The Beautiful Game: Women Footballers are Overlooked, Under-funded and Still Expected to Achieve the Same Quality as the Men.

If you’re a woman and follow or play football you’re probably made of tough stuff. You’ve most likely been a victim to some sort of abuse from a man who thinks you’re less entitled to his beautiful game because you’re a woman. But, us girls continue to love football for the same reasons that men do but we know we have to do a bit more to prove our worth in the game. But why? In comparison to the men’s game, our game is seen as second class.There is a concept of inferiority that comes alongside playing women’s football, regardless of how long a woman has been playing or at what level she has played at. The women’s game doesn’t receive the same attention as the men’s game and I would say this stems from the fact the women’s game is less pleasing on the eye. However, for the women’s game to achieve the same respect we need to make the game more skillful and of better quality. 

But the authorities are setting us up to fail, how can the same level of quality be achieved if there is an inequality of support financially at the bottom of the football pyramid? It is well known that if you pump money into the lower levels of sport you will achieve a better outcome at the top. This is exactly what women’s football needs. I am not advocating for equal pay for women footballers, because arguing this would be without justification right now, however I am arguing for equal amounts of money to be put into the women’s game as the authorities put into the men’s. Simply put, women’s football needs more funding put into its grassroots level to achieve a higher quality at the top as achieving this would make the quality of women’s football improve. Once this occurs there would be no excuse to not pay professional female footballers the same as males due to the increase of broadcasting and sponsorship deals. Of course, the FA are now paying men’s and women’s international players the same but what about the Women’s Super League (WSL)? The authorities need to do more to support the women’s game and stop being ignorant to its needs to develop. The women’s game cannot be expected to produce the same quality as the men’s when the funding is incredibly dissimilar.

The Authorities

The Football Association (FA) and The Football Foundation fail to achieve equal opportunities for women to even attempt to become as successful as men –  they are unsympathetic towards the women’s game and therefore fail to fund it sufficiently. They put masses of money into keeping men’s development elite whilst ignoring the amount of money and support needed in the women’s game. The 2019 World Cup was groundbreaking in the attention and support it received. A record-breaking 11.7 million people watched the World Cup Semi-Final between the Lionesses and the USA and the WSL has finally become professional. However, these small successes gloss over the fact that progression in the women’s game has stalled. Teams in the WSL and grassroot clubs continue to be criminally underfunded and the authorities have proven ineffective in tackling inequality and injustice; as seen with its treatment of Eniola Aluko. Why, in society, can we make inequality obvious and accountable in things such as politics, corporate business and medicine but not in sport?

There are many that have argued against equal pay for women, and whilst I am not advocating this at the moment, without acknowledging that the cause for the pay gap is because of the standard of play, we cannot aim to ever achieve equality in wages. “Women don’t train as much as men do and therefore their hourly rate is much better than men’s”, “They don’t sacrifice as much as men do”, “the WSL doesn’t produce as much revenue as the Premier League” and “the women’s game isn’t as good as the men’s game” are to name a few of the justifications hailed by opposition. Firstly, women don’t train as much as men do because their wages are so low most female professional footballers have to maintain a full-time job as well as their commitment to football. Secondly, women sacrifice a lot more than men to pursue a career in football, only 1% of Women’s Super League footballers are mothers showing that female footballers are forced to choose between football or motherhood. Sophie Walton, professional footballer for Sheffield United, indicated that she received minimal support from her previous club whilst she was pregnant and has highlighted that there is no guidance regarding maternity leave or returning to elite footballer after pregnancy. Thirdly, the reason the women’s game doesn’t produce as much money as the Premier League is because of how little it is broadcasted in comparison to the men’s game. However, how can anyone expect as much money to be produced by women’s football if it isn’t even given the chance? Women train just as hard, if not harder and sacrifice a lot more than men do but still are seen as secondary. Realistically, female players have to do a lot more to achieve half of what male players do because the support the men’s game gets means they can be successful without barriers, whilst women continue to come up short in terms of financial backing. Some say that a reason for the lack of broadcasting is due to a lack of interest but it is largely because of the lack of quality. This is something that cannot be achieved without better financial backing. 

Funding

The Football Foundation, the FA and Sports England have over recent years created schemes to develop grassroots football. “Retain the Game” introduced in 2018, aimed at giving existing male clubs money for equipment, pitch hire, first aid courses etc and “Grow the Game” introduced in 2017 aimed at helping women’s clubs and teams develop.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step forward for women’s football. However, in practice the drive to maintain the level of men’s football has overpowered the attempt to develop women’s football. Due to COVID-19, the authorities have come to the decision to stop applications for the “Grow the Game” scheme whilst keeping open the option to apply for “Retain the Game”. The authorities are running out of money and have decided yet again to uphold the status quo and fail to regard the women’s game as an equal. On 23rd July 2020, Sport England announced that a £1 million boost would be placed into women’s football. Once again, whilst this looks like a positive step forward for women’s football, it only focuses on the host cities for Euro 2022. If you are an aspiring female footballer that lives elsewhere you will not reap the benefits of this money. Can you imagine the uproar from male clubs if some areas of the country were obtaining funding from authorities and not others? 

