©Richard Zubelzu/ZUMA Press Wire

The New Era of Women’s Soccer


charles castaldi, a former NPR correspondent in Central America, lives in Spain.

Published September 12, 2023


Sometimes sports — and the very big business of sports — changes virtually overnight. On August 20, the Spanish women’s soccer team became world champions after beating England 1-0 in a World Cup final in Australia that was nail-bitingly exciting as well as a demonstration of how much women’s soccer has evolved technically. More to the point, it was a fitting climax to a tournament that marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.

The 2023 World Cup was a global crowd-pleaser in which many of the favorites like the U.S., Germany and France were outplayed by underdogs like Morocco, Australia and Colombia. The tournament drew a huge TV audience, estimated at two billion — almost double the size of the crowd that watched the 2019 Women’s World Cup. And by coincidence, it would also prove to be the defining Spanish “me-too” moment.

Soccer Crazy

The Spanish men have long been a soccer powerhouse. Winner of the men’s World Cup in 2010, Spain is home of Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the most successful teams in the world’s most successful professional sport. And the country has long been soccer-obsessed, with the men’s leagues routinely filling humongous stadiums in every major city.

But the women’s division, not so much. For years, they’ve been playing out of the limelight.

That’s all changed. Their triumphant return from Australia received wall-to-wall coverage in all Spanish media for days. I went to the Madrid reception prepared for them. Tens of thousands of fans showed up, many of them girls wearing the national jersey as well as Spanish-flag face paint. And when asked (my reporter’s instincts have made this a habit), many others either said they were on a soccer team or hoped to join one. 

There were plenty of adults there to adulate, too, obviously pumped by the women’s dramatic victory. A couple of cops, among the hundreds stationed around the event, told me they had watched the final, which surprised me. One of them, intimidatingly tall and burly, said he often went to games with his daughter — the Real Madrid women’s team, he specified. Talk about change.

What had not changed, at least before the big game, is machismo, as personified by Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish soccer federation. He (unintentionally) managed to steal the spotlight from the victorious women by grabbing his crotch when the game ended, a throwback gesture more appropriate to men’s locker rooms than to a seat next to the Spanish queen and her 16-year-old daughter. He then hoisted himself up on Jennifer Hermoso, one of the team’s stars and the second-best player in the world in 2021, and planted a kiss squarely on her lips while she was receiving her medal.

The kiss made front-page news all over the world, and not it a good way. Team members called for his resignation and vowed not to play again for Spain until he was gone. Spanish politicians from the left and the right called for his resignation, an indication of just how far Spanish society has progressed when it comes to women’s issues.

Rubiales dug in his heels, insisting not only that he would do no such thing, but that the brouhaha was a witch hunt promoted by women whom he termed “fake feminists.” His mother, ever the doting Latin mama, locked herself in the church of their small town and declared a hunger strike to support her son. The press, including dozens of foreign correspondents, descended on the town of Motril in the south of Spain and planted themselves in front of the Church of the Divine Shepherdess. But not to worry: after two days, mama was spirited out to a hospital, where an IV rejuvenated her.

Rubiales was temporarily suspended by FIFA, the world soccer federation. Likewise, the Spanish Federation, which is almost entirely composed of men, criticized his behavior, but stopped short of forcing him out.

The sway of the boys club does seem on the decline, though. The government threatened to prosecute Rubiales for sexual assault. Other than his mother and a few outliers, he found himself very much alone.

The economics of women’s soccer is changing along with cultural attitudes toward women’s place in Spanish society. Actually, the economics of women’s sport is seemingly undergoing a sea change pretty much everywhere. And about time.
Money Talks

The economics of women’s soccer is changing along with cultural attitudes toward women’s place in Spanish society. Actually, the economics of women’s sport is seemingly undergoing a sea change pretty much everywhere. And about time.

American female soccer players, for example, have long eclipsed their male counterparts in global competition. The 2015 women’s World Cup final attracted 23 million viewers in the U.S., making it the most watched soccer match in America ever. Megan Rapinoe, a key player on the team that won the World Cup four times, is better known than any of her male counterparts in the U.S. — and not just for being a great player. She has tirelessly campaigned for equal pay for the women in American soccer, which was finally achieved in 2022.

Don’t misunderstand: the gender gap is closing in women’s soccer, but professional league pay is not the only financial issue. The prize money for the 2023 World Cup totaled $110 million, more than triple the $30 million for the 2019 World Cup but still a far cry from the $440 million men’s purse.

According to Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, the 2023 World Cup generated some $570 million in revenue. “We generated the second highest income of any sport [event] on a global stage," he crowed.

The winning team will receive $4,290,000 and each player will get $270,000. Which is not bad considering that, worldwide, the average female professional soccer player earns less than $20,000 a year.

The U.S. has been the leader in bringing women’s sports into the spectator and sponsor mainstream. The catalyst, all agree, was the passage of Title IX, an amendment to federal law that prohibited gender discrimination in federally subsidized public education, way back in 1972. Today, women’s basketball, tennis and soccer are all enjoying growing audiences, and commercial sponsors are beginning to acknowledge that there’s gold in them thar hills.

Men’s sports still rake in a huge proportion of revenues from TV broadcasts and player sponsorship. But women’s deals are now topping $1 billion annually, a figure that doesn’t include either professional tennis or the Olympics. Moreover, the men’s sports market is relatively saturated. The real growth in the coming seasons will be in women’s sports.

Carlota Planas is, for the moment, a rarity here in Spain and a symbol of the sports world to come. She’s an agent who represents only female soccer players, among them the women from Spain’s victorious team. These days the phones in her agency ring constantly. “One of my players being in the World Cup means that her value automatically multiplies,” she says. “Not only the sports side, but commercially.”

Planas points out that even if women don’t have the numbers in social media that men can boast, they have more stickiness — meaning more faithful followers, which can translate into more lucrative sponsorships. “They’ve had to fight a lot, overcome many barriers, break many ceilings, to get to where they are,” Planas explained. “That dream, that enthusiasm, that we have fought for and achieved, is what excites people and makes them hooked.”

So, in the end, what might have seemed like just another World Cup final took on another dimension, signaling that women’s soccer outside of the U.S. (where it’s already well entrenched) is on an upswing, and the money is sure to follow. It was also a watershed moment for the women themselves, since Rubiales’s unwelcome kiss created collective outrage that took weeks to abate and put the male-dominated sports world on alert that sexism-as-usual is no longer acceptable.

• • •

Actually, the Spanish women’s moment in the sun wasn’t a two-fer, but a three-fer. By unwittingly putting a spotlight on himself and refusing to back down, Rubiales has triggered investigations into his management of the Spanish Soccer Federation, which has been rampant with rumors of corruption. In the parlance of his sport, he’s scored an own goal.

main topic: Sports
related topics: Gender