* Some of the evidence in this article is anecdotal from experiences. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, and the evidence given is not necessarily reflective of everyone’s personal experiences. *
At first glance, The Dripping Pan might reflect football heritage. Located in East Sussex, The Dripping Pan is home of Lewes FC, fit with old-school terraces and serving local beers. However, the club’s general manager Maggie Murphy would argue that Lewes FC is a trailblazer for the future of English football. “This is the future - and we’re already there. We’re ahead of the game, even if people haven’t heard of us,” Murphy said in an interview with the BBC. The reason for the claim? Because Lewes FC claims to be the only club in England which pays male and female players equally.
No, don’t click off the page yet. Nowadays, the debate around equal pay in sports is frequently met with groans and rolled eyes, combined with the ever-present rhetoric:
“There’s more money in men’s sport, so of course male athletes are paid more.”
Yes, there might be more money in men’s sport, so it is justified that male athletes are paid more money. Indeed, the Women’s Super League (WSL) is the highest league of women’s football in England and has recently secured a broadcasting rights deal worth £7million/year. Although this represents a vast improvement, this figure is only a small fraction of the male equivalent. For the Premier League - the highest league of men’s football in England - each match is worth around £6.6million in broadcasting rights. But did you ever stop to consider why there is more money in men’s sport? Common answers to this question include:
“Men are just better suited to some sports!”
“Have you ever watched a woman’s football game? Do you know any female players? The games are so boring!”
Whilst these answers come with a plethora of justifications, my intention is to challenge these statements, offering facts and some kind of optimism for a progressive future.
This disparity in money is frequently justified by analysing quality. It is generally accepted that men’s football generates more money simply because the quality of games is better than the female equivalent. Naturally, it is impossible to come up with an all-encompassing metric to value the quality of football matches (or anything for that matter) so, for the sake of the argument, we will accept that men’s football is (on average) of better quality than women’s football.
But here, we get to the crux of the debate. Why is men’s football better quality? The frequent answer to this is physical superiority - the male body composition, genetics and biology is more suited to football. To me, this seems somewhat lazy. Are we really claiming that football is a game only for physical specimens? If this were true, surely there would not be any Messi/Ronaldo debate, and the idea that Maradona (RIP) was a better player than, say, Adama Traoré would be laughed out of the room. No - there is far more to football than physical capabilities. I would argue that technique is what brings quality to football games, and what makes the beautiful game beautiful. After Manchester City’s triumph in clinching the 2020/2021 Premier League title, prolific manager Pep Guardiola spoke of the “massive” influence Johan Cruyff had on his career and approach to football. “In the simple things, he’d always focus on the technique,” said Guardiola. This is not to say that Cruyff lacked athleticism, it is just to highlight the superior importance of technique and ability in football, over body composition. Professional footballers exist without great physical superiority; but technique is what is consistent across the board (even if we don’t always see it at the weekend).
Thus, we are left with technique. What is it that makes men technically better than women? There is no evidence to suggest that men inherently have superior technique in football to women, so where does it come from? Although I risk over-simplifying in my answer and, full disclosure, I have never come close to being a supreme athlete in any way, I refer to the old adage in: practice makes perfect - men have simply had (on average) more practice than women. Now, this practice can come voluntarily, but it is undeniably institutional, too. When I was a kid playing football, it was customary for everyone to imitate their favourite player. You could find me claiming “I’m gonna be Henry,” or “I’m Fabregas.” Obviously, I knew who these players were, partly because I watched them on TV at the weekend, but also because they were on the Shoot Out/Match Attax cards that we traded on the school playground and just a part of our culture. Straight away, young girls are disadvantaged because women’s football has never had the broadcasting/social presence of the men’s game. Football trading cards featuring women continue to be few and far between. Women’s football just doesn’t have the same culture. This means that football is simply less accessible to girls at a younger age, so boys gain more minutes practicing. There is more friction for girls to play football than there is for boys.
As with most things, this friction and disadvantage comes from history too - a history which has resulted in a legacy of institutionalised prejudice against women’s football. According to the FA, the first women’s football game was played in 1895, in which North beat South 7-1. However, in 1921, the FA banned women’s football, claiming “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” It was only half a century later in 1971 that this ban was lifted. To anyone who argues that this ban was a long time ago and should be rendered irrelevant, the English men’s team last won the World Cup within this 50-year period in 1966, as we are reminded at least every 4 years. Additionally, one of the arguments against the formation of the Super League recently was the importance of football heritage. Finally, how many times have we heard Spurs fans banging on about their domestic double triumph in 1961. These are only a few examples to show that when it comes to the beautiful game, history matters; and looking at the history of the women’s game, it is unsurprising that women’s football is disadvantaged, but it is our responsibility to recognise this and act accordingly.
I can hear some of you screaming: “Men’s football is just more entertaining! Come on, no one denies that!” Okay, fine. As I said before, for the sake of this article, I will concede the subjective opinion that men’s football is more entertaining. But again, why is this? One reason for sure is simply that less people rock up to women’s football games. In 2019-20, WSL teams attracted around 3,400 fans on average; whilst the Premier League received turnouts of around 30,000 on average. If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, football is far more entertaining with fans in the stadia. Broadcasters even pumped fake crowd noise through our TV sets to encourage us to watch more football throughout the pandemic! There is no doubt that this helped increase the entertainment value of the football games for the past year, strengthening the argument that football is of better quality, more entertaining and thus generates more money with fans present.
Okay, there will still be some of you who want to say that men’s football is more entertaining with or without the fans, that it’s just better. This might be, and it is all subjective of course. However, I encourage you to think about the contents of this article. Technique is vital in football and takes precedent over physical ability. There are institutional reasons why women’s football is at a disadvantage to men’s football - and by extension, institutional reasons why people so ardently claim men’s football is inherently better than women’s football, without reasonable justifications.
To say that men should get paid more than women when it comes to football is justified, because there is a bigger pot. However, on looking at the reasons for why there is a bigger pot, we see the institutional bias surrounding football. So, what can we do? As we have seen recently with the Super League collapse, the fans have a huge stake in football. It is important to positively discriminate towards women’s football and to check your own prejudices against it. Only then will broadcasters and investors start to see where the attention is moving (or spreading more equally) and will we begin to move towards some sort of equality in football. In closing, I would like to leave you with some food for thought:
Beginner golfers are frequently referred to female golf pros to learn the mechanics of a golf swing, because female golfers are technically better than male golfers. Can we really say with any real certainty that (all things being equal) the same might not be true for football?