Unfortunately, It was extremely difficult to obtain any sort of financial comparison that goes into the men’s and women’s game. Even on the FA’s financial statements it only lists the amount of money going into women’s football and not men’s, conveniently deceiving people into thinking they are progressing the women’s game. Realistically they are ashamed to let the public know how much money goes into male grassroots because the difference would be staggering. The FA vow to be progressing the women’s game, highlighting money going into the sport in their financial statements however the difference of quality on the pitch speaks for itself.

COVID-19

If Sport England and the FA’s are as focused on the development of the women’s game as they vow to be, why have they taken away the only scheme that was helping this development and why are they not supplementing this money under the new “Club Preparation Fund”? Last year when the world wasn’t in complete turmoil, a women’s club could apply for a £1500 grant to help them get off the ground however (Tiers 6 and 7) aren’t allowed access to any help after COVID-19. The Football Foundation, The FA and Sports England have created a “Club Preparation Fund” to help teams prepare for the return of football but eligibility for the grant massively favours male football clubs and makes it near impossible for women’s clubs to apply. To be eligible for the grant, the club applying must have their own building and have a minimum 12 months tenure. Lower level women’s football clubs ( the exact people who need help to develop the sport) do not have their own building and mostly share their accommodation with Local Authorities or play on surfaces that are free to use. This means they will not be able to receive the grant. Football remains a bottom up industry, and if clubs at the bottom cannot access these grants the entire development of the women’s game is undermined. The Football Foundation have taken away the money in the progressive “Grow the Game” scheme aimed at developing women’s football and put that money to use by helping men’s clubs prepare for the return of football. This is completely unfair and biased. 

On 5th November 2020, the FA announced that women’s academy teams would have to stop training and playing during the national lockdown, however the men’s academies could continue. This is because the girl’s academy resources were not seen as elite in comparison. Isn’t it ironic that the FA deem them non elite due to their lack of resources but are part of the reason their resources are not elite? How can the women’s game be expected to reach the level the men’s game does when they constantly face setbacks that the men’s game doesn’t. Further, the decision was made in lockdown to halt the women’s FA Cup until after lockdown is over, while the equivalent men’s competition has been given the green light to continue despite involving non-elite teams. They pose the same health risk but men can continue doing what they love whilst women can’t? This is completely unjustified. It sends a clear message to the next generation that the men’s game is more important and this cycle of inferiority will continue. 

COVID-19 is a game changer but it should not be allowed to set the women’s game back any further when the men’s game is getting so much support to try and keep it thriving. The Premier League was back playing its remaining fixtures of the 2019/2020 season before it was even safe to do so, yet  the Women’s Super League was abandoned  despite posing the same health risk. The authorities used the impact of COVID-19 to shut down the “Grow the Game” scheme but failed to recognise the same argument when looking at continuing the men’s 2019/2020 season. The authorities aren’t blind to this of course, there is no way that they are unaware of the inequalities. Women’s football is and always has been  a second priority to them, hardly surprising when the FA board itself is majority made up of men. If progress is to be made then FA boards should be made up equally of women and until this happens women’s needs and support will not be put first. Currently, the women’s game is taking financial setbacks at every level so that the men’s game can maintain and improve its quality. Women should not have to face barriers that men don’t in the same profession, football is no different. 

Home Grown Talent

More money being placed in male grassroots football is apparently justified because the Premier League produces much, much more revenue than the Women’s Super League. This would be a fair point if the make-up of the Premier League consisted of all academy produced players. The success of the Premier League isn’t a direct result of grassroots participation as the majority of its players are brought in from overseas. The most damning statistic of all is that only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League professional. That’s a success rate of 0.012%. This is in comparison to the Women’s Super League which is predominantly made up of players that have come through academies and grassroots clubs and have benefited from the (little) funding that has been thrown their way. In terms of the production of English players competing in the highest tier of football, correct me if I’m wrong but what the FA and the Football Foundation get in return for their investment in men’s football is a small profit in comparison to what they get in return from the women’s game.

Conclusion

Women’s football needs funding at the lower level to give women the same opportunity as men to be successful. It cannot be expected for the quality of play to be as high as the mens when professional women footballers get nowhere near the same support to succeed. There is not enough quality facilities, coaches, support and pitches for the women’s game to reach the same elite level of the men’s game and until there is the quality will not improve and equal pay in the WSL will not be justified. With better coaches, equipment, facilities and backroom staff in the women’s game, it would progress massively and with an increase in standard would come an increase in interest from football fans. This would create more revenue from broadcasting deals, sponsorship etc and in turn would boost the credentials for equal pay campaigns. Ultimately not giving the women’s game the funding it needs to develop, hinders the amount of money that women can make playing the game they love. Equal pay is never going to be achieved unless the women’s game becomes more skillful and this can only be achieved by more funding at the grassroots level.

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