Image: Wikimedia Commons / Katie Chan
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Katie Chan

Does Covid-19 pose an existential threat to women’s football?

Kelly Smith, a former England striker, claimed women’s football had been ‘pushed aside’ in the wake of Covid-19 after the WSL and Championship were formally ended on the 25th of May. Her concerns follow the release of FIFPro’s report, ‘COVID-19: Implications for Professional Women’s Football’, which describes the pandemic as an ‘almost existential threat to the women’s game’.

But let’s analyse what an ‘almost existential threat’ actually means.

On the surface, several factors endorse Smith’s claim that women’s football has been overlooked in the roadmap back to normality. The WSL was provided with no extra funding to extend their season; in contrast, the Premier League received approximately £4m.

Smith likewise discussed the injustice of Liverpool’s relegation

Smith likewise discussed the injustice of Liverpool’s relegation with eight games of the season remaining. Another complaint from players has been the lack of communication surrounding the announcement of league dates, a state of limbo which undoubtedly left female footballers feeling forgotten, in comparison to the prioritisation of men’s football to return.

Lorna Cameron, executive officer of the Scottish Women’s Premier League, has said that the pandemic could disrupt the ‘momentum’ women’s football had developed over recent years. Cameron returned to the difficulty of funding testing and raised the issue that many female players have to work for a living and some are even key workers.

For some perspective, the vast amount of effort and funding which fuelled the return of the Premier League on 17 June is in itself an anomaly. Association football dominates the list of most profitable sporting leagues in the world, and the Premier League itself sits at 3rd behind the NFL and MLB.

Not only women’s football; most British sports have also been ‘pushed aside’

The value of football in the UK long ago graduated from the status of a mere game to now symbolise the vast scale of sponsorship, funding and media coverage that places it somewhere between the sporting and entertainment industries. In comparison to this, not only women’s football, but most other British sports have also been ‘pushed aside’.

Unfortunately, however, this huge funding in football will only widen the gender gap between the status of the men’s and women’s game.

The pandemic does pose a threat to all sports, but Smith’s concerns expose the specific financial vulnerability of female footballers whose male counterparts have entwined the sport with money. FIFPro explains the difference between the men’s and women’s games: women’s football has “less established professional leagues, low salaries, narrower scope of opportunities, uneven sponsorship deals and less corporate investment”.

These women are more likely to need employment between seasons

These ‘less established’ professional leagues mean players have less stable contracts – contracts which FIFPro also revealed to have an average length of 12 months. These women are hence more likely to need additional employment between seasons and those without contracts are failed by “an absence of basic worker protections”.

In fact, according to FIFA’s definition of ‘professional’ – players have a written contract and earn more through football than the expenses incurred – FIFPro reported only 18% of female footballers qualify as professional, in their 2017 Global Employment Report. All of a sudden, the language of ‘existential’, no longer seems that excessive.

Yes, women’s football is far behind the sponsorship and investment of the men’s game, as are so many other sports, but the finer cracks in the foundations of the women’s game – the basics of contracts, salaries, and financial security – put the sport at risk of crumbling after the pandemic.

The next biggest consequence of COVID is the impact on tournaments

FIFPro General Secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffman himself warned that “if clubs, leagues and national team competitions start going out of business, they may be gone forever”. He stated that not only should this economic threat be prevented, but a better structure needs to be established for the future of women’s football.

In addition to the lack of money in the women’s game, the next biggest consequence of COVID is the impact on international tournaments. The women’s football industry heavily relies on these tournaments to drive visibility of the game, as well as sponsorship.

FIFPro’s COVID report stated how women’s international games needed to be prioritised following lockdown in order to draw attention to the professional level. Unfortunately, the postponement of the Men’s European Championship and the Olympics to 2021 pushed the women’s Euros back a year. Women’s football simply cannot compete for the sponsors and coverage of these two tournaments, despite needing both.

Anderson’s donation is a reminder that women’s football still exists

Fortunately, there is hope – hence the ‘almost’. Not even two weeks after Cameron’s concerns became public knowledge, philanthropist James Anderson was reported to have donated £250,000 to the women’s game. Vivienne Maclaren described to the BBC his generosity as “an incredibly powerful message to all girls and women in Scotland”. Though Anderson has previously given significantly more to the men’s game, Anderson’s donation is a reminder that women’s football still exists and is still important.

As well as this financial gesture, the US women’s soccer scene goes further to even provide an example of how to close the gender gap between men’s and women’s leagues. Following the 2019 World Cup victory, the momentum of women’s football has been continued by the resumption of the NSWL in June before the men’s league.

In addition, sporting figures have spoken with optimism at the pandemic’s influence, for example, Jayne Ludlow, Wales manager, told the BBC: “roots are now much stronger and attitudes have altered”. Similarly, Chelsea Manager Emma Hayes has outlined her optimism, and even excitement, at the future of women’s football.

The new season has been planned to start on 5-6 September without spectators, and though further away than some hoped, many are pleased to have dates to focus on. The game will go on despite financial difficulties, postponed tournaments and behind closed doors because it has been conditioned to survive with less funding, less coverage, and with smaller crowds. The threat of the pandemic to women’s football is ‘almost’ existential because women’s sports are used to playing at a disadvantage.

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