There are no winners in the Women’s World Cup broadcast fiasco, only losers

<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? If a World Cup kicks off on the other side of the world but no one can watch it, does it really happen?

We are 43 days out from the Women’s World Cup starting in Australia and New Zealand but, with Fifa threatening a blackout because of low offers for the broadcast rights from the biggest European footballing countries, you wouldn’t know it. There are no adverts, no references to coverage and there is no buildup. Instead, prospective viewers and existing fans in those countries have been left in limbo.

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How on earth did we get here? The Fifa-backed official Women’s World Cup began in 1991 after decades of unofficial events and demands for the world governing body to get behind the women’s game. Even that tournament, while it was run by Fifa for the first time, was held at arm’s length and called the “1st Fifa World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup”, to avoid any risk of it tarnishing the World Cup branding.

Since then, commercial and broadcast rights for the showpiece tournament, which failed to embarrass and thus was bestowed with the more traditional branding to become the “Women’s World Cup” for the 1995 edition, have been bundled and sold as part of the deals for the rights of the men’s World Cups. Except it has not been equal billing as value has not been attributed to the women’s edition. Instead, it has been an add-on, a freebie thrown in to make the huge sums thrown at the men’s edition more palatable. It feels like a lot of money to be spending? Well, broadcasters, you’re getting the women’s too! What a bargain.

There has been little effort to gauge the value of the tournament in its own right, which has held back women’s football. From the big – undervalued rights – to the small – not enough official merchandise and low kit availability – for almost 32 years the Women’s World Cup has been been pretty much deemed worthless and unprofitable by Fifa. It has been charity. It is loss-making and Fifa will take the hit because the optics of not supporting a Women’s World Cup in an increasingly progressively minded society is not acceptable.

Returning to the present day the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, was outraged by the low offers from broadcasters for the rights to show the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on 20 July, describing it as a “slap in the face of all the great Fifa Women’s World Cup players and indeed of all women worldwide”. Fair enough, some might say. The bids are low. Staggeringly low in some cases. The opening offer in Italy was believed to have been €300,000 (£283,000), compared with the €160m that was paid for the rights to the men’s competition in Qatar. In England, the figure for the joint offer from the BBC and ITV is believed to be around €9m, about 8% of what was paid for the men’s edition.

The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino
The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, has demanded broadcasters increase their bids for the tournament, but his request has not yet had the desired effect. Photograph: Alan Lee/EPA

The problem is that the demand for a huge increase in funds allocated from broadcasters for the Women’s World Cup is being demanded by an organisation that has historically been responsible for the undervaluing of the tournament. When the global governing body places little value on a tournament, why should federations, broadcasters, sponsors or anyone else act differently?

In addition, Fifa is not arguing for a reallocation of broadcasters’ budgets for major football tournaments, but a massive increase in them. There is an assumption that the rights for the men’s World Cups will remain as high as they are and that broadcasters should be finding money to bring the value of the rights for the women’s tournament closer in line with that, with the ambition of it eventually being level. That is what Fifa is doing with prize money, after all, raising the Women’s World Cup prize pot to $110m (£88.4m) for this year’s tournament and committed to matching the men’s prize pot by the 2027 edition.

However, while the status of football as the world’s No 1 sport keeps the governing body’s coffers full, broadcast journalism is not a growing industry at the moment, it is a shrinking one. In England, the BBC has made huge cuts to local TV and radio services, while Sky Sports has axed Soccer AM and asked football presenters to reapply for their jobs as part of a restructure. The BBC and ITV have reportedly told football pundits they will not receive any pay increases next season.

So while Fifa is right to suggest (less of the demanding please) more should be spent on the rights, it is also important to consider where that money can come from. How about accepting that broadcasters will need to offer less for the men’s rights in order to start closing the gap?

One thing is for sure: playing hardball is not the right tactic. In this scenario, where essentially a media blackout in Europe’s biggest footballing countries is threatened, no one wins. Fifa does not get more money and broadcasters do not get the viewing figures. And, crucially, the biggest loser is the historically underfunded and undervalued women’s game, which is reliant on major tournaments to boost interest and investment in it.

What can Fifa do instead? How about using less aggression and more discussion? Bring broadcasters to the table to have a fair and holistic discussion about the broadcast rights of the men’s and women’s tournaments and how you sustainably grow audiences, tournaments and revenue all round. And do it now.