BITE: On and off the pitch, this summer’s Women’s World Cup will be the most competitive yet

Eve De Haan, Creative at Dark Horses shares predictions for this years Women’s World Cup and the impact it is going to have on football

Back for the encore everyone asked for, the Lionesses are returning this year to face a more global set of opponents in the Women’s World Cup. Whilst EURO 2022 was the biggest women’s football tournament in history, with record-smashing attendances, viewing rates and engagement, one can assume this World Cup will make that feat look like minor league.

On the pitch, it’s anyone’s game, and it really could be anyone. With the new 32 team format, we’re prepared to meet a new set of personalities ready to make their mark. Some prominent players will be playing their first, such as Arsenal’s Katie McCabe, whilst others will be propelled into the limelight for the first time, creating new heroes and villains, along with everything else loved in the annals of international tournaments.

For others, it’s business as usual. Megan Rapinoe’s swansong will see the still number one ranked USWNT aim to be the first team across the gender divide to win three World Cups on the trot. Many are framing the great battle of the tournament to be between the US and the seemingly unstoppable Lionesses, but a World Cup is nothing without an upset and some disruptive underdogs. Whilst England were favourites to win last year’s tournament on their home soil, their first loss in thirty games last week to Australia have shown that the playing field is very much open. Perhaps the home advantage may play in Sam Kerr’s Matildas favour.

Spain and France are also formidable foes. Both though are in a wavering form of turmoil, with France captain Wendie Renard only just returning after refusing to play under now-sacked Corrine Diacre, and fifteen of Spain’s squad making themselves unavailable for selection as protest partly due to Jorge Vilda remaining as head coach.

Closing the Gap by speaking out

Protest is nothing new in football, seen starkly and bravely in the men’s World Cup with the Iranian team’s strong act of solidarity with the country’s women. For female players however, protest has been long ongoing in their mission for parity and recognition alongside their male compatriots. Inaugural Ballon D’Or winner Ada Hegerberg refused to play for Norway for 5 years, missing the 2019 tournament, due to the way they treated their female side. Across the globe, players have campaigned for equal pay, with the US national side recently winning their landmark ongoing dispute only last year. Meanwhile, the Canadian team have just resumed training following protests, and superstars Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Vivianne Miedema have all spoken out against the Visit Saudi sponsorship of the tournament, the latter saying FIFA should be “deeply ashamed”.

These players are playing for far more than national pride. They’re demanding a future of opportunity for the next generation that they didn’t have themselves, and succeeding. The Lionesses’ #LetGirlsPlay campaign after winning EURO 22 has seen the government mandate that schools must offer equal sporting opportunities, allowing most girls to pick up football at school for the first time. This summer’s tournament will hopefully follow suit. With increased exposure and a global platform, these teams will continue to pressure governing bodies to do the right thing, before, during, and after the tournament.

“for brands, the need to adjust their strategy from ‘female empowerment’ to ‘super-exciting-tournament’ is long overdue.”

Eve De Haan, Creative at Dark Horses

Off the pitch, things are just as competitive. EURO 2022 felt like a watershed moment, its success breaking through the CSR-based narrative. A thing to bandwagon by brands to say; ‘look, we think women should play football too’. With women’s football finally legitimised as an elite sport by the media, all eyes are turning to this summer to see if naysayers can finally be put to bed and prove that 2022 was not just a one-off.

Of course, for these elite athletes, that pressure is nothing new, but for brands, the need to adjust their strategy from ‘female empowerment’ to ‘super-exciting-tournament’ is long overdue. Predictably, there will be a number of brands who still fall into this trap. The inevitable article of ‘worst women’s world cup ads’ will surely focus on ‘the journey’ here. Hopefully, most will have learnt to leave the stereotypes behind, and create something genuinely original and dramatic.

This is a uniquely exciting opportunity for sponsors this year. It marks the first of the women’s tournament to have sold its sponsorship and broadcasting rights as a standalone entity, rather than lumped in with the men’s. For the first time, sponsors will be putting WWC activations at the forefront of their sponsorship strategy, rather than a cut-budget afterthought. Hopefully, these sponsors will use it wisely, and we’ll see some competitive marketing as each tries to own the tournament as their own.

Attendance will be high across Australia and New Zealand, even if globe-trotting European fans may find it a harder destination to reach. Although not officially confirmed, the broadcasting rights to the tournament will be widespread, and whilst Brits are becoming accustomed to seeing women playing football on the telly, the significance of its presence across ITV and the BBC cannot be undervalued. Across the globe, this increased exposure is unprecedented, and one thing is for sure: it’s going to create a new generation of footballing superstars.

The level of exposure and prestige attached to this tournament places the women’s game at a precipice. Superstars are here, and others are poised to take position. The talent is here, and we finally get to watch it properly, in all its glory. The narrative has finally changed to being about incredible sport rather than empowerment. Let’s hope that brands take note and keep up.

Eve De Haan