As the FIFA Women’s World Cup starts today in France, gender equality in sports is a hot topic. The Australian soccer players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, just launched a campaign calling for equal World Cup prize money between men and women. In the US, the women’s national team filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. In it, the players bring forward the lack of promotional support from the federation, which, as retired professional golfer Anya Alvarez wrote, is the main issue in women’s sports. Because less marketing leads to lower attendance, hence fewer merchandise sale, the team is not given a chance to grow its revenue.
But promotional support is not only about visibility. Branding, which refers to the image the promoters convey about the tournament, is capital too, and the organizers of this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France have failed the sport and the players in that regard.
The upcoming tournament has successfully put women’s soccer in more French headlines than ever before. For instance, following a men’s national team tradition, Corinne Diacre, the coach of the national women’s team, announced her 23 players on the most popular TV newscast in the country. For the first time, France’s women’s squad was revealed in front of about 5 million people.
But the organizers are still falling short: with such low prices and small venues, they are selling a first-class tournament the way you would a second-class event.
Pricing is relative – by my experience, French people tend to spend less than Americans on sporting events. But France also hosted the men’s UEFA European Championship in 2016, and the prices between the two tournaments are shamelessly different.
The cheapest tickets for the 2016 semi-finals were 65€ each, and those for the final were 85€ each. Going to all three games would have cost at least 215€. This summer though, the cheapest package for those three games was 50€. Similarly, the best seats in the stadium would have cost 1,885€ for the last three games of the 2016 tournament versus 194€ this summer.
While it is true that the average French population is likely willing to spend more to watch men’s soccer than women’s soccer, the difference here is stark. Unreasonably stark.
Even more problematic, the venues chosen by the organizing committee are smaller stadiums in smaller, less known cities than the usual (men’s) soccer events hosted by France. While it may help those cities specifically, it hurts the game because fans, especially international ones, would be more interested in visiting Bordeaux or Toulouse instead of Valenciennes and Le Havre.
Only three of the country’s ten largest stadiums were included for this summer’s tournament – the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon (third largest stadium with 58,215 seats), the Parc des Princes in Paris (fifth largest with 45,583 seats) and the Allianz Arena in Nice (tenth largest with 36,178 seats). The six other venues hold less than 30,000 each with the 20,068-seat Stade des Alpes in Grenoble being the smallest.
In contrast, nine of the top ten stadiums were chosen for the Euro in 2016. All venues had more than 33,000 seats, and four of the ten had more than 50,000 seats.
Overall, the average capacity for the 2016 Euro was about 41,500 seats per game. This summer, it is only 25,000. And even though the Women’s World Cup includes one more game than the men’s 2016 Euro, the total capacity for this summer is 1.6 million seats, versus almost 2.7 million three years ago.
Worse yet: unlike all the other major international outdoor team sports tournaments organized in France in the past couple of decades, the championship game will not be played at the Stade de France, the country’s largest stadium (81,338 seats) that was built near Paris for the men’s 1998 World Cup. It will also not be played in Paris, the country’s capital and most visited city. It will not even be in the country’s second biggest stadium and city, the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.
The two semi-finals and the championship game will all be in Lyon, France’s third biggest city, which admittedly is the epicenter of France, even Europe, for women’s soccer. The Olympique Lyonnais has won the French championship every year since 2007 and the Champions League for the past four seasons.
But the club’s success does not justify the organizers’ decision. First, local support of women playing soccer was obviously not on their mind when they selected the venues: while all nine venues are home stadiums of professional soccer clubs, only four of those clubs have a professional or semi-professional women’s team.
Second, with this decision, the organizers are denying the world’s best teams the chance to play at the Stade de France, which became a mythic place in France after their men’s national team won the World Cup there in 1998. The French women should have gotten a chance to follow in the footsteps of their male elders. They’re not getting it fully.
The women’s grandest game deserved to be played in the host country’s grandest stadium. By playing the final at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the organizers are telling the world that the best international female players are not worthy enough to play in the largest stadium of France.
When the World Cup tickets went on sale in March, FIFA’s head of social media Alex Stone tweeted that the game sold out in 31 minutes.
Kudos. But I would have preferred to see it sell out in 31 hours or even 31 days at the Stade de France instead.
In the Parisian suburb, almost 22,000 additional people could have attended the game, and the organizers would have put their money where their mouth is: they would have proved that they dare to shine.
Born and raised in France, Roxane Coche is the associate director of sports journalism and communication and an assistant professor in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.