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What next for the growth of women’s football?

Women’s football matches are attracting record crowds, but funding still lags far behind the men’s game. Clubs that are putting money into their women’s teams are seeing the positive effects, but biases in perceptions of quality and potential are limiting further investment.

In many jobs, men and women do not face equal opportunities. According to one recent study, during recruitment men are typically evaluated for their potential, while women are judged on their past performance.

Sports investments work in a similar way. Men's sports often attract investors if there is even a small chance of potential returns. But for women’s sports, investors often seem to focus entirely on past performance.

Unfortunately for women athletes, several structural conditions and underlying biases have limited returns to women's sports in the past. This means they are judged against historic conditions where the odds have been stacked against them.

Consider the story of women playing professional football. On 9 November 2019, 77,768 fans travelled to Wembley to see the England women’s team play Germany. This attendance broke a record set seven years earlier at the same stadium when 70,584 people attended an Olympic match between Great Britain and Brazil.

This latter game also broke an attendance record that had been in place for more than 100 years ago. Back in 1920, 53,000 fans reportedly showed up at Goodison Park to see a match between Dick, Kerr's and St Helens.

Why did it take so long for attendance at women's matches to grow? One obvious reason is that soon after the fixture in 1920, the English Football Association (FA) essentially banned women from professional football. That ban would remain in place until 1971.

Even after it was lifted, women's football teams in the UK – as with other sports globally –  were denied the resources seen in the men’s game. When it comes to sports around the world, we see obvious gender gaps in wages.

The maximum salary in the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) is reportedly $250,000 (or about £210,000). Meanwhile the average salary in the English Premier League (EPL) is £3,090,200. So, the highest paid women in the WSL are paid less than 10% of the average player in the EPL.

Such gaps in pay between the men and women in professional sports are often attributed to differences in revenue. But a study of wages in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) revealed that the women of the WNBA (relative to the men of the NBA) are paid a much lower percentage of league revenue.

The differences don’t just relate to wages. There is also a substantial gap in coverage from the male-dominated sports media. We also see very large gaps in sponsorship spending and in public spending on sports. There is even a difference in the quantity of statistics produced.

All these gaps are important. But perhaps none matter more than the significant disparity in private investment. When it comes to sports, investors (who are often men) seem to have a strong preference for the men’s teams, leagues and competitions.

But why? If we look at past performance, in England, football played by men does substantially better than football played by women in terms of both attendance and revenue. Of course, this is largely because women were banned from elite football for so long. In addition, men’s teams also enjoy significant advantages in media coverage and sponsorship spending.  

For many, this is evidence of gender discrimination in the sport. But some argue that this isn’t the story at all, and instead that men’s football teams are simply ‘better’ to watch. But is there any truth in this?

Recent research indicates that this is not the case. The conclusion that these critics of the women’s game are reaching is not based on the matches they watch. To see this, researchers began by showing football fans (both men and women) videos of professional athletes (again, both men and women) playing the game. In general, viewers rated the male players as better.

The researchers then showed the same fans new videos. This time the sex of the athletes was blurred out. When people were shown the blurred videos, they no longer thought that the men playing football were definitely better than the women.

What this tells us is that the preference men have for watching men play football is not necessarily driven by any real perceptions of quality of play. These preferences are driven by an underlying belief that men are better football players. This bias may be a key factor in why women’s teams and leagues are consistently underfunded in comparison with men’s.

What recent successes has the women’s game had?

Despite this belief, women’s teams can attract impressive audiences. One example is the success of FC Barcelona. On 30 March 2022, 91,553 fans showed up to see Barcelona play Real Madrid, breaking the attendance record at a game between two women’s teams. Just three weeks later (on 22 April), the attendance record was broken again, when 91,648 fans watched Barcelona take on Vfl Wolfsburg

These record-breaking spectator numbers may be, in part, due to efforts by FC Barcelona to promote its women’s team (perhaps more so than other clubs have done). At the women’s Champions League final in Turin, between Barcelona and Olympique Lyonnais, there were 32,257 spectators. It is reported that of those who attended this match, at least 13,000 were from Barcelona. In contrast, only around 3,500 fans traveled from France.

This fixture didn’t just attract fans to the stadium. It is reported that 3.6 million people watched the match across all the broadcasting platforms. Despite these viewers, though, the broadcasting deal for the women's Champion’s League remains quite small. It is reported their latest deal is only worth $8 million (or around £6.67 million). To put that in perspective, the EPL’s broadcasting deal is worth more than £5 billion.

Judging by these broadcasting deals, one might think that no one is really interested in matches between women’s teams. But as recent matches have shown, Barcelona and Lyon certainly are attracting an audience. So why are these two teams drawing such a crowd, relative to other women’s teams?

Yara El-Shaboury – a freelance sports journalist – recently wrote about the success of the two teams. Each club has taken a different approach to building a successful team. Lyon has focused primarily on spending money to acquire established stars from around the world, whereas Barcelona has concentrated on developing talent by investing in ‘the best coaches, analysts, and medical staff money could buy’.

Although these approaches appear different, there is something the two clubs have in common. Both Olympique Lyonnais and FC Barcelona have found success by investing in their women’s teams. As El-Shaboury notes, this is not quite the same approach seen elsewhere: ‘for many other women’s soccer clubs, a few bad months can lead to funding drying up, which then results in permanent regression’.

This pattern appears to be a significant problem in women’s sports, where many investors focus on the financial returns being seen right now. It is a very different story in men’s sports. And perhaps nothing illustrates this difference better than the story of Major League Soccer in the United States.

Why are men’s sports teams so well-funded?

Compared with the leagues in England, Spain, Italy, France or Germany (known as ‘the big five’), the MLS is hardly a major football league. Whether we look at revenue or wages, the MLS lags far behind its European counterparts. Most teams in the MLS are not even profitable.

Despite this, investors are lining up to buy teams in the US league. In 2019 an expansion team – a new franchise in the league – sold for $325 million.  This is an enormous value even by global standards. As sports journalist Graham Ruthven argued in 2021, this amount ‘would buy a mid-table club in the Premier League or pretty much any of Europe’s other big five leagues’.

To put this price in perspective, the parent company of Olympique Lyonnais agreed to take a controlling interest in the Seattle Reign of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) in 2019 for just over $3 million. Given what was paid, the value of the Reign was put at $3.51 million. Apparently, a top team in women’s professional football is only worth about 1% of an expansion team in minor league men’s football.

Why would investors value these teams so differently? Financiers often say that the MLS, despite a history of losses, has a bright future. So, investors are willing to pump money into the league in the hope that a bright future will be realised.

But whether MLS teams will ever be able to compete with the five established football leagues in Europe is highly uncertain.

What about potential in professional women’s football teams? FC Barcelona is not the only women’s team to see more than 90,000 fans at the gate. The United States women’s national team has also attracted similar numbers to one of their matches. Their players are paid the same wages as the men’s team, and actually generate more revenue for the United States Soccer Federation.

But, for now at least, this proven popularity does not seem to translate to financial investment. No one is offering hundreds of millions for a women’s professional football team. For would-be buyers, past profits don’t seem to justify the investment.

And that is ultimately the difference in men’s and women’s sports. Like managers who are men, men playing sports are consistently evaluated on what investors imagine might happen in the future.

Women in sports – like women in management – are consistently judged on past returns. But because those returns are limited by lack of media coverage, sponsorship spending and public spending, women teams, leagues and competitions continue to suffer from a lack of investment.

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Author: David Berri
Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash
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