar, please. Let's ask FIFA to stop telling us how much more money it makes off the men's game and start telling us how it is going to encourage federations globally to do more for their women. Let's ask FIFA to start showing us the millions it is putting into supporting the women's game, rather than the $26.8 million it wasted on a FIFA propaganda "blockbuster" film. Let's ask FIFA to actually be the new face of reform it professes to be.
Because the chance for change is now. Who has the courage to step up within this new FIFA and within the various federations to leave a legacy for the women's game? Principles are great. Programs are great. But without a will to be that leader for change, principles and programs are just words on paper. And really, what is the downside to developing the women's game?
The legacy is you build stronger, happier, healthier women -- good for sports, good for society, good for life. We all win. So let's stop making comparisons about who makes more and instead start supporting the other half of the population so it can dream of being more.
It starts now. And it starts with you, FIFA.