The Women's World Cup draw is upon us, and I know I should be gushing sunshine, but excuse me if I can't. I blame FIFA.
Full disclosure: Blaming FIFA is an occupational affliction, borne from years of FIFA's occupational inaction. The organization's incessant failure to fulfill its mission to support the women's game is mind-numbing (and this mind needs no further numbing).
There's part of me that would just like to sweep this affliction under a rug. It's easier that way. Less time consuming, less wine consuming and definitely better for my heart. But this year, FIFA has made a number of statements in support of the women's game that keep drawing me back in, thinking this time will be different. Just last week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino delivered a speech titled "the power of football" at the G-20 summit, in which he said soccer has "too often overlooked half the world's population: the women. At the new FIFA we are determined to change this."
Infantino is closing in on the third year of his term, and I thought he could bring a new mindset, a new urgency for action within the women's game. More attention.
Exhibit A: FIFA in October approved a doubling of the prize money for the Women's World Cup to $30 million, starting with next year's tournament in France. (Read the fine print.)
Praise FIFA! Perhaps FIFA noticed the swell in global demand for equal pay among women's soccer programs and thought players would rejoice.
"Leaders in sport should not be content to sit back and let the gender pay gap get wider in absolute terms on their watch," former FIFA Council member Moya Dodd told the Associated Press before FIFA made the change.
Well, U.S. women's national team players Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe wasted no time in saying this raise was neither good enough nor broad enough. In fact, the changes actually signify an increase in the gap between men's and women's prize money. In the past four years, that disparity has grown to $370 million from about $343 million; FIFA has also pledged to share $440 million in prize money among the men's teams playing at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, an increase of $40 million from the 2018 World Cup. (And yes, the World Cup is still happening in Qatar).
You don't have to be Archimedes to realize FIFA's argument that it was moving in the right direction was an empty one. Maybe you're thinking that increased prize money is at least a positive step -- more prize money, more love for the women's game. I give you Exhibit B.
Exhibit B: In October, FIFA said it permitted the men's Copa America final and men's Gold Cup final on July 7, the same day as the Women's World Cup final (this is a first).
Nothing shouts of FIFA's deep affection for the women's game like putting the most exalted women's game -- THE MOTHER OF ALL MOTHERS -- alongside two other huge global finals.
For fans who may ask,"What's the big deal?" they should understand that the women will lose in this arrangement. Consider what this means for sponsors, media companies, audiences -- anyone who doesn't have the means or resources to cover or watch all three events. Rather than making it easy for them to cover and consume the women's game, FIFA is forcing a choice. When the market gets crowded, who do you think gets dumped off the docket? FIFA knows this.
When Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated asked FIFA how this was allowed to happen, its response was:
"The scheduling of the different events has gone through a comprehensive consultancy process, which has involved all key stakeholders and taken into account different aspects of the women's and men's international match calendars. FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL are discussing the match schedules in general and the timing of the finals in particular, in order to minimize any potential timing clashes of the final matches."
Let me translate: We spoke to everyone, and we all agreed -- even though this will indeed compete with the very thing we claim to be committed to build, we still think this is an excellent idea. (Insert emoji of head exploding.)
I asked FIFA to further explain why this was allowed to happen. "The timings of the games don't overlap and football fans can enjoy a triple header," a FIFA spokesperson said. "Last summer the FIFA World Cup final was on the same day as an MLS doubleheader, which got its highest ratings ever." And there you go. Pass me the wine.
This decision directly contradicts a later assertion from FIFA that read, "As part of FIFA's broader efforts to improve the appeal of women's football to players, fans and commercial partners, FIFA will optimize its competitions to ensure that the best players and teams are showcased and that there is an effective means to develop the future stars of the women's game." That was published in its Women's Football Strategy.
That's right, just one week after this scheduling announcement, FIFA releases its global Women's Football Strategy. Awesome. We've been waiting for this. I actually got hopeful. Again. Maybe, just maybe, this will be different. Maybe there will be some meat on the bones.
Exhibit C: FIFA's Women's Football Strategy.
Despite sounding promising, this report is actually a buzz kill. It's more about nice glossy photos than substance. No budgetary details, no metrics or benchmarks. In it FIFA courageously admits that "years of institutional neglect and a lack of investment have prevented girls and women from playing the game," while never acknowledging that they published it nearly a year late. Let's dig into the details.
