Why sport is letting women down.

Adam Hinchliff-Walz

Wages in sport have once again come to the fore as a result of the publication of Sporting Intelligence’s annual Global Sports Salaries Survey. This time the focus is different – no longer looking solely at how much the top stars are being paid, but rather who is getting paid, and why.

The survey particularly looks at the growing disparity between male and female wages. It chooses football, being a global sport, as the main indicator of how far the inequality stretches. A look at wages in England alone paints a very dire picture. The Women’s Super League (WSL), the top division within English women’s football, has an average wage of just £26,752. Whilst a living wage, it is nowhere near the enormous £2.64 million average for an English Premier League (EPL) player. In fact, Burnley, the third lowest paying club in the EPL have an average salary of £26,375 per week, only £377 less than the annual wage of the average women’s team. In a society which should be advocating equal pay for men and women, this is surprising and disheartening.

People explain this disparity away on the basis that the women’s game generates far less money than the men’s game. This is true – the bumper EPL TV deal of £5.14 billion over 3 years is testament to that – but does it entirely justify the massive gap in wages? From a cold financial perspective, it does make sense that women’s wages are lower. The women’s game is far less funded and generates far less money, due to its lower viewership and its perception as worse entertainment. This doesn’t really address the issue though; women’s sport may be seen as less engaging and less respected. However, when the women are outperforming the men, and therefore providing better entertainment – I’d much rather watch them playing in a Euros quarter-final than the men’s team struggling to break down Russia’s defence in the group stage – yet they are still generally being paid less. An example of how this is changing is the Norwegian national team. The men’s team haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1998 whereas the women’s team have qualified consistently since the Women’s World Cup’s inception in 1991, even winning it in 1995. On the back of this comparatively better performance, the Norwegian FA announced this year that their players would be paid the same, regardless of gender, with 6 million Kroner (around £537,634) being given to each team.

Of course, the argument that the sport doesn’t generate as much money, and therefore the women should be paid less, adds to a vicious cycle in which women’s football never advances.
Giving women such comparatively low wages damages the future that many see for the sport, one where it creates as much money and provides the same quality of entertainment as the men. Without more involvement in the sport, and therefore more investment, it cannot possibly grow. So what kind message does it send to young girls interested in football that their favourite stars are being paid significantly less than their male counterparts? When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, a common answer for boys is a footballer. This is for good reason, for them it promises to be a career of fame and fortune with the chance to be immortalised like the Ronaldos and Messis of the world. For girls, it’s a different story, many see it as a hobby in which there is no real future, with very few professional players and even fewer stars to idolise.
This kind of attitude is a big part of the reason that the women’s game does not generate as much money. A way to combat this attitude could be better wages. As parents see the increased wages they would be more likely to be supportive of more investment themselves, paying for memberships to clubs as well as buying kits and taking their children to the games. This kind of grassroots investment would see an increase in the amount of money sponsors would be willing to pay and would in turn fund the higher wages that could be imperative in bringing about this change. The more people are involved in the sport in a serious way, the better the quality of the players as with more competition people will train harder and strive to become better.

Thankfully, the need for more investment in the women’s game is slowly being recognised. BT, along with the BBC, have acquired the rights to the WSL and the women’s FA Cup, bringing in more viewers and money to the league. This trend is continuing with high profile transfers starting to take place. Toni Duggan moved from Manchester City Women to Barcelona Femeni last summer, a move that mirrors the now frequent pan-European signings in the men’s game. Whilst no transfer fee was paid, because of Duggan’s contract with City running out last November anyway, it is a marquee signing for the women’s game, giving a glimpse of the future that women’s football can have. A future in which high profile stars are exchanged between high profile clubs for huge fees creating massive controversies and soap drama style upsets – all the ingredients that make the men’s transfer window so exciting. This kind of future is only possible if the women’s game becomes fully professional. This is starting to happen. The NWSL (the top tier of the American women’s game) is already fully professional and the WSL is following suit, with plans for a 14 team, fully professional, league in the 2018/19 season. With this comes more investment from the male partner clubs as well as a better environment for sponsors. As Katie Brazier says in her article within the survey, “Girls growing up across England really can now have a dream of being a professional footballer”.

Whilst this change is moderate and doesn’t completely deal with the issue of under-representation of women within football, it is a step in the right direction. Within the male dominated FA there is strong resistance to change and progress in the women’s game and the recent claims of racism against England manager Mark Sampson definitely do not help. However, the small victories like the new league format and the example of the Norwegian national teams’ equal pay provide hope for the women’s game. It may be several years, perhaps even decades away, but women’s football, and sport in general, can be on par with the men’s game.