by Robyn Banks
In previous years, you could be excused for not realising the women’s world cup was on. Not this year. We have been one of the few countries to broadcast every game live, albeit that games were only moved from soon to be online only BBC Three to BBC One for the quarter final, and the games have attracted a lot more attention than they have in the past. An unnecessarily sexualised image of a female footballer didn’t even cross my path, and FIFA announced that for the first time women’s football teams will appear in their annual playstation game. Perhaps it’s because we did so well, coming in third place, and everyone loves a winner, or perhaps it signifies greater steps towards the equality of women’s sports in culture.
domestic violence rising by a third during the world cup and women and girls from host countries frequently trafficked in to prostitution for arriving football fans in their thousands.
Women could be forgiven for not being football fans given the deep sexism rife in the sport. Advertising during the men’s world cup makes it pretty clear we’re not wanted as consumers of the sport, stereotyping us as wags or nags. When Richard Scudamore can refer to women as ‘gash’ and get away with it, and the sight of Sheryl Gascoine’s face battered and bruised from her husbands fists hardly stopped a generation sporting the ‘gazza’ haircut, and when this violence is still described as his ‘demons’. When football fans garner support for a man who was convicted of raping a teenager, it doesn’t make an environment every woman feels comfortable in, whether we can articulate quite why or not. Even the fact that the world cup is referred to as such, rather than calling it the ‘men’s world cup’, tacitly erases the existence of women. Women can’t even escape the male domination of the sport by refusing to take part, with domestic violence rising by a third during the world cup and women and girls from host countries frequently trafficked in to prostitution for arriving football fans in their thousands.
The same sexism in football carries over in to attitudes to women’s football. Sports illustrated’s Andy Benoit responded to allegations that he believed women’s football wasn’t worth watching by stating that no womens sport is worth watching, Sepp Blatter of FIFA thinks it would be more worth watching if we put the players in hotpants, and FIFA wouldn’t even give the women players a turf pitch, leading the US team to actually take them to court for gender discrimination. The broadcast media may have paid sparse attention at best to the tournament until the quarter finals, but even that has prompted angry backlash from those who wish to defend the male dominated status quo. The Daily Record and the Daily Mail are some of just numerous news sites which ran columns lamenting the ‘undeserved’ level of “wall-to-wall” coverage and funding these games received, as though the men’s games were somehow escapable.
Some people will inevitably argue that women’s sports doesn’t get coverage because it’s not as popular
To put that in to context, research by the Women’s Sport and Fitness foundation found that only 7% of all sports coverage in the UK is devoted to women’s sports, and that’s before going in to all of the problems of sexualisation and objectification female athletes have to contend with. TV coverage is the most generous at 10%, so the fact that these games have even received the kind of popularity they have is the signal of a changing tide. Some people will inevitably argue that women’s sports doesn’t get coverage because it’s not as popular, but the same research uncovered a chicken and egg scenario where lack of coverage presents a major barrier for sustained commercial investment in women’s sports, which accounts for just 0.4% of commercial sports spending in the UK. As a result of this, women athletes make significantly less than their male counterparts- £20,500 base salary compared to 1.6 million for the average male premiere league player- and often keep their day jobs. In a recent YouGov poll, when asked why women’s sports weren’t as popular as men’s 42% of respondents answered that it was because women’s sports weren’t given as much airtime.
Misogynistic complaints aside, women’s football has been called the fastest growing sport on the planet, and according to FIFA TV records have been broken in each round so far. Things are far from perfect, but perhaps these games have been the first step in breaking the vicious cultural cycle of not caring about women’s sports and coverage will increase popularity and vice versa. And if you’re a woman who has previously been put off sports fandom, these games provide the perfect antidote to the exclusion many women face in male sports. If nothing else, at least we can be sure that the 2019 Women’s world cup in France will be played on a grass pitch. I will certainly be watching.