Why FIFA’s threat of a TV blackout at the Women’s World Cup in Europe is ‘outrageous’


Fifa President Gianni Infantino has threatened European countries with a TV ban for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Monday ignited a months-long dispute over the television rights for the Women’s World Cup with a calculated – but rather ridiculous – threat: If European broadcasters continue to offer relatively low fees for the 2023 tournament, Infantino said, it might not Europe’s largest broadcast markets ever.

Infantino reiterated a stance he first took last October at a World Trade Organization event and on his Instagram page. FIFA, he said at the time, had turned down offers representing a tiny fraction of the men’s World Cup rights fee – offers Infantino found unacceptable “because we know that the ratings of these broadcasters in some major football countries for the Men’s World Cup or for the men’s World Cup.” Women’s World Cup are actually very similar.”

On Monday, with those rights still on the market and the tournament just two months away, Infantino reiterated his stance.

“Should the offers continue to be unfair [toward women and women’s football]”,” he wrote on Instagram, “we will be forced not to broadcast the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the ‘Big 5’ European countries” – England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France.

And while it’s unclear whether the threat was a concrete threat or just a last-ditch negotiating tactic, in the words of Australian football official Moya Dodd, it’s “actually quite egregious.”

Infantino has sought to position himself publicly as a moralist and feminist, a champion of gender equality who will economically bring women’s football to par with men’s football – unless others, particularly broadcasters, refuse to join him in the struggle. He speaks of a “moral and legal obligation”; He says the paltry offers are a “slap in the face” to players, “and indeed.” [to] all women worldwide.”

What his rhetoric conveniently ignores is that FIFA’s historic neglect of women’s football is a key reason bids are so low. The Men’s World Cup is lucrative and the Women’s World Cup less so because FIFA treated them that way for decades, until recently and arguably still today.

Unlike many of the scolded broadcasters, FIFA is a not-for-profit governing body whose stated mission is to “develop the game around the world.” It has a duty, more than any other organisation, to invest equitably in men’s and women’s football – a ‘moral and legal obligation’ if you will.

And yet, not even a women’s world championship was organized until the 1990s. When it started tentatively, the money spent on the women’s World Cup was infinitesimal compared to the men’s. The women’s tournament was hardly advertised. It offered players inferior accommodations. Until 2007 there was no financial reward for success; and even in 2019, the prize pool was less than 10% of the men’s total prize pool. In every respect, women’s football was treated as second rate.

So of course fewer people watched it and of course the advertisers found it less attractive and of course the broadcasters didn’t see any value in it.

“Well,” Infantino admitted briefly on Monday, “it’s our fault too.”

In fact, for years FIFA has implicitly told its partners not to see any value in the women’s tournament. Until recently, the company sold broadcasting and sponsorship rights to all World Cups as a bundle, but often allocated all broadcasting and sponsorship revenue to the men’s event, which it sold as its crown jewel, while treating the women’s event as a complimentary supplement.

“The industry has practically been trained to spend a lot of money on the men’s World Cup and treat the women’s counterpart as worthless,” Dodd told the Sydney Morning Herald. FIFA has never really tried to figure out the true value or potential of the Women’s World Cup. “At the same time,” Dodd continued, “the women were told they didn’t deserve prize money or equal pay because they didn’t bring in revenue.”

After journalists exposed the falsehoods underlying this reasoning, following a hugely successful tournament in 2019, FIFA decided to decouple and sell the rights to the Women’s World Cup separately – because, as Infantino puts it, they represent a “real ‘Real Value’ in the Women’s See Tournament. FIFA has also decided to invest more in the game and make it more professional for the players. In 2022 and 2023, most accommodation will be the same for the first time at the men’s and women’s World Cups. And the 2023 prize pool will be $110 million – still just 25% of the $440 million paid out to participants in the 2022 Men’s World Cup, but a significant increase and a step up from what Infantino’s ” Path to Equal Pay”.

All of which is why Infantino, in his repeated public appeals to broadcasters, can claim: “We did our part.” Well, he argues, these broadcasters should follow suit and live up to FIFA’s commitment.

But of course that’s not how negotiations on sports media rights work. Promoters – leagues, governing bodies or otherwise – often have to prove the value of their property before broadcasters are willing to write large checks. And that’s exactly what FIFA hasn’t managed to do, despite the players’ best efforts.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala during a discussion on football at the WTO headquarters in Geneva May 1, 2023. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Essentially, Infantino is looking for an immediate return on investment before the impact of the FIFA investment is felt on the fields and TV screens of the Women’s World Cup. He grumbles about sexism in order to gain more income through bullying at the momentrather than simply building the property and trusting that over time it will prosper and money will flow.

Which brings us back to the absurdity of his threat.

Yes, it would be nice if European broadcasters paid higher fees; But the far more important priority at this early stage in the Women’s World Cup lifecycle should be to attract the widest possible audience and build a fan base that will enhance the value of broadcasting rights for decades to come.

A television blackout in England and Germany – where together over 35 million people watched the 2022 women’s EURO final – would do the exact opposite. It would be counterproductive. It would be stupid.

It would be ridiculous, so ridiculous that the threat feels empty, and broadcasters – who are mostly deterred by awkward timeslots given the tournament is half a world away in Australia and New Zealand – will likely get the rights in a location that price comes close to them. But the clock is ticking.

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