A fairly prickly subject to tackle right now, or indeed ever, in football, gender equality is without a doubt a pressing issue for the game not just in this country, but across the entire sporting globe in the 21st Century. With this in mind, I tread the whole topic with a sense of cautious trepidation, but with also a palpable interest in finding an answer to this probing and tricky question on a personal level. You see, the main reason I approach this subject this week is because my local club, Lewes FC, are holding their annual AGM next week, 27th October, holding a directors election alongside it. Two of the seven candidates – up for five roles alongside five other current board members – are running on the promise that, if elected, they would strive to deliver parity between the budgets of both the men’s and women’s sides. Now, this might not seem like too controversial a proposal in principal, but when inspected as an idea and theoretically put into practise, considering the factors that come into play at a relatively small club like the Rooks, it could well turn out to be a misguided business risk which could majorly compromise the future financial prosperity of the club.
This is something I will explain in further detail later, but for now I’ll just wrap up with a tidy segue between this introduction and the article itself. So, considering the vital issues of pay, attendance and broadcasting gaps between men’s and women’s football, which have all admittedly come on leaps and bounds in the past 10 years or so, are still so prevalent in the game today, how does football plan to reduce the disparities? In fact, I suppose the more important question is; do the higher powers in charge of the game actually care about this issue, and if not, why? Finally, is football going to be a game with equal opportunity for all, or is this just a misguided, unrealistic ideal in a corrupt world? All of this and more to come in this week’s edition of Talking Points…
Kicking off, it should at least be celebrated that football, as well as society as a majority, has moved on from the dark days, not so long ago in fact, when Sepp Blatter’s response to a question about how to enthuse more support in women’s football was that “they could have tighter shorts”. Back in 2004, in the same interview, he creepily commented "female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men - such as playing with a lighter ball”, which seems even more deplorable when you consider he was elected a further three times after these comments, with his sexist actions seemingly bearing no impact on the decision of the heads of worldwide FA’s. Luckily, after the intervention of the FBI and Swiss Police, Blatter was thrown out of the chair before he could die in the role like a Holy Pontiff – and this would’ve been his finest compliment had he made it that far – and football was allowed room to breath after being constricted by a corrupt, misguided, self-interested dictator, bringing in a new, more inclusive era. Quietly during Blatter’s latter years, as he handed over more control to others after being encouraged to work a little less considering his old age, women’s football drew the crowds in higher and higher numbers with each game, more by the unrelenting hard work of volunteers, club directors and more than anything the players than FIFA/FA officials. Since Blatter has been ushered into his retirement home in the recluse of the Alps (if only), another Swiss – I can only assume for their powerful reputation of diplomacy and neutrality - , Gianni Infantino, has taken his first baby steps into the grimy organisation, and has so far allowed a cleaner, more open-minded FIFA, which is better for smaller sections of the game (compared to men’s football) such as women’s football.
Now, this should’ve been expected a basic level of progression in a football long ago, but with the difficult attitudes of many a FIFA President in the past 50 years, in which the women’s game has grown significantly, it has only reached this point in 2016, and we have to make up for lost time in terms of equality. Considering women were finally allowed the vote almost a century ago now in the UK, women’s rights to play sport in just as equal terms as men should have been expected a long time ago, seeing as their rights to play vital roles in politics – with the current British, German, South Korean and (hopefully soon) American main political roles all being held by women – and rights to take up any profession they like, in the developed world, have been delivered.
So why has football struggled with this pressing issue, other than for the fact the disgraces in charge of world football have been blatantly sexist in their roles in the recent past? Well, the way I see it, football has never, in truth, been equal for everyone in its entire history, as in its early form it was designed for violent, in truth unskilled brutes of men, and during its rise into professionalism it only ever took the needs of the male practitioners of the sport into account. Ever since its move to professionalism, there has been a massive disparity between men rich and poor too, not just women, as it has been proven as a staple fact of the game that only those with golden-lined pockets will be able to force out success in the game, and that’s when competing against similarly well-off counterparts. The beautiful game hasn’t been one for the less fortunate in society, at the top level at least, certainly in this century and at the end of the last, as ticket prices has soared sky-high compared to their reasonable beginnings, and fan-owned, democratic clubs have honestly failed to live up to their promise in terms of results, Portsmouth and Lewes big examples of this.
So if football, especially in the 21st Century, isn’t inherently a game for the working classes, why should it also be a game for women, I suppose is the testament from club owners and league officials the world over. In their view, it wouldn’t be financially prosperous, at least in the short run considering the amount of money they would have to inject, to invest in the women’s game to draw it up to equal terms with the men’s. Besides, even if the women’s game did have equal pay, I, as I assume many disheartened men and women across the world, would like to see the men’s wages slashed, rather than the women’s hiked all the way up to a £250,000 (yes a quarter of a million in case you didn’t appreciate the gravity of it) a week. If that happened, I’m sure you’d see many original benefactors turn their backs on that form of the game, as it would completely abandon its morally-strong roots, and nobody wants to see that, as that aspect is surely the most desirable about the women’s game for so many.
