Almost a year after England triumphed at Euro 2022, women’s football is preparing for its next big event: the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final. On Saturday, FC Barcelona-Femini and VfL Wolfsburg will battle Eindhoven in front of a crowd of around 35,000 fans.
The match between the Catalan club and the two-time European champions from Lower Saxony is already a record match. The two teams faced each other in the semi-finals of the same competition last year, drawing 91,600 people to Barcelona’s Camp Nou, the highest attendance ever for a women’s football match.
The Champions League has become a vital driver of both interest and revenue for the women’s game in Europe, and has helped keep new viewers engaged between major international tournaments, such as next month’s World Cup.
While the game is making strides in attracting new fans, the challenges of making it commercially sustainable remain daunting. Revenue remains low, while costs are rising rapidly.
A heated row ahead of the World Cup has highlighted the pressures facing women’s football. With just weeks to go until the tournament kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, TV deals are yet to be agreed in the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. A group of sports ministers this week urged broadcasters and FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to come to an agreement. Last month, FIFA threatened to blackout the tournament in some countries after receiving “very disappointing” offers.
Since the Lionesses won at Wembley last summer, the number of people attending matches in the Women’s Premier League, or the domestic English league, or watching them on TV has jumped. This has led to more commercial interest – both for teams and individual players – as clubs spend more on their women’s teams. The hope is to create a virtuous cycle where more investment leads to a more enjoyable 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 gap between it and the men’s match is huge. the Blograna It ranked first in the consulting firm’s wealth table for 2023, with revenues of €7.7 million. During the same period, the Barcelona men’s team recorded an income of 638 million euros.
Direct comparisons obscure the fact that the women’s game is still in its infancy in most countries. Although FC Barcelona turned professional in 2015, Spain’s domestic league, Liga F, has just finished its first season as a fully professional competition. Barcelona won the title after losing only one match, conceding 10 goals but scoring 118 in 30 matches. The hope is that the league will become more competitive with competitors spending more.
Although the value of broadcast deals remains low, women’s teams and players are building large online fan bases, including many who are new to soccer. Barcelona’s Alexia Botelas, two-time Ballon d’Or winner, has 2.8m followers on Instagram, while her team has nearly 5m – more than all but three of Spain’s men’s clubs. The team’s normally 6,000-seat stadium is sold out, prompting talk of a possible expansion.
“The type of fans coming in is completely different. They are young people, people who are really proud of what we do,” said Marcel Zubizarreta, general manager of FC Barcelona-Femini.
Analysts say women’s teams may find it easier to negotiate their sponsorship deals and establish long-term business partnerships once more data is available about the audiences they attract and the ways in which they engage them.
“The women’s professional game remains close to the start of its journey,” Deloitte wrote in a report on soccer finance earlier this year. “The revenue being made at this early stage… indicates the opportunity for development from the women’s game in the years to come.”
For top 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 €1.2 million to the Catalan club. More than 27 thousand spectators watched the reverse match at Stamford Bridge in London. UEFA, UEFA, is distributing €17.5m to participating clubs this year, up from €10.9m last year and more than double the amount generated by La Liga’s domestic television deal.
“For us, the Champions League has always been the important thing,” said Marcel Schäfer, sporting director of Wolfsburg’s men’s and women’s teams. “Reaching the final is something special because it validates the team’s work and validates our philosophy – we’ve been really focused on women’s football for many years.”
Competition is expected to continue to grow. The average attendance in this year’s Women’s Champions League is close to 11,000, according to UEFA, up from around 9,000 the previous year and more than double the figure in 2018-19. Next year’s final will be held at the San Mamés stadium in Bilbao, which has a capacity of 55,000 spectators.
The sports live broadcast service DAZN, which has global broadcasting rights to the competition until 2025, said viewership through its UEFA Women’s Champions League YouTube channel was up 17 percent compared to last year, reaching more than 50 million views.
The company plans to move several Champions League matches behind paywall starting next season. It was a necessary step to “maintain exposure while helping to create and maintain a virtuous circle of investment,” said Mark Watson, DAZN’s chief commercial officer, adding, “We believe visibility should lead to value and viability.”