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The US entered the 2023 Women’s World Cup as the highest-ranked team. Having won four of the last eight World Cups, the star-studded side’s early exit came as a shock. One explanation could be that while American women’s football is culturally strong, the European game is catching up financially.
In the US, football is often seen as a sport that women excel at. Nearly 375,000 high school girls played football in the 2021/2022 school year, according to figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations. That is an almost 40 per cent increase from 22 years ago. There were just 700 female participants in 1971. The sport has overtaken basketball and softball in popularity.
The NWSL, the US’s professional women’s football league, has been home to many of the world’s top players.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup was a wake-up call to the money-making potential of women’s football. More than 1.1bn viewers tuned in to the tournament. Since then, investment has ramped up to develop women’s football across Europe, too.
UEFA, the governing body of European football, has targeted a doubling in the number of registered female players from 1.3mn in 2019 to 2.5mn by 2024. The commercial value of women’s football is expected to increase sixfold to €686mn by 2033.
Fifa has substantially increased prize money for the Women’s World Cup this year. Every participating football player receives at least $30,000. Players in the team that wins the tournament will get $270,000 each.
Such sums are undoubtedly motivating. But the more pressing issue for US women’s football is the amounts that players earn back home.
The Sporting News website reports that the average salary for a US female player is about $57,000 annually. That is on a par with UK peers. However, salaries in the NWSL may climb no higher than $75,000. Top UK women players such as Leah Williamson and Sam Kerr reputedly earn £200,000-£400,00 ($250,000-$510,000) a year.
Player salaries reflect broader money flows into the sport, some of which is applied to nurturing young talent via youth sides. Leagues in England and Spain, the countries confronting each other in Sunday’s final, have attracted millions of dollars in sponsorship and broadcasting deals since 2019.
US women’s soccer is a grassroots triumph. It risks becoming a competitive also-ran as a result of lower investment.
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