FIFA’s Hardball on Women’s World Cup Broadcast May Plunk Sponsors

European fans could be out of luck when it comes to watching this summer’s Women’s World Cup, which will take place in Australia and New Zealand.

On top of the time zone problems, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has upped the ante on the very public game of hardball he’s playing with broadcasters in major European markets—including England, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, all of whom will see their national teams compete and the first four of whom are among the tournament favorites.

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Infantino says bidders from those key countries have made “very disappointing” and “simply not acceptable” offers for the rights to the upcoming World Cup, which starts July 20. If broadcasters are unwilling to hit FIFA’s financial thresholds, Infantino dangled the possibility that the matches would not be televised in those markets.

With the threat, the global governing body is taking a harder line as it endeavors to sell the women’s tournament’s rights separately from the men’s for the first time, one that risks sacrificing millions of viewers for a sport that has seen major growth in recent years from increased broadcast exposure. The move would leave a huge number of fans without television access to matches and, consequently, sponsors without many of the eyeballs they expected.

“To be very clear, it is our moral and legal obligation not to undersell the FIFA Women’s World Cup,” Infantino said Tuesday while speaking in Geneva at the World Trade Organization (comments he shared again on social media). “Therefore, should the offers continue not to be fair, we will be forced not to broadcast the FIFA Women’s World Cup into the ‘Big 5’ European countries.”

British broadcasters BBC and ITV, who have reportedly offered around $11 million for this summer’s rights, both declined to comment. It is unclear which broadcasters submitted bids in Italy, France, Germany and Spain. FIFA declined to disclose any details pertaining to the parties involved.

The global governing body has not been shy about pushing broadcasters to pay significantly more for the rights, a campaign that began last year. Speaking Tuesday, Infantino said the women’s World Cup draws anywhere from 50% to 60% of the audience the men’s tournament does, warranting an offer of proportional value. But the bids from European broadcasters are anywhere from 20 to 100 times less than what is paid for the men’s World Cup, Infantino said, which is a “slap in the face” to World Cup players and women across the globe.

In 2019, a record 1.12 billion viewers (a 106% increase over the 2015 World Cup held in Canada) tuned in throughout the tournament in France. That’s around 30% of the combined audience (3.57 billion) the men’s World Cup in Russia attracted in 2018, according to broadcast numbers released by FIFA.

“FIFA is asking more than what the market is willing to pay obviously; otherwise, they would have partners by now,” Ricardo Fort, sports-business consultant and former head of global sponsorships for Coca-Cola and Visa, said. “And they are using public opinion to pressure broadcasters to do something that may not be commercially sensible for them to do. This is at the core of the problem. … That’s a bluff, and FIFA is taking a big risk on pushing them publicly, so aggressively.”

Airing matches on FIFA’s streaming platform or social media channels is a possible solution, but it’s one that would likely reach fewer fans, resulting in less revenue in the short and potentially long term.

Without broadcast deals in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the tournament’s expected viewership would shrink significantly, limiting sponsor access to a growing audience of fans across Europe. FIFA counts global brands including Visa, Adidas and Coca-Cola among its biggest supporters. Representatives for all three did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Losing access to the audience and market in England, in particular, could be a tough pill for World Cup partners to swallow, given the significant spikes the sport has seen there in attendance and viewership. Last summer’s Women’s Euro saw global live viewership of 365 million across 195 territories, a record for the event, according to UEFA. England’s 2-1 championship win over Germany at a sold-out Wembley Stadium in London set a record as the most attended match—men’s or women’s—Euro finale and was watched by more than 17 million viewers, an all-time high for women’s soccer on British television.

“Europe is so important for everyone—if there is no visibility, no coverage on free-to-air in Europe, that’s a debt that diminishes a lot the value of the sponsorship,” Fort said. “This is what a lot of the brands are paying for.”

Generating significantly more revenue from broadcast rights and sponsorships is a key part of FIFA’s goal to equalize prize money for the men’s and women’s World Cups by 2027. Earlier this year at FIFA Congress, Infantino announced a boosted $110 million prize pool for the World Cup (a total of $152 million will be distributed including support funds, a tenfold increase from 2015), nearly double the $60 million initially planned for this year’s tournament. It’s still just a fraction of the men’s tournament payouts, which totaled $440 million in Qatar. But equal pay, FIFA says, is impossible without more money from sponsors and, especially, broadcasters.

Bridging the financial gap between the men’s and women’s events may become even harder without any money from European broadcasters for this year’s tournament, the first to feature 32 teams, or without the viewership from those countries to sell next time around.

This summer’s tournament is still expected to shatter the attendance record set in 2019 of 1.1 million, with more than 500,000 tickets already sold to fans from 132 countries.

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