Facing this issue then, there seems to be a desire for drastic, controversial change at Lewes FC, at least from two directors running for re-election, Charlie Dobres, who has been a fairly successful director in the full six years since the club became community-owned in introducing a new 3G pitch and helping with the quirky, certainly left-leaning ideals of the club and, in some views, himself, and Ed Ramsden. I will let Ramsden introduce himself in terms of his passion and effort for the club; “of all of the board I give by far the least time to the club, and attend almost none of the games of any of our teams”. I know this to be true, in fact, as during my time supporting the club, since 2011, I doubt I have ever seen him around the club, mainly because he prefers to keep himself behind closed doors, if even behind the doors at all, causing a disconnect between himself and the fans. I would be perplexed if Ramsden gets elected back in, considering his own admission of what surely are unacceptable standards, and his well-written but altogether fluffy manifesto, where he uses enough baffling and obscure analogies to shake a stick at in order to communicate his desire for equal pay terms for the women’s (Level 3 or Premier League Southern Division) side and the men’s (Level 8 or Ryman South Division). It seemed a fair proposal in principals, certainly, but when argued very fairly on the club’s (unofficial) forum, a number of great points came out exposing it as an extremely risky and unexplained process even if it was to go ahead (where have we heard that before *cough* Brexit *cough*).
Firstly, the whole motivation behind Ramsden’s argument, as well as Dobres’, who seems to be a little more light-hearted in his suggestion of the idea but supportive nonetheless, seems to be to equal out the men’s game with the women’s, starting at little old Lewes, which surely goes along with what I am arguing for in this blog. The thing is, if the club was to achieve budget equality (which would be performed by raising the women’s budget to £2,000 alongside the men’s every week, or clumping together a whopping £104,000 annually twice over, once for the men, and once for the women) they would have to raise the money from outside of the club. Yes, and that’s because right now, the women’s side only raise around £350 every two weeks, considering every home match they host around 100 people who each pay a £3 entry fee, including a programme, some of whom also contribute funds by spending in the bar. As Barry Collins, another director at Lewes, points out in his great article here, that £350 is only enough to pay for the services of the officials who come down to the matches, so the women’s team can’t currently afford to be funded in terms of a regular budget at all. As a result then, there is no existing budget there for the women’s team to expand at all, as for that to happen there would have to be a drastic increase in attendances or sponsorship. The latter is what Ramsden proposes will fund the expansion of the women’s budget, as the draw of investing in the first club in the world (he believes, don’t quote me on this) to introduce budget equality would apparently be enough for some big bosses to come sniffing around the club to create a partnership. This is despite the fact nothing could happen in terms of introducing this budget without bankrupting the club before the sponsors knew their money would be going specifically to this new women’s budget, which would be totally unsustainable if they ever left. So the risk of these sponsors leaving because their investment isn’t backed up, because, for example, the side doesn’t reach the WSL in the next 5-10 years, doesn’t matter to Ramsden it seems. Isn’t that too big of a risk to take with such a small club?
As a fan-owned club, shouldn’t Lewes also be looking away from outside investment and be focusing its resources on encouraging more owners into joining the revolution? Well, yes, except the dream hasn’t quite materialised in terms of the success of fan ownership for the club. Apparently, the club is running on losses this year, and could well be for a few years until the 3G pitch starts breaking even and the men’s first team, who as the main priority financially and football-wise for the club, start to win a few trophies or put together a cup run, which would provide vital income. Right now, and for the past few years, the club has relied on two or three certain directors who have propped the club up with their own resources in the thousands, presumed to include Dobres and Ramsden. That doesn’t quite fit the expectation of a fully fan-owned club, but it is the painful reality for a struggling business which has no problem keeping a loyal fan base and agreeing deals with new sponsors, but fails to do either in as significant terms as they would like in order to deliver a league-leading budget for their men’s team in order to secure promotion.
So, in short, an increase to the women’s side’s budget as significant as £2,000 a week isn’t financially viable for such a small club on the national scale as Lewes, despite the success of the women’s side, who have outgrown their background to compete with the likes of Spurs, West Ham, Milwall, Cardiff and Charlton as a result of primarily the hard work of long-term club servant Jacquie Agnew. And the Ramsden philosophy of ‘build it and they will come’ economics doesn’t quite fit with me, nor many other fans, who want to see financial stability mixed with success on the pitch for the number one priority, the men’s first team, over anything else at the club. That is currently, and is likely to be for a long, long time in the future, the reality at practically every club in the world, so why are the footballing hipsters at Lewes looking to shake it up? Well, for exactly the reason as my description of them suggests I suppose; to be different, edgy, risky, ambitious, niche and so much more, rather than any reasons for the fans I fear.
