For: Is the gender pay gap in football justified?

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Assessing whether the gender pay gap in football, that meaning differences in the average earnings of male and female footballers, is justified or not first requires a breakdown of where such earnings come from.

Generally, a footballer has four sources of income directly related to his or her ‘day job’, the size and even existence of which are dependent on a plethora of factors (value, age, gender, reputation, club, previous successes, potential for future successes, social media followings, etc.).

These are: a basic salary, loyalty bonuses, signing-on fees, performance-related incentives, squad bonuses and share of competition prize winnings from their club; an allowance, team performance-related bonuses and share of competition prize winnings from their national team; image rights earnings; and commercial deals and sponsorships.

On average, a male footballer’s earnings are far greater than those of female footballers playing at an equivalent or even higher level of competition. Without taking into account income from national teams, image rights and commercial deals and sponsorships, a 2017 Sporting Intelligence salary survey found that the average basic annual first-team salary was 9,868% greater in the Premier League than in the Women’s Super League (the respective top flights of men’s and women’s football in England).

A comparison between the lower leagues of men’s and women’s football would probably provide meagre reading, too. I’d hazard a guess that some male footballers playing for ambitious non-league clubs such as Billericay Town and (at least last season, anyway) Salford City earned more than some top flight female footballers towards the lower end of the salary spectrum.

These trends are unsurprisingly echoed by the total earnings of elite footballers whose substantial marketing values swell their incomes to levels far beyond the gender average. France Football magazine’s list of the highest-earning male and female footballers in 2018, published in April this year, revealed that Lionel Messi’s income of €130,000,000 was 325 times greater than Ana Hederberg’s €400,000.

Although enormous, this gulf is not without cause, however.

Discounting the uncertainty of income received from transfers, a football club’s three main sources income are supporters, broadcasting and competition prize winnings. Across all three of these metrics, the women’s game pales in comparison to the men’s.

The average Women’s Super League attendance last season was 965, just 2.53% of the Premier League’s 38,168 average (despite the average WSL ticket costing 1/6 of the average PL ticket) and lower than that of non-league South Shields, Scarborough Athletic and Weymouth in the seventh tier of English men’s football.

Moreover, although a record 11,700,000 people in the UK tuned into England’s 2-1 loss to the USA in last week’s semi-final, televised women’s football is far less popular than men’s. 26,500,000 tuned into last year’s World Cup semi-final between England and Croatia whilst on BT Sport, WSL matches attract an average of 57,000 viewers, 937,000 less than Premier League matches on the same channel. Worldwide, the Premier League is broadcast in 156 countries to a potential TV audience of 4.2 billion people.

As a globally popular league of globally sourced players, the Premier League unsurprisingly brings in a gargantuan annual revenue of £3.05bn from broadcasters who bid for the rights to showcase the league in different parts of the world. The specific figure for the Women’s Super League is unknown, however, as its broadcasting rights are sold alongside the men’s FA Cup, but as Manchester City Women’s Football Club and Liverpool Women’s Football Club earned just £128,000 and £142,413 from broadcasting respectively in 2017/18, the total figures will be minute in comparison to the Premier League.

On an international level, the disparity between the available prize money at the men’s and women’s premier international competition has perplexed some. How can it be that an American footballer who won the Women’s World Cup would earn less than another American footballer who only reached the knockout stages of the men’s World Cup? How can FIFA justify total prize money of $60m for the 2023 WWC when the total prize money for the 2022 men’s World Cup is set to increase to $440m?

The answer is simple, really. The 2018 men’s World Cup accumulated total revenues of $6bn from broadcasting, commercial and merchandising. The 2015 Women’s World Cup accumulated total revenues of $73m from broadcasting, commercial and merchandising.

And, even though, according to The Wall Street Journal, the US Women’s National Team generated approximately $50.8m in matchday income between 2016 and 2018 − $900,000 more than the US Men’s National Team over the same period − this figure ignores the fact that the USWNT played eighteen more matches during that time and also excludes income from broadcasting, commercial and prize money. You can decide for yourself whether this is a valuable metric or not.

