Women's football has gone mainstream. It's finally become part of the sport's wider conversation, with this summer's World Cup in France expected to be the most celebrated in the tournament's history. For the first time ever, brands want to invest in the game not just to make themselves feel better, but because there's a potential return on investment. Nike has released its first women's specific kits, while Barclays bank recently agreed to a three-year £10 million deal to be the first title sponsor of England's top-tier Super League (WSL).
However, despite all the hysteria and excitement surrounding the upcoming tournament in France, there's still a key element of the women's game that is miles away from the men's, and is far from becoming equal any time soon.
In 2017, a report from FIFPro, an international player representative organisation, found that the majority of women in the UK's Super League earn less than £18,000 per year; in the capitalist giant that is the men's Premier League, the average annual player salary is £2.6 million.
A lot of the women who play in the WSL – and most of the players in the second-tier Championship – are forced to supplement their incomes with second jobs. Gilly Flaherty, the captain of West Ham United Women, owns a cryotherapy centre in Essex, while Shannon Maloney, of second-tier Lewes FC, works as a teacher.
Maloney’s Lewes FC have led calls for England's Football Association to increase the prize money for the Women’s FA Cup. At the moment, the winning team gets just £25,000, while the men's champion pots £3.6 million. Lewes can speak out because they at least try to practice what they preach. In 2017, the club decided to pay its women's team the same as its men's side as part of their Equality FC campaign.
The move was a first for a professional football club. However, as admirable as that decision was, it's worth noting that Lewes' women's side are considerably more successful than their male counterparts. Last year, Lewes' men finished 11th in the seventh tier of English football, while the women's team finished ninth in the second-tier Championship.
In Denmark, the men's national team offered to try to end a stalemate over pay between the women’s side and the Danish Football Association (DBU).
Back in 2017, Denmark's women's team ended up missing a friendly match against the Netherlands and conceding a defeat to Sweden in a World Cup qualifier because they were on strike, challenging their pay and employment status with the DBU.
The men's team offered to donate around 500,000 DKK (£60,000) to try to end the impasse, but the Danish football association declined. The women’s side eventually agreed an improved deal which saw investment in the women’s team increase by 2 million DKK (£237,000) and pay set to rise by 60 percent if the team qualified for a major tournament.
Sweden were awarded a 3-0 victory for the game that Denmark missed and the Danes failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, falling to the Netherlands in the playoff semi-finals.
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The change that is needed across the sport will take the efforts of more than just one governing body: an entire attitude shift in the way we understand progress needs to happen. In order to command television rights fees, and therefore higher pay for the players, women's football needs to be marketed properly. It needs to be showcased as an attractive product that broadcasters want to fight over showing. Women's footballers aren't crying out for Neymar-esque salaries – they just want to be able to commit to being a full-time professional athlete without having to also work a side job. The only way that a woman in this sport can make a decent living as things stand is if they have a central contract with their national team and some endorsement deals on the side that aren't just about getting free football boots.
"Ultimately, we are doing the same job as the men, but I understand that we're not filling out stadiums," Chelsea and England's Fran Kirby told reporters recently when asked whether the Lionesses should be paid the same as the England men's team. Kirby went on to add that things could improve if England win this summer's World Cup – but we only need to look at the example of a side that have won the tournament not once, but three times, and have achieved more than almost any other men's national side in history to show that this is probably wishful thinking.
In March, the US women's national side filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation (USSF), accusing it of "institutionalised gender discrimination". The lawsuit cited the fact that the women's team's performance "has been superior to that of the male players – with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions".
The US women's team have four Olympic titles to go with their World Cup trophies, and they've been number one in the world for some time. On the flip-side, the men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and haven't progressed past the quarter-final stage since the first tournament in 1930.
This isn't even the first time the US women have fought to get a better deal. Nineteen years ago, the team went on strike and boycotted a tournament in Australia not long after claiming their famous win at the 1999 World Cup.
In 2016, five key players from the team – Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan – also filed a wage discrimination complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Those players had just played a starring role in the US' 2015 World Cup win and wanted to put pressure on the EEOC to investigate the USSF's payment structure, as they were, at the time, being paid 40 percent less than the men's team.