I suppose financial equality is the next step for the women’s game though in England in the near future, but I don’t believe it will come anytime quite yet. I still think the women’s game needs to make the leaps in growth we have seen in the past, especially after the London 2012 Olympics, where the GB side really captured the imagination of a nation, especially after beating Brazil at Wembley. Considering average attendances in the WSL 1, containing Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea as the most competitive clubs, in 2016 were 1,443, and total attendances across 64 matches added up to 50,528, I think there is a significant gap to be made up between the women’s form of the game and even League 2 men’s football in England. There are a range in wages even at the top level of the women’s game in this nation, apparently the world’s third best if the Lionesses’ performance at the last World Cup is anything to go by, with professional players earning anything between £5,000 to £10,000 at the bottom level and £35,000 at the top. As well as that, these top players could earn another potential £30,000 on top if they are an international with a central contract (like the ones I suggested for the England’s men’s team a few weeks ago, notice the women’s game gets a lot of things right). So, someone like Steph Houghton, captain at both national champions – and moneybags – Manchester City and England, could earn up to £65,000 in a year, which is admittedly measly compared to Manchester United and England captain counterpart Wayne Rooney’s total of £15,600,000 a year (minus a lot of it for tax) which you can discover more about here if you want to be truly disgusted.
Still, at £65,000 a year, Houghton earns roughly double the national average for the normal citizen of the UK, which surely keeps wages to a realistic cap, as nobody wants to see footballers earn cripplingly high annual wages to the level of a recent failure in terms of performance such as Wayne Rooney. This is a man who could pay off the debts of dozens of clubs in non-league football, donate to a range of well-deserving charities and help fund the introduction of a women’s budget equal to that of the men’s team at Lewes FC (maybe that was what Ramsden was holding out for all along) and still have the money to spare for the upkeep of his Cheshire mansion, the private schooling of his children and his collection of Range Rovers and guitars. Chuck in a couple of holidays to Dubai and California, an investment in a racehorse and numerous nights out with his mates, and I’m sure Rooney will be a happy, as well as a spent up man. Anyway, I think I’m moving away from the point. What I was going to say was surely the salaries of leading men’s players should be brought down, rather than women’s wages being forced up on the basis of equality. Personally, I don’t think the product of gender equality should be unthinkably extortionate and totally unrealistic wage hikes for one side, who have apparently suffered in not earning the same level of wages as some of the most corrupt, spoilt and altogether worthless men on the planet, professional male footballers. This point may not apply at Lewes FC, but if pay equality is required to right one of the many wrongs of football, it should be strived after in order to be delivered in my view, but only in a way that satisfies all.
The thing is, the way I would rather have it, with men’s wages brought down in accordance to the level of women’s, who could do with earning a few bob more than they currently do in a lot of cases, will never, ever happen because there are so many heartless, sexist, corrupt businessmen in charge of the game who will simply shoot down the idea as soon as anyone chimes up. It is pointless in suggesting anything that would apparently detract from the men’s game, because it is the philosophy of bigger and better that have got corporations like the Premier League to where they are today, and that isn’t likely to stop at least in the near future.
If one thing is for sure though; it is that women’s football continues to grow with the support of more fans every single time a game is played, and the opportunities for female players have certainly improved massively over recent history. The facilities are there for young players to rise through the ranks, as many regional sides have a range of girls and women’s teams for the next generation to progress through, and the misconceptions of the women’s game are fading game by game. It’s not a tomboy’s game, it’s not a game in which the competitors are wearing ‘tighter shorts’ like Sepp Blatter suggested, it’s an inclusive and forward-thinking branch of the sport which should be celebrated for all it has achieved and will continue to go on to achieve, breaking barriers down. It hasn’t always received the support it deserved from the footballing governments of FIFA and respective FA’s, but it has found a place in the world for itself like Frankenstein’s monster, and is finally now shedding its misconceived image to flourish, rather unlike the monster, more like the ugly duckling. And in many ways, other branches of women’s sport have gone through, and are still going through, these dramatic changes, including tennis, where male and female players now earn exactly the same for their performances in Grand Slams (after some controversy in the introduction of this system), cricket and rugby, where in both cases English players on the women’s side first turned professional just a few years ago, and their pay is just making ground on the men’s at an admittedly slow pace.
But progress is being made, and it should be encouraged in any form it takes these days, just as long as that momentum can be carried forward into the future with ground-breaking changes. One day, just one day, we might see men and women being paid at the exact same level in the beautiful game, but sadly I think that ‘we’ might represent people 25 or 50 years down the line from us, and will only be delivered once FIFA, or whoever wants to encourage it, has a charismatic and sensible leader with the drive enough to implement this change, which can only be backed up if the men’s and women’s games are equal; if attendances, income, opportunities and relevance are the same, then pay should be too. For me, it is as simple as that if football wants to be ground-breaking and brave enough to take that step at the right time. In the case of Lewes FC though, this time should not be confused as now, and ‘football’ should not be confused as just Lewes. I know they are ambitious and believe passionately in this ideal, but the substance just isn’t there right now, so they will have to wait. But they, amongst us all, can make massive progress during that time, and I’m sure we’d all appreciate that at the very least.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!