-- FIFA said it's targeting to double global female participation to 60 million by 2026. FIFA previously had a goal to hit 45 million by 2019, which goes unmentioned in its report. FIFA is also using a men's World Cup cycle as its target dates. Again, that might not mean much to you, but what this says to women players (insert hand raised emoji), once again, is we are not top of mind.
When I asked about progress on the earlier target, a FIFA spokeswoman said a participation survey is planned for 2019 and that when they set that original goal in 2015, there were 30 million girls participating globally. FIFA did not provide updated participation numbers. And it is worth noting that many of their metrics for measuring girls and women's global participation numbers come from the FIFA Big Count, which happened in 2006.
-- FIFA is aiming for every member association to "have developed comprehensive women's football strategies" by 2022. Shouldn't we be at a point where FIFA member associations are not only developing but activating on women's football strategies?
-- Oh, and this one: FIFA will "develop and implement a Women's Football Commercial [Program] by 2026." In other words, FIFA will have a plan to, as it says, "broaden the exposure of women's football and grow its commercial value" in eight years. More red wine, please.
When I asked FIFA why not implement that commercial plan sooner, a FIFA spokesperson pointed to existing commercial programs that package together rights for the Women's World Cup and men's World Cup -- contracts that extend through 2026 and 2030 and don't allow for the "full development" of women's football commercial programs in the interim.
I will just let that one marinate.
The issue with FIFA and Infantino isn't that they don't care about women's soccer. It's that they kind of care. They conveniently care. They care enough to be politically correct. They care enough to win elections.
They wrap it up pretty and make it sound nice, but the real question remains: Does FIFA, and Infantino specifically, finally have the political will to make these proclamations become more than just proclamations?
When will the pretty pictures evolve into action? When will FIFA and Infantino actually take the women's market seriously? Don't tell us, as you do in your global Strategy, that "one only needs to look back at the enormous success of the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 for an indication of just how popular and powerful the sport is around the world." We figured that out in 1999. Remember those packed stadiums and huge viewership numbers? The Women's World Cup netted millions of dollars in profit in 1999, 2003 and 2015 ($2.3 million, $11.5 million and $3 million to $4 million, respectively), according to a person familiar with the financials of the events.
Turning a profit is important, of course, but a metric FIFA could and should enforce is maintaining ongoing competition for national teams after the Women's World Cup. A number of teams return home from the tournament to great excitement and fan support within their country and don't play again for months or years.
We're closing in on the final months of Infantino's term, so when will FIFA hold an independent audit of gender equality, one of his campaign promises, and do the same for its member associations?
FIFA has the power to dangle the carrot and/or wield the hammer. It does neither well. Instead, through initiatives like its "Forward" program, which provides funds to its federations globally, FIFA pushes responsibility to the member associations where women often face these problems of institutional neglect to outright corruption. Look at Trinidad and Tobago, where players used social media to beg for support so they could simply attend their World Cup qualifiers. Not a friendly or a set of meaningless games -- these women can't even get their federation to support them for World Cup qualifiers. Or Afghanistan, where players are alleging sexual and physical abuse by officials within the country's federation. (FIFA has said it's investigating and has a zero-tolerance policy on human rights violations and condemns all forms of gender-based violence.)
These stories are not isolated. They are everywhere. This is women's soccer 2018. When I asked Chilean soccer players this September how they were able to qualify for their first Women's World Cup, they said, "We finally have a president in our federation who cares." The previous president, Sergio Jadue, pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy in December 2015 as part of the FBI's FIFA corruption case.
Here's what I do know. FIFA speaks the language of money. The organization expects to have $1.7 billion in cash and assets by the end of 2018. Women's soccer, in the grand scheme of that $1.7 billion, is a small investment, with a potentially sizable return.
Infantino, ignore the fact that it is FIFA's duty and mission as a governing body to grow the game for all, how about adding to your coffers? Is that more enticing? If you can't understand that societies and communities are stronger when their women are stronger, then let me appeal to your greed. A number of studies show that investing in women and gender diversity increases a company's bottom line.
Please, cure my FIFA-blaming affliction. Prove that you care. Give us something beyond eight-year targets. Give us something beyond glossy photos, proclamations about the power of football and "strategies." Give us something specific, meaningful, actionable. Promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all (words from your mission statement, FYI). That is something we can all raise our glasses to.