Almost a year on from England’s victory in Euro 2022, women’s football is preparing for its next big showcase event: the Uefa Women’s Champions League final. On Saturday, FC Barcelona Femení and VfL Wolfsburg will battle it out in Eindhoven in front of a sellout crowd of almost 35,000 fans.
The match between the Catalan club and the two-time European champions from Lower Saxony is already a record-breaking fixture. The two sides faced each other in the semi-final of the same competition last year, drawing 91,600 people to Barcelona’s Camp Nou and marking the highest ever attendance for a women’s football match.
The Champions League has become a vital driver of both interest and income for the women’s game in Europe, and has helped keep newly attracted viewers engaged in between the big international tournaments, such as next month’s World Cup.
While the game is making big strides in attracting new fans, the challenges of making it commercially sustainable remain daunting. Revenue is still low, while costs are rising quickly.
A simmering row ahead of the World Cup has shone a light on the pressures facing women’s football. With just weeks to go until the tournament kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, television deals in the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy have still not been agreed. A group of sports ministers this week urged broadcasters and Fifa, world football’s governing body, to reach a deal. Fifa last month threatened a media blackout of the tournament in some countries after receiving what it called “very disappointing” bids.
Since the Lionesses’ win at Wembley last summer, the number of people attending games in the Women’s Super League, the domestic English league, or watching them on TV has jumped. That has fed through to increased commercial interest — both for teams and individual players — while clubs are spending more on their women’s teams. The hope is to create a virtuous cycle where more investment leads to a more entertaining game, which then generates more interest from sponsors and broadcasters.
Barcelona is the richest women’s team in European football, according to Deloitte, but the gulf between it and the men’s game is vast. The Blaugrana ranked top of the consultancy’s 2023 wealth table, with €7.7mn of revenue. Over the same period, Barcelona’s men’s team recorded income of €638mn.
Direct comparisons obscure the fact that the women’s game is still nascent in most countries. Although Barcelona’s team turned professional in 2015, Spain’s domestic league, Liga F, has just finished only its first season as a fully professional competition. Barcelona won the title after losing just one match, conceding 10 goals but scoring 118 across their 30 fixtures. The hope is that the league becomes more competitive as rivals spend more.
Although the value of broadcast deals remains low, women’s teams and players are building big online fanbases, including many people new to football. Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner, has 2.8mn followers on Instagram, while her team has almost 5mn — more than all but three Spanish men’s clubs. The team’s 6,000-seat stadium typically sells out, prompting talk of a possible expansion.
“The type of fans that are coming are completely different. It’s younger people, people who are really proud of what we are doing,” said Markel Zubizarreta, general manager at Barcelona Femení.
Analysts say women’s teams may find it easier to negotiate their own sponsorship deals and forge long-term commercial partnerships once more data becomes available on the audiences they attract and the ways those audiences engage.
“The women’s professional game is still near the start of its journey,” Deloitte wrote in a report on football finance earlier this year. “The revenues being earned at this early stage . . . indicate the opportunity for growth from the women’s game in the years to come.”
For big clubs across Europe, the Champions League has become an important source of revenue. Barcelona’s semi-final against Chelsea, played in front of more than 72,000 fans, brought in €1.2mn for the Catalan club. The reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge in London was watched by more than 27,000 spectators. Uefa, European football’s governing body, will distribute €17.5mn to participating clubs this year, up from €10.9mn last year and more than double the amount generated by Liga F’s domestic TV deal.
“For us, the Champions League was always the big thing,” said Marcel Schäfer, sporting director of both the men’s and women’s teams at Wolfsburg. “To reach the final is something special because it confirms the work of the team and it confirms our philosophy — we’ve been really focused on women’s football for many years.”
The competition is expected to keep growing. Average attendance across the Women’s Champions League this year is close to 11,000, according to Uefa, up from about 9,000 a year earlier and more than double the figure from 2018-19. Next year’s final will take place at the San Mamés stadium in Bilbao, which has a capacity of 55,000.
Sports streaming service DAZN, which has the global broadcast rights to the competition until 2025, said viewership via its Women’s Champions League YouTube channel was up 17 per cent compared with last year, reaching more than 50mn views.
The company plans to move many Champions League matches behind a paywall from next season. Marc Watson, chief commercial officer at DAZN, said it was a necessary step to “maintain exposure while helping create and sustain a virtuous circle of investment”, adding: “We believe that visibility must lead to value and viability.”