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22 April 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 10:39am

This should have been a breakout year for women’s sport – now to keep going it needs a leap of faith

When people describe “sport” they are invariably referring to men’s sport. The big stuff. The stuff that drives the revenue.

By Jonathan Liew

Like many football clubs around the world, Independiente Santa Fe – one of Colombia’s most successful teams, based in Bogota – has been forced to take drastic measures as a result of the global sporting shutdown. It decided in early April to cut its players’ pay by 50 per cent. But this is not the whole story. 

While the Santa Fe men’s team will remain official club employees, the women’s team have had their contracts suspended indefinitely. At a stroke, they were deprived of both their current employment rights and any guarantee of returning to work once the pandemic has passed. 

Santa Fe may have been the first sporting organisation to declare its priorities so flagrantly, but it won’t be the last. If the 2010s were, by common consent, a seminal decade for women’s sport both in its professionalism and popularity, then the 2020s have offered a chilling corrective, a reminder that the gains of the last generation are heartbreakingly fragile. Already there are signs that in what may prove a  necessary economic battle between preserving the most lucrative men’s sport and investing time and patience in women’s sport, there would be one clear winner. Covid-19 may not discriminate, but its consequences certainly will.

You only have to listen to some of the conversations taking place at the moment to sense the direction of travel. Sports fans deprived of live action are seeking solace in nostalgia: reruns of classic football matches, debates over the legacy of great athletes. This archive is not, as you can imagine, a space replete with women’s voices and achievements. Elsewhere, discussion surrounding the question of when sport can resume has centred overwhelmingly on big-ticket events: the Premier League and Champions League, Euro 2020, the Tour de France, Formula One, the men’s golf majors. When people describe “sport” in this context they are invariably referring to men’s sport. The big stuff. The stuff everybody watches. The stuff that drives the revenue. 

And so if coronavirus presents elite men’s sport with a temporary derailment of the gravy train, then for women’s sport the threat is nothing less than existential. If men’s cycling is facing pay cuts and rescheduled races, then women’s cycling –  which operates on a shoestring – is staring at the prospect of entire teams folding and a calendar in ruins. If the world’s top male cricketers are fretting about how to stay fit and sane in lockdown, then many of their female counterparts are wondering how long they can afford to go without playing. If the talk in men’s football is of tighter transfer budgets and deferred wages, then in women’s football it is of whether the sport itself can stay afloat. 

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In the Women’s Super League, for example, big clubs will frequently boast a playing budget of about £1m a season. Even in the good times, this was never a sum that was even nearly covered by gate receipts or broadcast revenue. Not yet, at any rate.  For the likes of Manchester City or Arsenal, investment in women’s football has always been a long game: a means of ensuring that when the boom finally arrives, they can be at its vanguard. 

What are the prospects of that now? Already, cracks are beginning to appear in the edifice. On 26 March the FA annulled the results of all women’s football from the third division down (you will notice that the third, fourth, fifth and sixth tiers of the English men’s game remain, for now, very much still on). Clubs affected by the decision are complaining that they have  in essence been left to sink: thrown to the winds of a market that no longer exists. Fifpro, the global players’ union, believes that vast swathes of the women’s game could simply disappear without emergency financial assistance from governing bodies or men’s clubs.

Other sports are grappling with many of the same issues. The majority of teams in netball’s Superleague are funded by universities or men’s rugby clubs, rendering them powerless in the jaws of cutbacks. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 has potentially deprived many female athletes – disproportionately reliant on  the Games for exposure – of a year’s media coverage, a year’s endorsements and sponsorships. And there is early anecdotal evidence that a multitude of young and emerging tennis players – who were scraping to earn a living on a vastly unequal tour – are considering walking away from the sport altogether. 

These are strange and turbulent times, in sport as elsewhere. Organisations and funding bodies will be acutely aware of the optics of cutting women’s sport loose; in our current age of alarmism, short-termism and bottom-line obsession, optics are pretty much the only thing women’s sport has going for it right now. We cling to the bare and brittle hope that the societies who emerge from this crisis will value things other than cold, imminent cash. 

In many ways, this reflects the leap of faith that already underpins virtually all women’s sport. The sexism is rampant; the scorn relentless; the sums rarely add up. What has always sustained it, amid this maelstrom of centrifugal forces, is the promise of better times to come: a  shimmering horizon just over the next bump in the road.

One day, the faithful tell the faithless,  the crowds will flock back and the cash will flow. One day the trolls will fall silent.  One day women’s sport will finally stand on its own feet, unabashed and unbeholden. You suspect that the female players of Independiente Santa Fe are not the only ones for whom that day feels just a little more distant.

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This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb