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The FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off next month. Europe may not be able to watch

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The FIFA women's World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand next month. American fans will watch as Team USA tries to bring home the cup for a third time in a row. But in several European markets - the U.K., Spain, France, Italy and Germany - games might not get televised at all. FIFA, organizer of the tournament, says that European broadcasters haven't offered enough money for the TV rights, especially given what FIFA's spending to promote women's soccer and bring the prize money up to a par with the men's cup. Tariq Panja is sports reporter for The New York Times, based in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

TARIQ PANJA: Yeah, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: Now, up until now, the broadcast rights for the women's World Cup went along in the same deal with the men's World Cup. Is it a sign of popularity of the women's game they now have their own contract?

PANJA: Yeah, absolutely. This is growth in women's sport in general, across the board. And it's seen certainly here in Europe as a significant new market.

SIMON: What - how do the audiences compare?

PANJA: So in terms of audiences - I'm talking to you from London, which is home of the current European champions, England. They won the European championship last summer in front of huge television audiences. Eighteen million, in fact, tuned in to watch the England women's team win the tournament. So on that scale, you think, my goodness, that is a very big audience. But this is going to be a 32-team competition with countries and players that aren't household names in markets across the world, unlike the men's tournament where every game in the FIFA World Cup for men draws huge audiences. The difference with women is, if it's not the team from the country that the broadcast is in, the audiences are likely to fall off a cliff until, say, the semi-final and the final stage. So it's a very difficult tournament to expect big audiences across the board, hence big revenues for FIFA from these broadcasters.

SIMON: How low have some of these bids been?

PANJA: Well, this is interesting. Italy, for example, would be spending around 130 to $150 million for the men's World Cup rights. If FIFA are saying that what they've been offered is 1% of that, that's less than $1 million. Britain, the BBC and ITV, the other free-to-air channel, they've put in a joint bid of $10 million, which for a women's football tournament, women's soccer tournament, is seen as quite significant. But that isn't what FIFA are after because this is a tournament where FIFA have increased the prize money threefold to $110 million for the competing nations. So FIFA is saying, look, we've done our part. Now it's for the broadcasters to do their part. And this is where the tension is.

SIMON: Because FIFA is reluctant to go ahead without any television audience.

PANJA: Well, look, the option - like, we live in a world where there are a multitude of platforms here compared to a couple of decades ago where you're on TV or nowhere at all. That said, unlike men's soccer, the women's game in many ways is still nascent. FIFA's mission is, to quote them, to "grow the game." In that context, it would be foolish to put the broadcast on YouTube or on FIFA's own platform or any other platform, because the audience will almost certainly fall off a cliff if it isn't on those public channels.

SIMON: FIFA claims it's their moral duty not to undersell the women's tournament. I'm not used to hearing moral pronouncements from FIFA.

PANJA: Yeah, it's a strange language. And, you know, FIFA - if it wanted to, it has $4 billion in its own cash reserves which it could use to invest in women's soccer. The public broadcasters will say they have all sorts of other obligations in terms of their programming. The BBC, for example, has done a huge amount to grow women's soccer here outside of the FIFA orbit. They've invested huge amounts in the women's league in the U.K., for example. So, you know, if FIFA is trying to guilt trip, say, the BBC, they're going to struggle because the BBC could point out all of the things it's done to grow women's soccer.

SIMON: You sound as if FIFA is going to have to settle.

PANJA: Oh, almost certainly. I don't think FIFA has any real leverage here at all. The athletes themselves will want to be on the biggest platform, and those are the public broadcasters.

SIMON: Tariq Panja covers global sports for The New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

PANJA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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