Why the Women’s World Cup must avoid the mistakes made by its male equivalent

Forced to operate at a far smaller scale for most of its history, women’s football has largely avoided the problems of the men’s game.

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The faces of Nikita Parris and Steph Houghton, respective England forward and centre-back players, are pictured on Lucozade bottles to mark the Women’s World Cup. Elsewhere, Visa is an official partner of the Women’s World Cup tournament, and the Women’s Super League (WSL) will be sponsored by Barclays in a deal worth an estimated  £10m over three seasons. Is the growing interest in women’s football a sign that equality in sport is approaching?

These are exciting developments in a game that has long been male dominated. Yet we should be cautious about the growing convergence between women’s and men’s football. If the former develops in the image of its male counterpart, it risks becoming a tightly orchestrated and highly financialised spectacle. The beautiful game has some ugly characteristics festering beneath its surface. It’s a reality that women’s football should avoid.  

Modern football was developed by and for men. The first competitive football league was created in England in 1888. From 1921 until 1971, women were banned from playing the sport, and until recently, men were the main authors behind every match report, commentary or opinion piece. While 27 per cent of jobs in men’s professional football clubs are today held by women, this figure plummets to 7 per cent at board level.

Yet this gendered template has proved hugely successful. Elite football is awash with money. Top players can earn hundreds of thousands in weekly wages and pull in lucrative endorsements and sponsorship deals. The cost to broadcasters of showing Premier League games in the UK has increased 25-fold since the league formed in 1992; the latest sale, of Premier League football to Sky Sports in 2016, raised £5.14bn. Clubs now receive unprecedented amounts of cash to spend in the transfer market, investing in bespoke training and nutritional regimes to fine-tune individual player’s attributes. They’re producing footballers of unprecedented skill, fitness and stamina.

But it’s impossible to draw the eye away from the problems with the game. In recent years, spiteful racism has forced Raheem Sterling  to defend his achievements, purchasing choices and physiology from the mainstream media. Endemic homophobia has dissuaded players from making their sexual orientation public. FA chairman Greg Clarke responded to allegations of sexual abuse by former Crewe defender Andy Woodward and others by expressing concern over the possibility of “substantial compensation payouts”. It’s not the first time a governing body has got its priorities so spectacularly wrong.

Yet this culture of toxic masculinity doesn’t have to be shared. Forced to operate at a far smaller scale for most of its history, women’s football has largely avoided the problems of the men’s game. Former England defender and current Manchester United Women manager Casey Stoney claims she never received homophobic abuse during her playing career and that women’s football is “very much a family sport”.

Until the inception of the WSL in 2010, the careers of female players and quality of the game relied heavily on the whims of individual chairmen. Fulham LFC (now WFC Fulham) was exceptionally successful in the early 2000s, in large part due to chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed’s decision to pay his players full-time wages. Likewise, 2018/19 was the first time the WSL required competing teams to be fully professional.

Investment drives the modern game regardless of gender, but we can learn from previous errors. Despite unprecedented income from TV rights sales, ticket prices for football matches have, in some instances, risen by over 1,000 per cent since the the Premier League began. Although fans claim they have been priced out of attending matches with their families – a fairly basic requirement for a pastime known as “the people’s game” – the average price of a single ticket was £31 last season.

In comparison, the average match day ticket for a top tier women’s game cost between £4 and £10 in the 2017/18 season, making it a considerably more affordable option. The significance of this cannot be overestimated as we stand on the cusp of what has been tipped the “most anticipated Women’s World Cup in history”.

While interest in the men’s game remains at fever pitch and the cash floods in, it’s hard to imagine anything other than continued growth. But experts have issued dark warnings about clubs being left over-exposed as TV revenue falls into decline. The economic model that financialised football thrives upon is fatally flawed.

Football should be about community, loyalty and inclusion – values that women’s football has in spades. Rather than mimicking the male game, women’s football should continue setting the examples it can learn from.  

Kelly Welles is a freelance football and sports journalist.