Fifa’s Sarai Bareman: women’s soccer is “the biggest growth opportunity in sport”

New Zealander Sarai Bareman joined Fifa in November in the newly created role Fifa chief women's football officer. She spoke to SportsPro at the Football Talks conference in Portugal in March about the challenges and opportunities facing the sport at the halfway point between two editions of the Fifa Women's World Cup.

Fifa’s Sarai Bareman: women’s soccer is “the biggest growth opportunity in sport”

The high-profile package of reforms that followed Gianni Infantino's election as Fifa president in 2016 were judged - understandably in the wake of the events of 2015 - by the impact they could have on soccer governance and best practice. But the new measures also instilled a greater degree of diversity than ever before in the running of the world game, with more women brought into elected and senior management positions and more weight given to issues affecting the players and fans they represent.

New Zealander Sarai Bareman joined the reorganised set-up in November in the newly created role Fifa chief women's football officer. She spoke to SportsPro at the Football Talks conference in Portugal in March about the challenges and opportunities facing the sport at the halfway point between two editions of the Fifa Women's World Cup.

What have you seen as your priorities in this new role at Fifa?

Definitely the growth in participation of female football players across the globe as one of the big priorities. It’s part of the vision of Fifa to double the number of women’s players.

It’s also to implement the reforms that came about in February last year. It’s one thing to have these great reforms on paper and voted in by the congress of Fifa, but it’s another thing to ensure that they are implemented. And when I speak about the reforms I talk specifically about the women’s reforms, we can call them.

How significant are those going to be, not just in terms of engendering commercial and participative growth within women’s soccer but actually having more women involved in the running of these issues at the outset whenever anything is put into place?

Well, we have a new general secretary in Fifa – she is a woman, for the first time ever. I sit in the senior management board of the organisation and I have another colleague who is also a woman – Joyce Cook, from the UK – and she’s in charge of the member associations’ development. So there are three females now in the senior management board of Fifa.

We also see, now, in the Fifa Council, there are six women who have been elected into their positions where there was previously only one. So it’s happening. It’s only a first step. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that it is a big step, but it’s only the first step and we have to continue to push. We cannot relax now and be happy with what we have.

We have to continue to drive and advocate and I think it’s important that the women who are now taking these positions and have the privilege of being involved at the highest level do a good job, because it will reflect on all women in the game. And it’s important that we support and educate and empower, and help to develop these women so that they can do a good job. 

Do you think in terms of sports governance more widely it’s still at a stage where it’s important to actually put women in these positions, and not to expect there to be some kind of organic process? Or do you think that we’re reaching a point where women will naturally come to occupy some of these roles?

I think we still need to push, at this stage. I think it will get to a point – I mean, I’ve read a lot of academic studies and heard a lot of facts and statistics, and they say that 30 per cent is the magic number to reach in order for it to become an organic process. So I would say that at this stage, especially in football governance, we’re not there. We have to continue to push – and I think that across a lot of sports as well, not only football.

There’s often a big debate, especially in women’s sports, about quotas and whether we should do quotas, and this type of thing, and I feel that quotas are a tool to start something. And I think that having quotas is important to get in the door and get at the table in those decision-making bodies, but it should get to a point where the quotas are not needed.

Do you think football is waking up to the leadership role in wider sport it has in that respect? That as is it the most visible, most universal sport in the world, if women’s football succeeds it makes a huge difference to how women’s sport is perceived more generally?

Yeah, absolutely. I think in terms of participation numbers, women’s football is the biggest in the world across women’s sport. The men’s game, I don’t even need to tell you – I mean, obviously, it’s the biggest. And, yeah, Fifa has a huge role to play in leading the charge for the women’s game.

I think that we are on the precipice now in women’s sports across the world. There’s a big movement happening for women’s empowerment and gender equality. I mean, we’ve seen it after the US elections, all these marches, and it’s and incredible moment for women everywhere – not only in sport. And Fifa have this amazing opportunity to be a leader. It’s really exciting and it’s important that we take this seriously, because whatever it is that we do at Fifa level will really set the trend across all other sports.

We’re halfway through the World Cup cycle – Canada is getting on for two years ago, and France is just over two years away. Practically, what point of that transition process are you at now?

We’re working closely with the French Football Federation on the organisation of the tournament. In April, the host cities will be announced, and the stadiums. We are taking a particular interest now in the qualifiers. We are also wanting to look at and analyse the qualification tournaments, because they are at very different levels.

