The 2023 Women’s World Cup kicked off on July 20 in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). It’s a good time to reflect on the lead-up to the tournament and examine the weight of expectations it’s carrying. Beyond being the global flagship event for women’s football, it is also a litmus test on the current state of gender equality in sports—and society. It’s also an interesting example of how data may not tell the whole story and how much one’s perspective (i.e., “persona” in data-speak) matters.
The event itself needs no introduction and the Men’s World Cup is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, on par with the Olympics and other single-sport events like the Tour de France. Likewise, it’s a major entertainment spectacle generating global viewership in the billions, with massive television, online, and social media impact. Finally, the event plays a critical role in driving participation rates and grass-roots development that help secure the future of the game itself. In short, it is a very big deal, and a feather in the cap of the ANZ organising committee.
Closer to home, this Women’s World Cup also serves as the next test case for gender equality in player salaries, tournament prizemoney, and marketing/sponsorship budgets. Among many, there have been hopes that this is finally the point where women’s sport “draws even” and achieves full parity. In parallel with the central cause, this tournament in ANZ has also taken on related social issues around the rights of indigenous people (tapping into the local zeitgeist of the moment), demonstrating the power of the platform.
What the data tells us—a missed marketing opportunity
With tournament play starting in anger, how have preparations gone so far then? In all truth, probably not as well as expected, although given the history of the World Cup over the years, that is not necessarily a surprise. Ignoring the quality of the play itself, which I’m sure will be spectacular, it’s worth looking at the promotional impact, commercial performance (i.e., television rights, ticketing, merchandise, etc.), and player rewards such as pay and prizemoney. While it’s too early to tell the outcome, it is also interesting to consider whether indirect goals like increased participation rates are likely.
From a marketing perspective it feels very much like an opportunity lost. Following the massive hype (and controversy) of the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar, this current tournament seems underdone, or even pedestrian by comparison. Local advertising and promotions are only now kicking into gear. General public awareness is “fair”, but the specifics are sorely lacking—resulting in very little mainstream media excitement. Why should this be the case? Read on.
Despite arguments about the sanctity of sport, events such as the World Cup have always generated huge commercial opportunities. Given the factors discussed above in terms of gender equality and cultural shifts, this Women’s World Cup should have been a slam dunk (pardon the mixed metaphor). As it turned out, performance on key financial measures like television rights has been poor, and far more difficult to secure than anticipated. Potential growth markets like Japan have struggled to secure broadcast rights at all, while major European broadcasters have offered pitiful terms in comparison to the equivalent men’s rights.
Similarly, ticketing and merchandising options have been confusing for fans, and have grossly underestimated the grass-roots demand from a latent fan base. Why this would be the case is a mystery, given ANZ’s proven ability to host massive, world-class events. Perhaps it is a byproduct of the inert marketing and promotional effort described above?
The good news: interest in women’s soccer is blossoming and we’re making strides toward parity
On a more positive note, despite the challenges identified, there’s been exceptional demand for tickets, with many venues/matches selling out. This speaks well of the fundamental appeal of the sport and signals a strong, every-day acceptance of women’s sport at the highest levels. It appears the game is blossoming after all, and indications are that local participation levels will see an uptick down the road as well.
In another major win for the sport, women’s teams have made huge gains in terms of player salaries and tournament prizemoney, with FIFA announcing its goal of parity by the next series of World Cup events in 2026/27.
So, will this Women’s World Cup fulfill its destiny and catapult women’s sport to full gender parity? All indicators were primed for this to happen, but the reality is that societal change is a “game of inches”, requiring sustained effort to bridge cultural biases and entrenched financial models. Will the tournament however, provide a world class sporting spectacle and inspire a new generation of female football players? Without a doubt. Using a data analogy, this is the equivalent of ensuring your put immediate data in context, while leveraging your long-term data strategy to drive business value.
While watching the opening game of the tournament, with Australia playing Ireland, I was taken with the genuine excitement of fans at the ground, and the grit and professionalism of the players. If the Women’s World Cup hasn’t reached gender parity yet, it is certainly not far off! Go Australia!
If you’re interested in learning more about the Women’s World Cup, check out “Data Matchup: Showcasing Stats of the Women’s World Cup” for some more interesting stats based on women’s historical data—like the fact that Marta Vieira da Silva has scored more goals than any other player in World Cup history (and that includes the men!).