Objectivity is an important part of my job. Fifa president Gianni Infantino, however, regularly tests my commitment to impartiality.
I’m surely not the only one left perplexed by Infantino and his increasingly bizarre public outbursts. He isn’t going anywhere, though, having been reelected unopposed until 2027.
One of the main items on the 53-year-old’s to-do list for the next four years is growing women’s soccer. A new women’s Club World Cup will arrive soon but the immediate priority for Infantino is this summer’s 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The Fifa boss is thinking big. Soccer’s global governing body says the 2019 edition in France attracted 1.12 billion viewers and Infantino believes that number will reach two billion this time around. He also expects broadcasters to pay a lot more for the privilege of showing what will be the largest Women’s World Cup ever, with the tournament set to feature 32 teams for the first time.
Offers for rights have been made by European broadcasters. They just haven’t been to Fifa’s liking. Having already rejected bids last year for being too low, Infantino has deemed the latest proposals from Europe’s ‘big five’ markets – France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain – to be “disappointing” and a “slap in the face” to players and “all women worldwide”.
According to the Fifa president, offers between US$1 million and US$10 million for the rights have been well below his expectations. Bids for the men’s tournament, he says, range from US$100 million to US$200 million. Now, Infantino has threatened a blackout of the Women’s World Cup in some markets if the broadcasters don’t return with improved offers, which is surely a scenario where nobody wins.
Indeed, Fifa has increased the tournament’s prize money to US$152 million and the goal is to eventually reach equal pay with the men’s World Cup. To get there, Infantino wants broadcasters, particularly those funded by taxpayers, to increase their rights investment so Fifa gets the extra revenue it claims it needs to make good on the promise for financial parity. The organisation is hardly short of cash, though – it generated record income of US$7.5 billion during the four-year cycle leading up to Qatar 2022.
Until recently, Fifa has neglected and underfunded women’s soccer. As a result, this is the first time that it is selling the broadcast rights to the Women’s World Cup separately from the men’s competition, meaning the market value for the tournament has not been set before. Broadcasters are therefore likely to be pricing their offers based on the audience numbers previously seen for the event, while also trying to factor in the impact the unfavourable time zone might have on viewership.
For context, Fifa data shows that the 2019 Women’s World Cup final averaged 82 million live viewers, compared to an audience of 517 million for the men’s equivalent fixture in 2018. The men’s group stage that year averaged 162 million live viewers, whereas the same round at the women’s tournament 12 months later averaged a live audience of 11.92 million. This suggests that Fifa has a duty to first and foremost close the gap in reach between the men’s and women’s competitions.
Yet Infantino, stubborn to the hilt, continues to assert Europe’s top markets are undervaluing the Women’s World Cup. Some may commend him for driving a hard bargain and dismissing the excuse of European broadcasters being underwhelmed about few matches taking place during primetime. Still, it feels flippant for Infantino to describe the potential blackout as “a pity”. The consequences for the women’s game would be far worse than that.
The Women’s World Cup in Europe’s ‘big five’ will likely be shown in some capacity, perhaps even via the Fifa+ streaming service – a move which would likely reach fewer fans. But if that does happen, or if Infantino follows through on his threat of a blackout, the tournament’s viewership will take a significant hit at a moment when exposure should be its focus. When that added attention arrives it will catapult the value of the Women’s World Cup to new heights, meaning Infantino can double down on his rights demands for 2027 and beyond.
I am not saying that Fifa should relent and sell this summer’s tournament short. But it should be prepared to consider the bigger picture.
You can’t blame Infantino for wanting the Women’s World Cup to have the same commercial prestige as the men’s version. Yet getting there was always going be a marathon rather than a sprint. A blackout in such important European markets would be an enormous step in the wrong direction, as it would stifle accessibility and potentially harm revenue in the long term.
It seems mad that Fifa is prepared to sacrifice millions of viewers. Sponsors would be put off knowing there would be less people tuning in, especially brands operating in England, where there was a surge in interest following the Lionesses’ triumph at Uefa Euro 2022. The final was the most-watched women’s soccer match ever in the UK, reaching a peak television audience of 17.4 million on the BBC.
Then again, in his infinite wisdom, Infantino may be bluffing and hope that public opinion will convince broadcasters to cough up. If he fails, bridging the financial gap between the men’s and women’s World Cups will be even harder.
Ed Dixon covers the international sports business for SportsPro and is a contributor to the SportsPro Podcast. Follow him on Twitter here.