For example, the European countries, the number of matches that the top women’s national teams play in the lead-up to the Women’s World Cup, I think, from statistics I saw, was much, much higher than the other regions. I think it’s nine matches in a year for the European countries versus, say for example, three in the Pacific region and even three or four in Asia. So there’s a vast difference and I think it’s important for the popularity of women’s football to try and close this gap, because it will make it more competitive and more beautiful to watch, and more exciting for sports fans – not just women’s fans but general sports fans.

Do you feel like the Women’s World Cup now occupies the same space in the women’s game as the men’s edition, in being recognised as the pinnacle? Obviously the women’s game has developed differently and the Olympics, for example, has a much more prominent place in women’s football. There are geographical differences in how the women’s game has grown. Was 2015 a landmark in that respect?

Absolutely. Canada was record-breaking in many senses: fan engagement, attendance at matches, broadcast, social media, everything. It was groundbreaking. And for that to happen in a time of turmoil for Fifa and for football, I think, was an amazing moment, because it was so nice to be able to shine a light on women’s football in such a positive way compared to some of the tough things that were happening in that period. It was a big moment and I think it’s very important in the next edition in France that we build on that and we continue to grow.

Fifa recognises the Women’s World Cup as its second-biggest tournament. It’s putting a lot of priority on the organisation of the tournament and it will only grow over time.

What are some of the targets for France? What are some of the things that you want to see happen that haven’t happened at a Women’s World Cup before?

I think we need to continue the trend of Canada. I haven’t gone so far yet as to put numbers on it but I’d like to see, again, increases in terms of broadcast and the number of people that are tuning in to watch, the number of people who are watching women’s football for the first time – I thought that was a very interesting statistic from Barbara [Slater, the BBC director of sport, who noted a 500 per cent increase in UK TV audiences between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.] And also the fan attendance – and I know this is going to be a little tough, because in North America and Canada we saw huge numbers of people in the final with the USA there and obviously, geographically, it was great that we were so close.

So this will be a challenge, I think, in France, to have the same fan engagement, but I think it’s possible. I think we’re seeing a huge growth in interest for women’s football, not only at international level but across the regions. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few of those regions since I’ve started and I can see there’s some huge projects that are underway and some great initiatives that are happening, not only at Fifa but everywhere. So it’s great, because it means that we’re not on our own in doing this. We have the support of many people and it’s happening all over the globe.

How closely do you work with the organisers of competitions at a club level to foster opportunities for professional women players? How closely do you watch the changing dynamics in the club game?

We’re watching it very closely at the moment and I think that, actually, it’s one of our top priorities. We see more and more that the women’s game is heading towards professional levels that the men’s game is already at, and it’s important that we make moves – especially now at Fifa and in football governance – around the regulations that exist on the status and transfer of players, professional women’s players; we need to create a framework to ensure that women who are playing football professionally at a club level are protected.

And I think it’s important, also, to be confident in the women’s game that we actually don’t have to copy the men’s game. We don’t need to follow the exact model that they have created. There are some fantastic things happening in the men’s game. There’s no question about that. But we have a position now where we can do something new. We can create new competitions; we can do things in terms of media and marketing that the men’s game is unable to do.

For example, in Canada, we saw the media having access to team buses on the way to matches and after matches with some of the top national teams. I mean, you would never see that in the men’s game. So we have this amazing opportunity to create new things and be dynamic, and do things in a totally different way.

I suppose another way that the women’s game has already developed differently from the men’s game is geographically, with the women’s game developing earlier in North America than the men’s game, for example, or the disparity in the rankings between China’s women’s team and the men. What kind of opportunities and challenges does that create?

I think the opportunities are vast. Women’s football, for me, represents the biggest growth opportunity in any sport. You could almost say that men’s football has completely saturated its reach now. The men’s World Cup is the biggest tournament in the world’ the men’s game is truly touching all corners of the globe. It’s everywhere: people live and breathe football.

And women’s football is a long way away from that, and this is a huge challenge for us but it’s also a massive opportunity. We have the opportunity to create new revenue streams into football that haven’t been there before. We can engage more people. We can bring women and families into the game. And the nice thing about women’s football is that it’s clean. People see it as clean. We don’t have all the scandals and the issues of the men’s game and it’s a nice, organic, wholesome product that can create a whole new fanbase and a whole new following, and new commercial partners. It’s got an attraction that the men’s game doesn’t have, and we need to leverage this. We have to use this.

So it’s a huge challenge but, at the same time, I see it as a massive opportunity.