Women in Sport

Sport is one of the last areas where men earn more than women, but I had no idea how big is the gap, despite their jobs being just as hard – more so if you take in the lack of sponsorship and prize money for us fragile creatures. This is from Friday’s i paper, by Tim Wignore, asking “Will the England women’s captain ever be paid as much as the men’s?

Ninety-six years ago, 53,000 people watched a women’s football match at Goodison Park and there were more than 150 women’s teams playing the game.Those halcyon days came to a shuddering halt in 1921. The Football Association deemed the sport “quite unsuitable for females” and banned clubs from loaning pitches to women. The ban lasted a full 50 years, condemning the women’s game to exist in the shadows.

Other sports were scarcely less hostile. Pierre de Coubertin the founder of the modern Olympic, thought women’s sport “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate”. From 1928 to 1960, women were not allowed to compete in Olympic races of more than 200 metres, for fear they might get too tired. In cricket 2 professional teams had played in front of 15,000 crowds in the 1890s. But when the first women’s Ashes took place in 1934-5, only single women were eligible for selection.

So the history of women’s sport is one of waste, of opportunities denied and talent squandered because of ingrained sexism. Men have enjoyed more chances to play, better coaching and better facilities. Women have been paid so little – if at all – that many of the best athletes have had to retire prematurely.

International sport remains a world away from achieving gender parity. There was £22m in prize money for the last men’s Football World Cup, but only £630,000 for the women’s tournament. The International Cricket Council paid for women’s teams to fly to this year’s World Twenty20  in economy class; the men, who received 16 times as much prize money in the tournament, were flown business class. Even in tennis, which has had equal prize money in all Grand Slam tournaments since 2007,the cheques at lesser tournaments are vastly unequal.

Yet such inequalities should not detract from the very real advances that have been made. A spate of female teams have turned professional in recent years. Their efforts have been better marketed. And as standards and awareness have risen, it has ben probed that a sizeable audience does indeed exist for women’s sport. When England played Germany at football at Wembley in November 2014, all 55,000 tickets for the game were sold. The Women’s Big Bash cricket league, in Australia, attracted TV audiences of 400,000 last winter.

Men’s sport might be near its peak. Professionalism has been in place for so long and tactics and youth development structures are so well evolved, that the scope for further improvement is limited. But it is not this way in women’s sport. In many games, professionalism is so new that there are many achievements and records to be bettered. The England women’s cricket team turned pro 2 years ago, but it will probably take another decade for a player to peak who has only ever known professionalism in her career. higher quality sport will translate into a much more captivating spectacle.

If women’s sport is ever to reach its potential, progress must be made in the boardroom as well as on the pitch. Too many sporting organisations remain crusty and male-dominated – only 16% of those on British Olympic committees are women, a slight decrease from 2 years ago. Until there are significant improvements in this domain – 30% representation is considered the tipping point to change cultures in the workplace – then women’s interests on the pitch will always remain secondary to those of men.

The effects of this can be seen in the US last year: the women’s football team generated nearly $20m more revenue than the men, but were still paid far less. Yet governing bodies are increasingly aware of the importance of women’s sport – not just for its own sake,but also because of its impact on the bottom line. The hierarchies of international men’s games are far more fluid in female sport, making it easier for emerging nations – including the most lucrative markets – to make an impact.

The ICC believes that China could make the Women’s World T20 within 5 years, which could transform the entire economics of women’s cricket. Similar thinking is governing World Rugby, which spies an opportunity for strong women’s teams in the US, Colombia and Brazil.

In Women’s Sport Week it’s sobering to reflect that England football captain Steph Houghton the country’s best paid female footballer, earns £65,000 a year; her male counterpart Wayne Rooney receives £300,00 a week. That is down to crude economics: the difference is almost exactly proportional to the gulf in attendances between the Women’s Super League, watched by 57,000 last season and the Premier League, watched by 13 million.

In a generation’s time, the leading England women’s football will still be earning far less than the leading men’s player. But – thanks to more exciting sport, broader cultural change and better marketing – the gap will have been dramatically reduced. Utopia for women in sport, as in wider life, is not forthcoming. Progress is never straightforward.

Equality would have an extra benefit- if sport was seen as a viable career for women, it would encourage more girls to play sport at school and perhaps continue when they left, so lead to a general increase in the fitness of women.

I just tried to get a free image of Steph Houghton for this blog but can’t. This is her with Elen White. Google her name and see who you come up with.

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