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Bilbao summit shines a bright light on the future of women's football

Womens football Members

UEFA convenes confederations, national associations, leagues, clubs and sponsors to discuss the Business Case for Women's Football – UEFA's research that highlights huge opportunities for growth on and off the pitch.

If ever you needed evidence of the unstoppable growth of women's football, then Saturday's Women's Champions League final would be it.

A record 50,827 fans packed into Bilbao's San Mamés Stadium for a sold-out final that displayed not only the burgeoning interest in the game but the incredible quality of the sport's finest players.

While it is a time to reflect and celebrate the progress made, it is also the perfect opportunity to look to the future and assess the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. That’s why before the game, UEFA gathered a range of pioneering investors, decision-makers, thought leaders and influential stakeholders from all corners of the world for a series of panel discussions and presentations presenting the Business Case for Women's Football, an in-depth study of the statistics and data that show not only the game's continuing advancements, but also its immense potential.

"European women’s football has come such a long way, especially in recent years, and while we know that the sky is the limit, we will only get there if we dare to challenge our ideas and provoke further change.

"We must seize this amazing opportunity and attract more investment and human resource to be uncompromisingly focused on sustainably growing the game."

Laura McAllister, UEFA vice-president and Executive Committee member

Below, we pick out some of the key stats from the business case and the thoughts of some of the panel speakers responsible for driving the game forward in sporting, commercial and governance areas.

Opportunities for on-field success: producing talent and becoming champions!

On the panel:

Kirsten van de Ven, technical director, Swedish Elite Club Association
Natalia Arroyo, coach, Real Sociedad Femenino
Patricia González, technical director, Atlético de Madrid Femenino
Vicky Losada, player, Brighton & Hove Albion
Markel Zubizarreta, director of women's football, Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF)

Sporting standards have risen rapidly in recent years, owing to increased professionalisation and greater investment in technical staff, facilities and equipment.

Across Europe, clubs and leagues are recognising the benefits of homegrown talent – business case data shows that 84% of Europe's top-division women's clubs now have at least one youth team, with more than ever catering for multiple age groups as they look to the future. Nowhere has success been felt more so than in Spain, the current world champions and regular winners of international youth silverware.

"At Atlético, we have 17 teams beneath the first team, so that's 300 players training in a high-performance environment, using the same facilities as the first team," González explained.

"If you have more space and more hours to train, you have more quality time," Arroyo added. "Clubs are now investing in their women's teams, not because they are supposed to but because they want to. It means the girls can train properly, and this is important."

Kirsten van de Ven presents some of the stats from the Business Case for Women's Football
Kirsten van de Ven presents some of the stats from the Business Case for Women's Football

77% of leagues impose minimum youth development requirements on their clubs, while 53% of national associations reward domestic training schemes, with youth development investment continuing to rise year on year.

Spain's Liga F has implemented several measures to ensure successful youth pathways, including a dedicated youth development strategy, a league-run development programme and ring-fenced funding for club academies – all important tactics that are paying off.

"We have won a lot of recent titles at youth level and this means we are doing something well," Zubizarreta said. "All of our stakeholders have invested a lot of efforts into youth players, but to be successful, this has to be done over a long period of time."

Commercial prospects of the women's game: exclusivity, engagement and competition

On the panel:

Michele Kang, owner, Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, Washington Spirit, London City Lionesses
Siv Skard, former Norway international and board member, SK Brann
Vinai Venkatesham, CEO, Arsenal
Charlie Marshall, CEO, European Club Association

The game is not just booming on the pitch. Off it, revenues are rising, with increased investment from clubs and owners, but also broadcasters and sponsors who recognise the unique potential of women's football. While costs are also increasing, there is optimism that such investment will yield long-term returns, with positive early signs.

"I saw unbelievable potential and was really shocked that nobody else did, so I went all in," explained Kang as she discussed her acquisitions of Washington Spirit in the USA, Women's Champions League finalists Olympique Lyonnais in France and most recently, England's London City Lionesses.

Michele Kang (centre) and Charlie Marshall (right) at the UEFA Business case for Women’s football event in Bilbao
Michele Kang (centre) and Charlie Marshall (right) at the UEFA Business case for Women’s football event in Bilbao

The Lionesses' neighbours Arsenal recently announced that next season, they will stage all women's team matches at their main stadium, having staged several matches with crowds of over 50,000 there this term.

"There is something incredibly special about women's football, and it also has a very different audience from men's football," said Arsenal CEO Venkatesham. "We have tried to understand that audience and are trying to give them an experience in the stadium that’s different from men's football.

"The game is moving so fast – women's football is on a rocket ship to the moon, and things are happening now that you couldn’t imagine only two years ago."

As interest in the game grows, so does external investment. Average club revenue has grown 2.6x since 2019/20, with the top eight domestic European leagues now averaging €1.3m per season in broadcast revenue. This is not just limited to the historically larger leagues, as developing leagues have enjoyed a sharp revenue increase thanks to title sponsors coming on board. In four years, league sponsorship revenue has increased by 112%, with prize money also growing 2.5 times over since 2019/20.

This is of course good news for clubs, which the business case tells us are becoming more sustainable. The number of clubs making a profit or breaking even has risen from 13% in 2020 to 38% in 2023, driven by huge average increases in ticketing (567%), broadcasting (150%), national association grants (110%) and sponsorship (82%).

"Some of the statistics are astonishing, like the growth in ticket revenue, and it's happening very quickly,” Marshall said. “We're at a zeitgeist moment for women's football and it's a time for learning and deep reflection on how we should progress things."

For Kang, that begins with ensuring matches are attracting fans. "My focus is on the product, what we are offering to our fans" she said. "Our competition is not the men's team, it's other forms of entertainment. What's so compelling about our product? The foundational block is stadium attendances. We have to sell out our stadium – everything starts from there."

Governance challenges and successes: building the future of the professional game

On the panel:

Sissel Gynnhild Hartley, head of strategy, Norwegian Football Federation (NFF)
Michelle Gilbert, chief corporate communications officer, Paris Saint-Germain
Sarah Gregorius, director of global policy and strategic relations for womens' football, FIFPRO
Miyuki Kobayashi, executive board, general manager of football division, WE League
Fiona McIntyre, managing director, Scottish Women's Premier League

Increased investment is helping to force advancements in administration and governance, in turn shaping a new landscape for women's football in Europe, with a variety of league models and structures thriving across the continent.

What this panel agreed is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for all leagues across all nations; each individual case will face its own challenges and find its own success story.

"You need to ensure your solution is fit for your league," McIntyre said. "UEFA and the Business Case for Women's Football bring a lot of examples of best practice, but it's important for us that we find a solution that works for Scotland. The Scottish Women's Premier League has been a triumph of collaboration, but that collaboration can't end the day you launch your strategy; it has to last well beyond that."

Business case research tells us that player salaries have dramatically increased, with average earnings rising by 67% between 2019/20 and 2022/23 across all leagues.

This is part of a wider professionalisation that is also ensuring more and more leagues and clubs are developing dedicated strategies and policies concerning player safeguarding (77%), issues related to pregnancy and parental support (52%) and welcoming more full-time staff into their structures.

"It doesn’t matter how good your business is, it doesn’t make you immune to players getting injured and not being able to perform at the highest level," Gregorius warned. "However, if the players are thriving, the clubs are thriving, and if the clubs are thriving, then the leagues are thriving!"

Clubs traditionally focused on men's football have taken notice of what is possible in the women's game. Statistics show that 49% of top-division women's teams are now integrated into a bigger club, reporting directly into the owner or CEO. Every single quarter-finalist in the last four seasons of the UEFA Women's Champions League has come from an integrated club.

"Our club believes in women's football," said Paris Saint-Germain's Gilbert. "Our women's team has a seat at the executive committee level, and we are creating a group uniquely focused on women's football. We know that men's football is not the model for women's football, so we need to be positive disruptors where we can set new standards and create a product that goes out to the world. We have to be bold."

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