Beyond gate receipts and sponsorship – the value of women’s football

This guest post by Deborah Withers is part 3 of our joint blog series on the Women’s World Cup with Sport + Translation

Part 1: Matthew Brown and Josie McLellan, ‘How To Watch The World Cup’

Part 2: Jean Williams, ‘Rise like a pheonix: the history of women’s football and the Women’s World Cup, 1869-2015’

Join us for a Twitter chat on these issues on Tuesday June 11, 8-9pm GMT. #WatchWWC

That we are even asking the question ‘why watch the women’s world cup?’ sums up the status of women’s football in early twenty-first century Britain.

Despite being ‘the fourth largest team sport in England after men’s team sports of football, rugby and cricket and most popular women’s team sport with 253,600 women regularly playing each month,’ we still live in an era where the legitimacy of professional women’s football needs to be continually justified and debated. [1]

To confront the sexist views informing the question we might turn it around and ask: why not watch the women’s world cup? But we’ll leave that question in the air, knowing there are plenty of trolls and haters who will rush to answer it.

The reality is that voting with one’s feet, whether that by going to international or domestic matches in person, or tuning in to TV or radio coverage, is one of the biggest ways to support women’s football at a critical stage in its evolution.

It is way of feeding what Helena Morrissey, founder of gender equality pressure group the 30% Club describes as ‘a virtuous circle’ where ‘more girls play sport, more companies sponsor women’s sport and there’s more consistent media coverage.’ These three key and mutually enforcing factors are being strategically pursued at policy level to ensure ‘equality in sport in this country becomes the norm.’ [2]

And who could argue with that? It is hard to grumble about encouraging greater participation for women and girls at grassroots levels, healthy commercial investment and increased opportunities to follow women’s sporting achievements in the media, now ‘normalise[d]…on our screens.’ [3]

The problem, however, is that the viability of women’s football in the 21st century depends largely on its commercial success.

By viability I mean the very possibility for women to play football as full-time professionals, and get paid a decent wage for it. For women to ‘be’ footballers, like men.

It is worth dwelling on the astonishing fact that in 2015, the most elite players in the women’s game can command a wage of £60,000 a year, which is made up of a central contract with England (worth £21,012 per year), club contracts and commercial endorsements. [4] On average though women earn £25,000 per annum and many players supplement their income with second jobs. [5]

The question of wages, and the value of women’s footballing work, is often entangled with audience numbers.

Chelsea and England forward Eni Aluko, who has recently qualified as a sports and entertainment lawyer, commented in a recent podcast on BBC 5 Live: ‘can we, as a female sport, demand higher wages, if we can’t justify fans coming to pay and come to games? It’s also a business model that we’ve got to be realistic about. It is important to tap into the resources in clubs that have dedicated marketing teams, that have experts who know how to transfer [digital] fanbases to physical fans and in that way it will improve and we will have a justifiable reason to demand higher wages.’ [6]

Yet should we accept this situation and ‘be realistic’ about it, as Aluko suggests?

Could we argue that women’s football, at both domestic and international levels, has intrinsic value in and of itself? That players deserve long-term investment to enable them to develop as sports professionals and be sufficiently rewarded for the extra-professional responsibilities which often call on them to act as role models for football-keen girls, young and old?

Should the legitimacy of the contemporary women’s game be exclusively measured by the amount of people who go through the turnstiles on match day?

A lesson from history

A lesson from history may help us understand these issues more clearly.

Nearly 100 years ago women’s football commanded huge audiences. Of course this was in the exceptional circumstances of the First World War: the men’s league was suspended and women played matches to raise funds for the war effort. Women’s football was acceptable because it was charitable and patriotic.

But let me repeat: the audiences were huge. The (post-war) 1920 match between the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC and St. Helen’s Ladies held at Goodison Park famously had an attendance of 53,000.

Yet in 1921 the FA decided that playing football was an unsuitable pastime for women and the war-time football stars were duly banned from pitches they previously graced.

As Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford point out, ‘from its early war-time boom, to its silenced years, to the takeover by the Football Association in 1993, women’s football has had a turbulent relationship with the male structures that govern the game.’ [7]

Those same sexist attitudes that led to women’s football being banned in 1921 are still in operation in the twenty-first century, they just take a different form. They are displaced into the vicious virtuous circle that ensures women footballers are still involved in a struggle for legitimacy. This time it’s not against the FA per se, but against the whole logic that something can only be feasible when it is commercially profitable, that old ‘business model that we’ve got to be realistic about.’

Before you call me a lefty idealist who has lost their grip on ‘reality’, let us briefly imagine a scenario in 5 or 10 years time when the marketing departments have failed to draw in audiences to women’s matches, and the last commercial sponsorship deal runs out.

Soon after, several clubs fold and many once professional and semi-professional players revert back to a ‘paying to play’ model. Quite quickly, women’s football drops into obscurity again because it fails to gain a foothold in a social, cultural and sporting environment that is remarkably hostile to it.

That would never happen, you might be spluttering.

Yet such a scenario is a realistic projection if we look hard at the fragile position women’s football occupies in the commercially-driven, enduringly sexist, sporting landscape. Let us not forget that funding for the FA WSL is only secured until 2018. Then what? It will be the audience, the marketing experts and sponsors who decide whether the women’s game can be a realistic part of Britain’s sporting culture.

So when we watch the women’s football world cup as a vote of confidence for women who deserve a better deal, let us not forget to make further demands for meaningful investment in women’s football. Investment that ensures women footballers have stable, full-time professional opportunities that enable them to develop and flourish regardless of whether there is an audience watching or not.

It is then, and only then, that a sustainable commitment to gender equality in football will become reality.

Deborah Withers is a writer, researcher and fan of women’s football.


[1] The Football Association, 2012, Game Changer: The FA Plan for Women’s Football in England, 2013-2018, available ,18

[2] Helena Morrissey in ‘Sports Minister urges to keep momentum up for Women in Sport‘, Department Culture, Media and Sport, 24 March 2015, available

[3] Women and Sport Advisory Board, 2015, Final Report of the Government’s Women in Sport Advisory Board, Department of Culture, Media and Sport, available, 9.

[4] Miranda Bryant, ‘On salaries, football is a game of two genders,’ London Evening Standard, 11 November 2014, available:

[5] BBC Five Live, Women’s Super League Special, 6 March 2015, available

[6] Eni Aluko, speaking on BBC Five Live, Women’s Super League Special, 6 March 2015, available

[7] Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, 2015, Football and the FA Women’s Super League: Structure, Governance and Impact. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 3.


One thought on “Beyond gate receipts and sponsorship – the value of women’s football

  1. Pingback: Watching the Women’s World Cup in the USA | womenworkvalue2015

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