Last weekend, Kelly Smith, former England striker, told the media that women’s football had been “pushed aside” by the federation and clubs, amid the wake of COVID-19, after the WSL and Championship were formally ended on the 25th of May. Those concerns follow the release of FIFPro’s report, which describes the pandemic as an “almost existential threat to the women’s game.” But, the question now is… Is Coronavirus the real enemy of women’s football?
As I have looked through-fully in many of my posts, several factors prove Smith’s claim that women’s football has been overlooked in the way back to football’s normality. The WSL was provided with no extra funding or testings to extend their season; while, the Premier League, its male counterpart, received approximately £4M to finally return this weekend.
The former England player also discussed the injustice of Liverpool’s relegation with eight games of the season remaining. Another complaint from players has been the lack of communication surrounding the announcement of league dates. Undoubtedly, the FA showed they were in a complete state of limbo, which left female footballers feeling forgotten, even nonexistent.
If we think about it, the vast amount of effort and funding which fuelled the return of the Premier League on 17 June is in itself an anomaly. The FA dominates the list of most profitable sporting leagues in the world, and the Premier League itself sits at 3rd behind the NFL and MLB. If they had so much revenue, they didn’t even needed to return this season; Liverpool could have been given the league title, or even the league could have been suspended, just like they did with the WSL (its female counterpart). But the truth is that women’s football seems to be a facade for the UK.
The value of football in the UK long ago graduated from the status of a mere game to now symbolise the vast scale of sponsorship, funding and media coverage that places it somewhere between the sporting and entertainment industries. In comparison to this, not only women’s football, but most other British sports have also been “pushed aside”. And, unfortunately, this huge funding in football has, and will, only widen the gender gap between the status of the men’s and women’s game.
And this is something that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, and aggravated; but not to extreme levels, just yet. Smith’s concerns expose the specific financial vulnerability of female footballers whose male counterparts have entwined the sport with money. FIFA’s report even explains that the difference between the men’s and women’s games is much bigger than we thought:
Women’s football has “less established professional leagues, low salaries, narrower scope of opportunities, uneven sponsorship deals and less corporate investment”.
These “less established” professional leagues mean players have less stable contracts, contracts which FIFPro also revealed to have an average length of 12 months. These women are hence more likely to need additional employment between seasons and those without contracts are failed by “an absence of basic worker protections”.
According to FIFA’s definition of “professional”, players have a written contract and earn more through football than the expenses incurred; FIFPro reported only 18% of female footballers qualify as professional, in their 2017’s GE Report (Global Employment). Clearly, the women’s game is far behind the sponsorship and investment of the men’s one.
FIFPro General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffman himself warned about this:
“If clubs, leagues and national team competitions start going out of business, they may be gone forever.”
In addition to the lack of money in the women’s game, the next biggest consequence of COVID is the impact on international tournaments. As it has been seen and proven in recent years, the women’s football industry has heavily relied on these tournaments to drive visibility of the game to fans as well as sponsorship, so it could continue its growth. But of course, associations doesn’t seem to care about it as the postponement of the Men’s European Championship and the Olympics to 2021 completely pushed the Women’s Euros back a year. Sadly, women’s football simply cannot compete for the sponsors and coverage of these two tournaments; despite they really need both the men’s and the women’s game.
Fortunately, there’s still a bit of hope.
Last week, philanthropist James Anderson was reported to have donated £250,000 to the women’s game. Vivienne Maclaren, Chair of Scottish Women’s Football, described to the BBC his generosity as:
“An incredibly powerful message to all girls and women in Scotland.”
Though the Hearts’ benefactor had previously given significantly more to the men’s game, Anderson’s donation is a reminder that women’s football still exists and is still important. As well as this financial gesture, the US women’s soccer scene goes further to even provide an example of how to close the gender gap between men’s and women’s leagues. Following the 2019 World Cup victory, the momentum of women’s football has been continued by the resumption of the NSWL in June before the men’s league. And so it has done the Women’s Bundesliga in Germany.
It’s clear that women’s football has a long way to go to grow and be fully accepted by everyone in the football’s panorama; especially in the UK. Yet, it’s good to see that the FA has already started preparing the new WSL season, which should start on 5-6 September, without spectators. Though is further away than some hoped, many are pleased to have dates to focus on.
In the end, it’s not the pandemic the one who will end with women’s football as we know it; it’ll be the people who use it as an excuse to not help the women’s game grow to its full potential. Let’s keep all that in mind.