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Equal pay for equal play.

Footballers celebrating a goal.
Photo Credit: Chris Leipelt

A string of exceptional performances from England's Lionesses saw them crowned 2022 European Champions in a tournament that looks to have significantly boosted the stature of the women's game. Consequently, the meagre salaries female players receive compared to their male counterparts are once again highlighted.

The final whistle blew and England had won a football tournament. Such a momentous event called for memes and they immediately began to appear but, as is so often the case, people didn’t apply a great deal of thought to what they were posting or sharing. Here’s an example.

Mr Maguire said the average salary in the Women's Super League (WSL) - the top women's division in England - is around £25,000 to £27,000 a year with salaries in the second tier coming in as low as £4,000 a year.

This is dwarfed by the top earners in men's football, where the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin de Bruyne and Mohammed Salah can be paid upwards of £350,000 a week even before any sponsorship deals are factored in.

I'm not sure who Mr Maguire is but I know his field of expertise isn't statistical analysis. Contrasting averages and minimums in one subset of data with the maximum values in another is not a like for like comparison and offers no real insight.

Smart ass observations aside, no-one needs to be told there's an outrageous discrepancy between the salaries of WSL and Premier League footballers. However, there's no context at all in Mr Maguire’s statement. He didn't mention, for example, the average weekly attendances in both those leagues or the revenue they generate from selling broadcasting rights.

Imagine I'm a songwriter and I've written a whole bunch of songs as good as anything Ed Sheeran has gifted us with. All my friends say so. If I work just as hard and produce just as much quality material as Ed Sheeran does, shouldn’t we be paid the same?

The sad fact is none of my songs are played on the radio. They've never been included in movie soundtracks or used in advertising campaigns. Could it be that Ed Sheeran earns more from his songwriting than I do because more people have heard his songs?

To expand the analogy: Paul McCartney is generally considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Would you expect the average earnings of Beth Orton, Cathy Davy and Emmy The Great to be on a par with his? On discovering it was substantially lower, could you mount a serious argument that it's because they're female? Who's Emmy The Great? you may ask. Exactly.

The women got the job done: another common sentiment circulating soon after England’s victory. Fair enough given the ongoing frustration with the men's efforts, but the men did in fact get the job done quite a while ago, so another way of putting it might be: it took 56 years for a women's team to equal the achievement of a men's team. I don’t think it’s necessary to point out that the men won the World Cup and the women won the Euros. Let’s define ‘the job’ as a senior England team winning a major championship.

Back in 1966, footballers weren’t earning stratospheric salaries, in spite of chock-full stadiums up and down the country. For a long time in the history of the game, the only way to see a match was to buy a ticket and walk through a turnstile. To actually go there. Thank goodness for TV.

When I was a kid, almost all league games were played at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. Oh yes, those were indeed the days. One game per week was reserved for Sunday so it could be shown on TV without tempting the loyal fans of struggling clubs to stay at home and watch the best players from their couches, rather than a somewhat less glamorous team from a cow shed, something they would normally do without question.

That sole televised game was the absolute highlight of my week... when I was actually allowed to watch it. Very conveniently for my parents, it provided the perfect punishment for any bad behaviour I may have been party to in the days leading up to it. All too often I'd hear the heartbreaking words, “Right, that’ll be no football for you this weekend.” But I had an ace in the hole. I’d sometimes gain a reprieve if my grandparents came over because my Grandad liked to watch the game with me after dinner so my mum would quietly pretend to forget she’d embargoed it.

There was no Sky, DAZN, Amazon Prime or even WOW. Every few years, the BBC and ITV would squabble over the rights to show a Saturday evening highlights programme and that one precious live game. Being free to air channels, I imagine whatever they paid for that privilege to be laughably minuscule compared with the considerable outlays seen today.

The penny eventually dropped. Surely a good chunk of the fans cramming themselves into football grounds every week would pay a bit extra to watch more matches on TV. And what about all the people who don’t go to games but would love the opportunity to see some of them? There must be millions. And so The Premiership was formed.

Its benefactor was Sky, a new pay-to-view channel whose model relied purely on the principle that football was popular enough to sell premium subscriptions - although they did also have The Simpsons.

As the years went by, more people signed up, the quality increased and the Premier League established itself as the number one league in the world. The revenue they could generate from selling broadcasting rights overseas began to spiral. Before long, the interest of mega wealthy oligarchs, media moguls and middle eastern royal families was piqued. They took over the best clubs and poured in even more of their own cash because now there was a new goal: ultimate glory in the UEFA Champions League.

This wasn't necessarily good news for the clubs. True, they received a massive injection of funds, but they needed to spend big to keep up. What would you do if you were an owner? Stay cool and show patience, invest in your infrastructure and develop your youth team programs to ensure long-term stability, while at the same time benefiting the game at all levels? Or make a quick fix, try to attract the best players possible by paying them virtually everything you’ve got?

We know the answer to that. Market forces quickly took over and today even mediocre* players can earn colossal salaries.

If this explosion can happen in football, why not hockey? Or handball, or water polo? It wouldn't have been possible if men’s football wasn’t such a hugely popular sport. If only a few hundred spectators had attended matches during the 70s and 80s, there wouldn't have been enough potential for the marketing geniuses to exploit. Growth would have been slow if there was any at all.

This is where the WSL finds itself today. Much was made of the fact that the Euro 2022 final was the highest attended game in the history of either the men’s or women’s competition. Again, context was missing: it was played in Europe’s third largest city and second largest stadium, with no Covid restrictions in place and tickets were relatively cheap. A remarkable statistic nonetheless. However, not one that’s reflective of the average attendance at WSL games.

I think people have forgotten that many of the women's football matches during the London Olympics attracted sellout crowds. That was ten years ago but there wasn't enough interest in the WSL for it to become a fully professional league until five years later. Now that we're another five years further along the line, I wonder how many of the people clamouring for the players to earn parity with their male counterparts could tell you who the current WSL champions are without looking it up.

I also wonder how many games they’ve been to.

So now that you’ve been provided with the inspiration of an England victory this summer, why not pick a local women's team and go watch them play. Take your family and friends, not just for a one-off experience but to every game, week in week out, even if they keep losing and even if the weather suggests it might be better to stay at home and watch your favourite drama on Netflix.

That's the starting point. When average weekly attendances start to climb, clubs will have more finances available to improve their infrastructure, attract even more fans and hopefully the WSL can reach the critical point where it's able to negotiate some decent broadcasting and sponsorship deals, providing the funds to pay their players more. Simply demanding that it happens and sharing nonsensical statistics on social media is not going to make the money appear.

*a term I apply generously

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