Women and the wage gap: A long road ahead for the WSL

Alex Vryzakis discusses the wage gap and differing opportunities in WSL and Premier League, calling for more public interest to raise the stakes in the women’s game.

Asking the average Brit for their opinions on the Women’s Super League (WSL) in England can be an interesting litmus test. Some will stutter and look to the ground, hoping to appear like they’re deep in thought, while others will sheepishly smile and say that they have somewhere to be. Many however, would cock their heads and ask: “The W-what?”

Perhaps this is unfair. The truth is the WSL averages just 1,076 spectators per game, while the pampered and preened Premier League stars draw an average of over 40,000. The numbers are a stark reminder that women’s football is still very much at a teething stage in terms of its growth, with the WSL only breaking away from the Women’s Premier League in 2011.

That’s not to say that this is the case all over the globe. In the United States, the crowds at women’s games have been growing at an astounding rate, with the most recent figures almost equalling those of the men’s games. Following their World Cup win, the women’s team were honoured with a ticker tape parade in New York and celebrated as heroes – much like the open-top bus parades for the Premier League champions every May.

Yet this success story ended on a rather sour note. While Team USA won the Women’s World Cup, they were paid just a fraction of what the men received for crashing out of their competition in the early stages the year before.

Although Bayern Munich have employed former footballer Kathleen Kruger as an administrative team manager, the 30-year-old had to put her studies in international management on hold to accept the position at the German giants. And in truth, her role as team manager seems to be more about booking flights for players than helping on the pitch.

The fact that she was prepared to make such a sacrifice indicates how much Krüger loves the sport and how seriously she takes it. Yet even now, as she sits on the bench focused on the game, people find it appropriate to refer to her as ‘the blonde on the bench’.

Krüger is just one of many unpleasant examples of how women are treated on and off the pitch

If the 2002 film ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is to be believed, the gender divide in football can simply be stomped on and forgotten if you are a good enough footballer. The reality is, no matter how well women play football, their very presence on a football pitch is kept entirely separate from the men’s game.

In fact, it’s the governing bodies who are the quickest to crack down on attempts to bring women players into the male sphere. While the FA’s blanket ban on women of all ages playing in men’s teams is unimaginably narrow-minded – as proved in 1978 after they banned 12-year-old Theresa Bennett from playing for a local boys’ team – it’s FIFA that has proved to be the biggest obstacle for female footballers.

After Mexican footballer Maribel Dominguez accepted a contract to play for a second division side in 2004, FIFA swiftly banned the move. They then issued a statement stating that there must be “a clear separation between men’s and women’s football”. In her 2011 book ‘Women’s Football in the UK: Continuing with Gender Analyses’,  Professor Jayne Caudwell explained that the governing body’s statement revealed their inherent sexist attitudes, “In many ways, these governing bodies aim to differentiate not only women from men, but femininity from masculinity.”

This issue of feminine and masculine could well explain the issue of the wage gap in sports over time. Take tennis for example, a sport in which a female player has broken down barriers and essentially ended the debate as to whether a woman can be as good as a man at sport. Serena Williams has proved that stereotypes are just that, and need to be forgotten.

Yet for a long time, women were paid less than the men in the same tournaments, on the spurious grounds they played fewer sets than the men. What matters, of course, is not how long they play, but how many spectators they draw and therefore how much revenue they are able to generate.

Despite Novak Djokovic’s misguided comments last year challenging the equal prize money, tennis is currently one of the only examples of men and women being paid equally for playing equally. This has only come about however because the women were able to use their popularity to prove their worth to sponsors and their federations.

This is where football has fallen short. The key to increasing the popularity of the women’s game, and therefore the revenue that can be generated, is through exposure on social media and the brokering of advertising deals. American superstar Alex Morgan is a perfect example of this, earning close to £2m a year through sponsorship deals alone. Raising the profile of individual players will have the desired knock-on effect of more public interest, inevitably increasing viewing figures.

The women’s game is in dire need of more public interest. The FA’s imposed salary cap is but a dream sum for the majority of players in the WSL, with some earning as little as £50 a week to play in the second division. No wonder so many players feel it is simply not viable for them to focus solely on football, much less turn fully-professional.

In a generation of hashtags and viral sensations, does it not seem to be the perfect time to capitalise on the boredom of the drifting youth? These listless teenagers could unwittingly be the key to inspiring a whole new generation of female footballers, and perhaps even ones who won’t have to choose between a decent-paying job and the sport they love.

Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexVryzakis

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