Any fan of women’s football has a lot to look forward to this summer, as the Women’s World Cup kicks off in France in June and July. The recent growth of the women’s game means that for those competing, the stakes are arguably higher than ever, and the increased publicity around the event suggests there will be record-breaking numbers of viewers, both at the stadiums and watching from home – the BBC, for example, will be airing every single match that takes place.
While it’s been growing steadily over the years, in the past six months or so the popularity of women’s football around the world seems to have steamrolled. On the 17th of March 2019, a game between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona in the Primera División attracted a crowd of 60,789 which broke the world record for attendance of a women’s football club match. A week later, a Juventus side which included the English striker Eniola Aluko beat Fiorentina 1-0 in front of a crowd of 39,000, smashing the previous Italian record of 14,000 for a women’s football match. Speaking to the BBC, Aluko said, “When women’s football has been put on a huge platform…and has been marketed properly, people come out and watch as they would do in the men’s game.”
It is clear that sponsors have cottoned onto the fact that women’s football can be popular if it receives enough promotion, with Nike recently unveiling bespoke home and away kits for 14 national teams in the Women’s World Cup, marking the first time that each kit has been designed specifically for the women’s game. Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, has suggested that having unique kits is “a real marker of progress and an indicator of how much the profile of the women’s game has grown in [England].”
Another sign that women’s football is growing rapidly in England is the recent announcement of a three year partnership with Barclays to make them the first ever title sponsor of the Women’s Super League, which is worth in excess of £10 million. The sponsorship, which is likely to have come off the back of the England team’s success in winning the 2019 SheBelieves Cup for the first time ever, also sees the introduction of a prize-money pot of £500,000 for the Super League Champions. It also bodes well for the grassroots game, with Barclays having a large role in the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships, a nationwide scheme to help develop girls’ access to football at school.
Despite these recent advances in women’s football, there is still a huge pay gap between the genders in football, both on an individual level and in regards to prize money. The fact that the winners of the 2019 Women’s World Cup will receive $4 million in prize money and the overall prize fund is being doubled to $30 million seems like a step in the right direction for the game. However, this is minimal in comparison to the amounts that are involved in the equivalent men’s competition. In 2022, the winners of the men’s World Cup in Qatar are set to receive £40 million, with the overall prize fund standing at $440 million.
There is also a huge discrepancy in terms of players’ wages. According to a Sporting Intelligence report, in the top leagues in Australia, England, France, Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and the USA in 2017, 1,693 female players earned a total of £32.8 million between them. Despite this, in the men’s game, Brazilian forward Neymar Jr. was paid a whopping £32.9 million by Paris Saint-Germain for the 2017/2018 season. Looking closer to home, players in the English Women’s Super League receive an average of £26,752 a year, while the average Premier League pay packet is £2.6 million.
If this gender pay gap is allowed to continue, it could be detrimental to the further growth of women’s football. In December 2017, a FifPro survey of female footballers in the Super League revealed that 58% had considered giving up their careers in football due to financial reasons. The relatively low salaries earned by female players means many have to work a second job in order to make ends meet, which can be tiring in itself, but this also means that they have less time to train. This already puts them at a disadvantage in comparison to their male counterparts whose generous salaries allow them to be fully committed to their footballing career.
Furthermore, the wealth of top male footballers makes it much easier for them to reach their peak, as they have more money to spend on personal trainers and chefs who are able to develop special programmes for them. Newcastle United’s Jonjo Shelvey advertised for a full-time personal chef back in 2015 with an annual salary of £65,000, which in itself is 2.4 times the average salary of top-flight female footballers.
Evidently, there is still a long way to go for women’s football before it can be on par with the men’s game and one of the biggest factors stunting the game’s growth is the comparative lack of funding. However, there is still hope, and success for the England team in this summer’s World Cup would go a long way in promoting the sport in this country and eradicating some of the stereotypes that have been in place since the FA banned women’s football in 1920.
Best of luck to England’s Lionesses in the upcoming World Cup. It’s coming home.