Business of Football: Inside Barcelona Femeni | FT Scoreboard
Europe’s best women’s team brings in record crowds - but can they become a sustainable business? The FT visits their training ground and speaks to the players and executives to find out how they plan to build for the future
Produced by Petros Gioumpasis and Josh Noble. Presented by Siona Jenkins
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Barcelona Femeni are the best women's team in Spain.
Growing up watching Barcelona on TV, I never thought that I would step foot on Camp Nou.
They are also the best women's team in Europe. They have the world's top player, the game's most expensive signing and the highest revenue in Europe.
It's a revolution. It's a social revolution.
So, how did they do it, and can Barca help Spanish women's football take off?
If we invest, we are going to be the top league for sure because we have everything.
Few people know the story of Barcelona Femeni better than its captain. A Spanish international, she's been with the club for a decade since before it turned professional and long before it conquered European football. Barca's success has also helped it bring in big international stars, including the most expensive transfer fee ever paid in women's football.
Keira Walsh, midfielder.
Walsh was part of the England team that won Euro 2022, helping to catapult women's football into the mainstream. Since then attendances at matches in England's Women's Super League have surged. But the pull of playing for one of football's most storied clubs proved strong enough to lure her to Spain.
Yeah, I think when a club like Barcelona comes in for you, it's very difficult to say no. And I think after the Euros and, you know, how successful England was, I think, yeah, that kind of happened after that. And yeah, I was very excited once I received the phone call and spoke to my family about it. And yeah, I think for all of us it was a no brainer to come here.
So when you come here it's the atmosphere and training in terms of competitiveness and wanting to win, and I just think they go the extra mile to ensure that the women's team is in the best place to win. And it's a football culture. It's not just about a men's and women's team. They just love football, and you could really feel that when I was on the bus parade, and you see people with Alexia's shirt, Aitana's shirt over men's players' shirts. And for me, you know, that's such a massive thing to see now with women's football going forward.
The women's team in Barcelona has deep roots. Early games took place as long ago as the 1970s, with the team fully absorbed into the Barcelona Sports Group in 2002. But it took until 2015 for the club to turn professional, putting it at the same level as other sports in the Barcelona empire such as basketball and handball.
Since then, growth has been accelerated in tandem with a broader boom in women's sport. The team's 6,000-seater stadium on the outskirts of town is typically sold out, and an increasing number of games are held at the iconic Camp Nou, where the record attendance for a women's game was set against Wolfsburg in 2022. One man in particular has been at the heart of driving the changes.
Markel Zubizarreta, sports director of FC Barcelona women's team.
The son of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, Markel has been with Barca's women's team since it went professional. He's been tasked with improving everything from player training to talent spotting.
I entered to the club in 2015, and the first game maybe we had 300 fans in the pitch. We were playing in turf in the training centre. And maybe the boys - the team of the boys under 16 - has preference in the pitch with us. So from that point was to build a lot of things and to have goals every year to try to increase little by little and to know that our... we were building a project inside the club that has a legacy in terms of football. Now we have another part of the club that is professional. We want to be one of the top teams in the world, and we are going to invest in that.
The club also hopes to build a pipeline of talent in the same way it has for the men's team. At La Masia, the club's legendary youth academy, female footballers are now living on site and receiving the same experience as the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Pep Guardiola. One of the former students here, Alexia Putellas, has gone on to become the top player in women's football, winning the Ballon d'Or twice. Mike Puig is responsible for the day-to-day running of La Masia, which now has over 100 full-time students living on campus. Thirteen of them are girls and young women hoping to break into the Barca first team, following the path well-trodden by some of the biggest names in global football.
We have players from 11 years old until 21, 22 years old. And they come here, the expectations are to be in the best academy in the world. So this is our responsibility, to keep these expectations very high. Our girls, when they are young, they used to play against boys in the competitions because we want them to play hard and to develop as soon as possible, as quick as possible.
Success on the pitch has led to financial gains. Just one big match at the Camp Nou can generate over 1mn euros from ticket sales. In 2022, Barca Femeni recorded income of just under 8mn, the highest in Europe. But those numbers are a tiny fraction of what the men's team brings in, which is why salaries for female players across football are so much lower than for their male counterparts.
One of the problems Barcelona faces is a lack of competition at home. The Spanish women's league, Liga F, has only just completed its first season as a fully professional competition, putting it behind some of its European rivals. Barcelona lost one match all season and has been defeated in the league just three times in the last four years. The lack of jeopardy in Liga F is a problem and risks making it less appealing to the fans, sponsors and broadcasters who will help fund the nascent contest. But those running the league are optimistic that change is afoot as money comes into the women's game and more clubs start to see it as a business opportunity.
It is a problem that is also in men's football. We see in Premier League cities six from the last seven times, I think. Or in Spain, it's always usual Real Madrid or Barcelona, no more.
So this difference is very difficult to reduce it. But we are working in the revenue or the incomings for the clubs. Get grow. Get grow, and they could invest in better players. It was a social opportunity years ago, and now it's a business opportunity.
Much of what is happening at Barcelona and in Liga F will feel familiar to those working in the women's game elsewhere - a lack of funding, low levels of competition, and tepid interest from commercial partners have long held back the sport. But change is under way.
Karen Carney, former footballer, chair of the domestic review into the future of women's football.
Carney, a former England international, has been charged with carrying out a wide-ranging review of football for the English FA. Many of her findings hold lessons that can be applied around the world.
I think women's football, I wouldn't say it's at the very start because it's been around for a while now. But I would say in its journey it's at its early part. And I keep saying it. I still think it's a start-up business.
We've got to make the environment professional. It has to be elite. And then once everything's in place, then the product will really grow.
And like I said, that once these women have the right facilities, are paid fairly, and given the opportunity, then they'll be able to play better. The game will be quicker, faster, stronger. Then audiences will attend more.
Once we find a better broadcasting slot, then we'll be able to watch it easier and more signposted on TV. Then sponsors will come back in, and then we'll see the virtuous cycle come back in. But we need that injection of cash.
But there's still this taboo around women's sport and women's football. Oh, it's going to cost. It's going to cost.
Well, everything does. But I'm telling you. You'll get it back. And this is what needs to be done. It's 2023.
Barcelona's experience shows that there is a large and growing audience for women's football. Many of those people might be new to the sport altogether. Building a successful business from it will require investment, willpower, and, most of all, patience.