It doesn't always fit with the "equal pay" narrative, but U.S. Soccer has
done more to promote women's soccer than any other federation in the world.
U.S. Soccer has organized two Women's World Cups, in 1999 (when it averaged a record 37,319 fans per game) and 2003 (when it took on hosting duties with less than four months before the start of the tournament).
It has funded the management of the NWSL, the longest-running U.S. women's pro league in history, and paid full-time salaries for a core of the women's national team.
The gender discrimination suit now in Federal court and the subject of mediation raises all sorts of issues about pay and working conditions for the women in comparison to those on the men's national team, but it doesn't detract from the federation's leading role in women's soccer.
But I'd argue the biggest impact U.S. Soccer can ever have on women's soccer is still ahead of it, and that will be to organize the 2023 Women's World Cup.
That's right -- organize the Women's World Cup for a third time and not wait down the road until after 2026 when the men's tournament is played in the USA, Canada and Mexico.
USA alone in 2023 (or in combination with its 2026 World Cup co-hosts). If FIFA is serious about jump-starting the women's game and making the Women's World Cup a commercial success on its own -- and paying out a lot more money to the participating teams than it does now or proposes to do -- it will have the opportunity in 2023. But it will have to give the hosting rights to the USA (or in combination with its 2026 World Cup co-hosts).
Until now, the only discussion about organizing the Women's World Cup was in the context of 2027, a year after the USA, Canada and Mexico co-host the men's tournament. U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro broached the topic at the 2019 AGM in February in Scottsdale, Arizona. He cautioned it was just an idea and there was nothing concrete on the table, considering FIFA had yet to decide where the 2023 Women's World Cup will take place.
Six months later, FIFA still hasn't picked the host. In April, nine nations -- Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea -- expressed interest in hosting the 2023 finals (slated to be played in July-August, not June-July) and were given until October to submit formal bids.
But in light of the success of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, FIFA president Gianni Infantino included expanding the Women's World Cup from 24 to 32 teams as part of the five-part plan for women's soccer he introduced on the eve of the 2019 final in Lyon.
Infantino is serious. On Friday, the Associated Press reported that FIFA (Infantino) wants the FIFA Council to fast-track the expansion of the 2023 Women’s World Cup to 32 teams so it can modify the bid process to ask the nine federations to re-confirm their interest in hosting a 32-team tournament and -- most important -- invite other federations to enter the race.
The deadline for bids would be pushed back from October to December and the decision by the FIFA Council would be take in May, not March.
New economic model for a sustainable revenue stream. In a letter to the FIFA Council, this line, as reported by the AP, stood out: "The current economic model has the possibility to shift from being subsidized by men’s football to becoming a sustainable revenue stream.”
What makes that possible is the unprecedented interest in the Women's World Cup, which shattered viewership records this summer on free-to-air networks in key soccer markets like Brazil, France and England.
To build a sustainable revenue stream, FIFA will have to carve out Women's World Cup media rights from the packages it currently bundles and sell separate sponsorship deals for the men's and women's tournaments.
In the short term, selling Women's World Cup media rights will be difficult in most territories because FIFA has already sold them in rights deals, like Fox and Univision have through the 2026 men's finals.
Demonstration of interest from major brands. But as U.S. Soccer's recent sponsorship deal with Visa and Procter & Gamble's bonus initiative with the champion women's national team and the response to Budweiser's agreement with the NWSL indicate, there's plenty of interest from major brands in getting involved in women's soccer if the right situation presents itself.
Which gets back to the central question -- what's the right situation? Can any of the current nine bidders handle a 32-team tournament and organize a better tournament -- more fan support, better atmosphere, greater media coverage and larger TV audiences -- than France just organized. The short answer? No.
FIFA (and by extension the French organizers) came in for considerable criticism from the American press for what was considered lack of promotion of the tournament. The reality is, attendance was significantly higher -- 74 percent of capacity -- than the French federation promised FIFA -- 56 percent -- when it was awarded the hosting rights in 2015.
Most critically, the stadiums were on average three-quarters filled with great atmospheres for games involving the host French, Americans and Dutch -- which translate well on television and help drive up viewing audiences. (A bunch of dramatic matches didn't hurt, either.)
What was lacking was a significant presence in the nine French cities -- and that's on FIFA for not having dedicated Women's World Cup sponsors who have signed on for the very reason of seeing the value in activating in the World Cup market.
Next Women's World Cup can't be step back. Can any of the nine current bidders organize a tournament better than the French just did? And with 12 more games involving weak teams?
The only countries that might come close are Japan or South Korea or Australia and New Zealand in combination. But that's not the point -- FIFA must not let the Women's World Cup take a step back and have momentum lag.
But there's a problem playing the Women's World Cup in the Far East or Down Under. It would kill the TV ratings in the USA and Brazil (Globo TV smashed all individual Women's World Cup viewing records), where most games will kick off in the middle of the night, and take the games out of prime-time in Europe -- all essential to create the audiences and buzz Women's World Cup sponsors will want. (Also true: A USA-hosted tournament would eliminate prime-time kickoffs in Europe for all but mid-afternoon kickoffs on the East Coast.)
Is this view U.S.-centric or Euro-centric? For sure. Is it viable politically with the FIFA Council (which will vote on the next host)? Perhaps not.
But North America and Europe are where there's the potential for lots of short-term growth to break the Women's World Cup free of the shackles of its men's counterpart.
It's up to FIFA to tip the scale and make sure the 2023 Women's World Cup is played in the USA.
Photo Gwendoline Le Goff/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire