Almost a year after England’s victory in Euro 2022, women’s football is preparing for its next major showcase event: the UEFA Women’s Champions League final. On Saturday, FC Barcelona Femení and VfL Wolfsburg will compete in Eindhoven in front of a sold-out crowd of almost 35,000 fans.
The match between the Catalan club and the two-time European champion from Lower Saxony is already a record-breaking match. The two sides faced each other in the semi-finals of the same competition last year, drawing 91,600 people to Barcelona’s Camp Nou, marking the highest ever attendance for a women’s football match.
The Champions League has become a major driver of both interest and revenue for women’s football in Europe, helping to keep new viewers engaged between major international tournaments such as next month’s World Cup.
While the game is making great strides in attracting new fans, the challenges of making it commercially sustainable remain daunting. Turnover is still low, while costs are rising rapidly.
A simmering spat ahead of the World Cup has shed light on the pressures women’s football faces. With just a few weeks to go until the tournament kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, TV 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, the governing body of world football, to reach an agreement. FIFA last month threatened a media blackout of the tournament in some countries after receiving so-called “deeply disappointing” bids.
Since the Lionesses’ victory at Wembley last summer, the number of people attending or watching matches in the Women’s Super League, England’s domestic league, has skyrocketed. That has led to increased 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 the team and the men’s game is huge. The Blaugrana topped the consultancy’s net worth for 2023, with €7.7 million in revenue. In the same period, the Barcelona men’s team posted an income of €638 million.
Direct comparisons obscure the fact that women’s play is still on the rise in most countries. Although the Barcelona team turned professional in 2015, Spain’s national league, Liga F, has just completed its first season as a fully professional league. Barcelona won the title after losing just one game, conceding 10 goals but scoring 118 in their 30 games. The hope is that the league will become more competitive as rivals spend more.
While the value of broadcasting deals remains low, women’s teams and players are building large online fan bases, including many people new to football. Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas, the two-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, has 2.8 million followers on Instagram, while her team has nearly 5 million – more than all but three of Spain’s men’s clubs. The team’s 6,000-seat stadium is usually sold out, prompting talk of a possible expansion.
“The type of fans that come is completely different. They are younger people, people who are really proud of what we do,” said Markel Zubizarreta, general manager at Barcelona Femení.
Analysts say women’s teams will find it easier to negotiate their own sponsorship deals and form long-term commercial partnerships once more data becomes available about the audience they attract and how that audience is engaged.
“The professional women’s game is still at the beginning of its journey,” Deloitte wrote in a report on football financing earlier this year. “The revenue earned at this early stage. . . indicate the growth potential of the women’s game in the coming years.”
For major clubs across Europe, the Champions League has become an important source of income. Barcelona’s semi-final against Chelsea, played in front of more than 72,000 fans, earned the Catalan club €1.2 million. The reverse match at Stamford Bridge in London was watched by over 27,000 spectators. UEFA, the governing body of European football, will pay €17.5 million to participating clubs this year, up from €10.9 million last year and more than double the amount generated by domestic TV deal from Liga F.
“For us, the Champions League has always been the most important thing,” says Marcel Schäfer, sporting director of both the men’s and women’s teams in Wolfsburg. “Getting to the final is something special because it confirms the team’s work and it confirms our philosophy – we have been really focused on women’s football for years.”
Competition is expected to continue to grow. According to UEFA, the average attendance of the Women’s Champions League this year is around 11,000, up from around 9,000 a year earlier and more than double from 2018-19. Next year’s final will take place at Bilbao’s San Mamés stadium, which has a capacity of 55,000.
Sports streaming service DAZN, which holds the global broadcast rights to the competition until 2025, said viewership through its Women’s Champions League YouTube channel was up 17 percent compared to last year, to more than 50 million views.
The company plans to put 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 to create and sustain a virtuous investment circle”, adding: “We believe that visibility should lead to value and viability.”