Women’s football is thriving, on and off the pitch

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NOT that long ago, female footballers struggled to find a pitch they could play on – let alone someone willing to pay them. Between 1921 and 1971 the Football Association (FA), which governs the sport in England, banned women from using the grounds of professional men’s teams, saying the sport was “very unethical”. suitable for women and should not be encouraged”. (The men in suits were probably irritated by the large crowds, sometimes exceeding 50,000, that had turned out for women’s matches in the first world war.) A similar ban was lifted in Germany 1970. In 1972 the United States passed Title IX, a law that prohibited agencies that receive money from the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sex. This led universities to spend as much on women’s sports as on men’s sports, and began a long rise in women’s football in the country.

Fast forward almost 50 years, and women’s football seems to be on the verge of going mainstream. Television records have been falling during this summer’s World Cup in France. Almost 10m spectators in the host country were involved in the opening match against South Korea, making up almost half of the French people watching TV at the time. About 6am British England saw the defeat of Scotland 2-1. He liked the same number of Germans National death itself1-0 win over Spain. The winning team, regardless of their country of origin, becomes a national treasure at home.

The unprecedented popularity of this World Cup reflects two encouraging trends. Firstly, the quality of play in the women’s game has improved significantly, especially since the last tournament. Secondly, money is starting to flow into women’s teams, making professional careers more viable. The two patterns are connected, and reinforce each other.

The rise in the status of women’s football is obvious to long-time observers. Until recently female players received much less coaching than male players. No longer. This tournament has been notable for some great team moves and incredible goalkeeping (an aspect of the women’s game that some male observers would decry). However, measuring improvements in football skill is difficult. Goals are a flawed measure. A good home team can find the net as often as Barcelona do,​​​​​​​​​​​​​​and the paucity of scoring at any level means that an outsider can crack the sample. Just ask Thailand, who conceded 13 goals against the United States in their World Cup opener.

A far better metric is the number of passes that occur in an average game, a figure that decreases as you move down through the divisions (see chart). A typical Premier League game involves over 900 passes, dropping to around 650 for competitions in the fourth tier of English men’s football. The most plausible explanation is that high-quality games involve teams that are good at keeping possession, while low-quality ones feature those who spend most of their time scrambling. the ball in the air and dealing with each other. The figures given The Economist by Opta, a sports data company, shows that the average game at this Women’s World Cup has been 825 passes, up from 750 at the last tournament in 2015. .) That 10% increase is more than the increase in the men’s major competition over the same period (see table).

This increasingly artistic rendition of the beautiful game has caught the eye of some progressive sponsors. Historically, rights to a women’s football team or tournament have been bundled as part of a wider package with the men’s equivalent. “Commercial partners and broadcasters have tended to focus exclusively on, and value, men’s clubs or competitions, with the women’s game judged on its own merits,” said Deloitte’s Izzy Wray , a consultant.

However, in November 2017 UEFA, which governs football in Europe, released the region’s rights to the women’s competitions. “This opened up an avenue for special interest brands to enter the market, which had previously been closed,” said Ms Wray. Given the strength of the market around men’s football, with enough businesses – typically consumers and brewers – aim relentlessly at the same audience, the opportunities in women’s football are huge.

According to Deloitte, around 60% of the women’s football teams in the world’s major leagues now have shirt sponsors that differ from those for the men’s equivalent at the same club That figure could approach 100% by the next World Cup, the company estimates.

Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game, says these new multi-million pound sponsorship deals have been transformative. Visa is now spending as much promoting the Women’s World Cup as it was on the men’s tournament. “It may not pay off in terms of immediate ROI, but we’ve invested in the long term,” admits Stephen Day, its European sponsorship director. The total number of prizes on offer at the tournament has increased to $30m, twice as much as last time.

Brands aimed at women have been especially keen to get involved. Beauty and cosmetics company Avon has become the first such company to support a professional women’s football club, after agreeing an exclusive deal with Liverpool Ladies FC. Boots, a pharmacist, has completed partnerships with the national teams of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales.

This growth in funding has allowed European leagues to flourish, so that America is no longer a promised land for young people (as it was for the two teenage girls in “Bend It Like Beckham”, a movie British since 2002). The number of professional and semi-professional female players in Europe almost doubled to 3,600 between 2013 and 2017 (see chart), the latest year for which data is available. Manchester United launched a women’s team in 2018, making it one of the last big clubs to do so – a decision no doubt inspired by how much Manchester City have invested in their women’s team. In 2017 the Norwegian football association announced that it was the first to pay the same amount to international men’s and women’s teams.

A game of two halves
But while some of the headline figures are impressive, they mask a more dire financial picture overall. Worldwide, the average salary of a female professional soccer player is around $7,000 per year. Even in the English Women’s Super League (WSL), one of the richest competitions, the average annual salary in 2017 was around £27,000 ($34,400), almost one percent of the £2.6 million brought in by an average player the Premier League home. About 58% of WSL players have considered quitting for financial reasons.

At the same time, Norway’s agreement on equal pay was largely a public relations stunt. International fees are only a small fraction of most players’ earnings, and the annual sum of 6m kroner ($710,000) will be shared among the entire women’s team. Instead the women’s team had asked for an increase in their marketing budget, a request that was refused. Unfortunately for the association, Ada Hegerberg, a striker who became the first ever woman to receive the Ballon d’Or, an award for the best player in the world, has boycotted on the national team since 2017. She says the officials have a foundation. lack of respect for the women’s game.

It will probably take at least another decade before pursuing a career in football becomes a truly rewarding choice for most women, rather than a sacrifice for the love of the sport. Even then, higher salaries at elite levels won’t necessarily fix all the problems in the women’s game, says Ted Knutson, co-founder of Statsbomb, a soccer statistics company that has accessed the data. free women recently: the challenge is “more about balancing support at the local level and investing in the future”. That applies not only to players, but also to staff on the touchline. At a recent conference aimed at professional coaches, your interviewee made up half of the group female.

Even so, the day when women’s football becomes regular, worldwide, is huge entertainment – a day that could have come much sooner, if the FA had allowing teams from the first world war to continue to draw large crowds – approaching. Most countries are broadcasting the World Cup on free-to-air channels in prime time. The final 16 of the tournament features teams from six continents. In April, Argentina got their first professional women’s club. Who would bet against the nation raised by Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi making women’s football superstars around the world?

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