Sports

World Cup Champion Julie Foudy: Women’s Soccer Is A Major ‘Untapped Market’

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Trinidad and Tobago's Arin King (5) challenges Haiti's Yvrose Gervil during World Cup qualifying in October.

When Trinidad and Tobago’s women’s national soccer team flew to the United States for World Cup qualifying in October, its coach faced a crisis: his team did not have enough money to fund training equipment or basic expenses for players during the trip.

So Randy Waldrum, the American coach of Trinidad’s women’s team, took to social media to issue a plea for help, and different sources of funding soon emerged, from crowd-funded campaigns and the Haitian team (which subsequently received help from The Clinton Foundation). The Trinidadian federation stepped up too, promising more funding was on the way. But in this region alone, Jamaica also had to crowd-fund just to get through qualifying.

The issues associated with merely getting to qualifying put a bright light on a well-known problem: the lack of funding for women’s soccer, not just in small associations that are part of CONCACAF, which governs North and Central America and the Caribbean, but worldwide. In the year ahead of the Women’s World Cup, the comparatively meager funding for women’s soccer teams isn’t just an issue of equality, it creates a huge missed opportunity for FIFA and national and regional federations.

When it comes to funding the sport, “whether you like women’s soccer or not is not of interest to me,” said Julie Foudy, the former captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team who played for two World Cup-winning sides. “What concerns me…is here is this untapped market worth a lot of revenue to the federation. How can we not be utilizing that? From a business perspective — and I think FIFA is finally coming to this — there is really something here that we’re not tapping into.”

There is an indication now that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, is realizing that. In February, it released the results of a year-long survey that detailed some of the biggest problems facing the women’s game. Based on the responses of 177 of the sport’s 209 federations, the survey found that just 25 percent of the national federations had staff dedicated to the women’s game, and worse, 20 percent of those federations didn’t even have a team. Half of them had no youth development program for girls.

The numbers “aren’t surprising,” Foudy said. But the fact that FIFA conducted such a survey is a big step forward for understanding the upward climb facing the women’s game.

“What’s great is that FIFA took the time to put those numbers in place,” Foudy, who now works as an analyst on ESPN’s soccer broadcasts and remains close to the women’s game. “We need some sort of baseline standard to say, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s the reality, and how are we going to make it better?'”

FIFA’s survey documents the issues facing specific federations, noting that many need more competitions, more development programs, and, especially, more funding. The 177 member foundations put $156 million toward women’s soccer annually, the survey found, though that investment skews heavily toward Europe, which invests roughly two-thirds of that total (CONCACAF and the Asian federation, meanwhile, make up another $40 million). FIFA has said it would double its funding of the women’s game by 2018 by focusing primarily on development programs across the world.

That funding matters. According to the survey, the top 20 countries in the FIFA women’s world rankings put an average of $5.4 million into their teams each year. The average drops to $1.2 million in the next group of countries all the way down to $100,000 for the worst teams.

For most federations and member associations, women’s soccer “is not a priority,” Foudy said. “So the question is, how do you create federations where there are more people that’s a priority for?”

One way to do that could be through increasing the number of women working in positions of power in the sport. FIFA’s survey found that just one-in-six federation executive committee members are women, and women make up just one-in-14 coaches. Women occupy only three of the 27 spots on FIFA’s executive board.

Even in the United States, where the women’s game is comparatively well-funded and advanced, there isn’t yet a pipeline that encourages girls and women playing the sport — there are an estimated 30 million worldwide, with half of them in the U.S. or Canada — to pursue coaching positions or other decision-making roles in the sport. That is a place where the United States could take the lead as an example for the rest of the world, Foudy said.

The survey is a start for improving the women’s game because it puts a focus on and quantifies the problem. Still, Foudy said, the fact that much of soccer’s funding flows directly through these same federations that have not committed to the women’s game in the past means there also needs to be pressure for more transparency about how they spend their money, particularly the funds that are supposed to go toward women’s soccer.

FIFA’s recommendations are “all good stuff, but at the end of the day, who’s going to be the one to ensure all of this is getting done?”

But it needs to happen, because the successes of countries that have invested in the women’s game makes it clear that the market is there for the sport.

“If you open those doors, I think you’d find there’s a lot of women that would step through them,” Foudy said. “They’re just not doing that.”

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