That legal case remains unresolved, but the EEOC issued letters last month giving everyone except Solo – who no longer plays for the US – the right to sue. Solo recently celebrated her own victory against the authorities; last year, she filed a complaint against the USSF with the US Olympic Committee, claiming that the soccer federation was failing to financially support its female athletes and members of its Paralympic and deaf teams. A panel of independent arbitrators ruled that the USSF is in violation of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which protects individual athletes.
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The Australian women's team, known as the Matildas, staged a similar but less publicised fight against Football Federation Australia after the 2015 World Cup. At the tournament, the Matildas only received a A$500 (£275) match fee per game, compared to the A$7,500 (£4,125) fee enjoyed by the men's team at similar events.
The action meant the Matildas could put pressure on their governing body, and eventually agreed a new collective bargaining agreement with the FFA which meant pay was no longer falling under Australia's minimum wage regulations. The new agreement would mean that Australia's top players would receive A$41,000 (£22,545) per year, while second-tier team members would get A$30,000 (£16,500), as well as match fees. This is nearly double the previous base salary of just A$21,000 (£11,550). There were also improvements to players' expenses and payments from domestic clubs. The FFA have even launched a campaign on the team's behalf calling for a doubling of the team's prize money for the 2019 World Cup.
Jamaica's Reggae Girlz was disbanded in 2010 due to a lack of support from their Football Federation, but this year have made it to their first World Cup through donations and support from Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, who came on board as an ambassador when the team relaunched in 2014. It wouldn't be surprising if the team – which is expected to be a fan favourite in France – gets a sudden burst of support from the national body after this summer, as their appeal, success and status continues to grow rapidly.
Megan Rapinoe, a leader in the US camp and the face of the team's fight for equality, blamed FIFA at a recent press conference, claiming it could easily ensure equality for women's football, but that the organisation can't really be bothered. "The sort of incremental change that we’ve seen is just not enough," Rapinoe said. "I would like to see a major paradigm shift, a major overhaul. There has been such a lack of investment over all of these years, such a lack of care and attention, that doubling and tripling, quadrupling investment, care and attention to the women’s game I think would be appropriate. To make incremental change obviously leaves the game wanting more, and is not nearly enough at this time."
Similarly to the FA, FIFA will gladly boast about the fact that the prize money for the women's World Cup has doubled to £3.1 million this year, but that is still significantly lower than the £29.7 million that France took home after Russia 2018. FIFA recoups billions from the selling of television rights to the men's World Cup. US broadcaster Fox paid $425 million (£335 million) to secure the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. FIFA earned $1.85 billion in the marketing rights revenue alone for the 2015-2018 World Cup cycle – money that could be better shared to help grow the women's game. UEFA, European football's governing body, is aiming to change this with the recent unpacking of sponsorship and marketing opportunities for its women's competitions. But most of the TV rights remain largely tied up.
Mind you, it's not all bad news. There are a few national federations that have attempted to pay their men's and women's teams the same. Norway's football federation decided in 2017 to pay its men's and women's teams the same, about £600,000 per team. The agreement meant that the men had to take a wage cut. Until then, they were receiving around double the women's team pay. It was decided that a £45,000 commercial contribution would be passed to the women, who had more than earned it after performing at eight World Cups – taking the title in 1995 – and 11 European Championships. Meanwhile, the men's team have never progressed beyond the round of 16 at any of their three World Cup appearances, and only have a single Euro campaign to boast of.
Last week, the South African Football Association announced that it would match men's and women's pay for the World Cup and upcoming African Cup of Nations. Though these gestures shouldn’t be dismissed, they do still feel slightly hollow. Norway and South Africa's women's teams are currently vastly outperforming their men's.
The underlying dynamic to all of this is that football hasn't been about fairness in a long time, if ever. Football is about money. And for now, the money is in the pockets of the men's leagues, male players and football federations run by men. If the US women's team can win this fight in the courts, then maybe it will change the sport forever.