With far greater numbers of global television viewers (let alone those on illegal streaming websites, 190,000 of which were banned by the Premier League last season) and higher-paying regular attendees, it is no surprise that the commercial pull and matchday earning power of men’s football overwhelms that of women’s football. With more interest, male players are paid more for their image rights and in sponsorships and commercial deals. With more money from sponsors, competitions and broadcasters available to teams who perform well, men’s clubs and international teams pay their players more in order to attract the best players, out-perform their rivals and motivate individual performance.

As such, though the historical neo-confessionalization of the men’s game at the expense of the women’s may be regrettable in the harsh light of modern hindsight, the pay gap between male and female footballers is no Greek tragedy in and of itself − it is justified by popular demand and propped up by market forces free to endow the causes which they judge most lucrative.

Fundamentally, companies cannot and should not be forced to invest identical sums into men’s and women’s image rights deals or competition and individual sponsorships when they have dramatically different levels of interest and value.

Moreover, clubs and international teams cannot and should not be forced to divert revenue generated by their male footballers to female footballers who generate a fraction of what men do, especially when many men’s and women’s teams who play under the same name operate as separate entities and as the very people who the women’s game is going to depend on if it is ever to gain and maintain equal footing with the men, lifetime, committed and passionate followers of the men’s game, would lose the minimal interest they already have in women’s football through such a move.

Essentially, men’s and women’s teams operate at different levels of quality and entertainment and generate different levels of interest and revenue. In this context, equal pay should not even be considered.

The same arguments used by advocates of equal pay in football, those being historical neglect, persistent underfunding, limited media coverage and poorer development facilities, also apply to non-league men’s football. However, to call for equal pay for all male footballers regardless of what level they play at is a laughable proposition for the same reasons that calling for equal pay for all footballers is − there is a monumental difference in quality, entertainment, interest and revenue.

Compelling clubs and national teams to pay male and female footballers the same would not be beneficial to anything apart from female footballers’ paypackets and the consciences of the ‘woke generation’. In its seizure of funds vital for the sustainable development of grassroots, non-league and lower-league football for both genders, this would drastically escalate the differences between elite and grassroots women’s football and deal comprehensive damage to the prospect of sustained development in men’s and women’s football at all levels.

This is not to say that the women’s game does not deserve stimulation and support. Historically, it has been under-funded and ignored and currently, it is of higher quality than typically given credit for. It requires, as all grassroots football in the United Kingdom does, organic investment at its lower levels in order to minimise the differences between the professional and amateur game and then, with time, between the men’s and the women’s game.

Ultimately, equality in football is about much more than equal pay and much more than gender. It’s time to stop pretending that paying female footballers the same as male footballers would be a positive move.

Instead, strategies for organic, sustainable growth across the entirety of women’s football, not just for the highest-level pros, would yield benefits far greater in both scope and scale.

Investment by football associations in facilities and coaching to strengthen the pedigree of players coming through youth academies; increased media coverage, such as displaying men’s and women’s results together or broadcasting live matches and highlights at terrestrial television at more reasonable times; and cross-promotion of fixtures, venues and results by male and female teams operating under the same name and even perhaps equivalent teams playing in the same stadiums on the same weekend or day (Arsenal Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies followed by Arsenal vs. Chelsea at the Emirates, for example) would all help to further increase interest and revenue.

After all, following the free-to-air TV coverage and media buzz of England’s swashbuckling campaign at the Women’s World Cup this summer, over 30,000 tickets have already been sold for their friendly against Germany at Wembley in November.

Equal pay for male and female footballers is, rightly so, a long way off. But that doesn’t mean that the growth of the women’s game shouldn’t be actively encouraged by football associations, football clubs and football fans alike. There’s plenty to be done.

Photograph by Liondartois via Wikimedia Commons

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