Could reparations solve the gender gap in football?

Co-author of Soccernomics Stefan Szymanski argues that one way of addressing the huge gender pay gap in football is to divert money from the men’s game into women’s football.

It is no secret that a gargantuan pay gap, cut along gender lines, exists in elite sport. On Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes in 2020, US Open champion Naomi Osaka is the top-earning woman at 29 on the chart. Serena Williams down in number 33 is the only other woman in the top 100.

That both are tennis players is not surprising. Thanks to a campaign spearheaded by Billie Jean King, who threatened to boycott the defence of her US Open title in 1973, male and female champions are now awarded the same amount for a Grand Slam win. 

A chasm still exists off the court in the form of endorsement deals. Williams may have won more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer, but the estimated $32 million she has received from sponsors this year is dwarfed by the $100 million Federer has raked in. With a racquet in hand at least, all competitors are commensurately compensated for their exploits in the biggest tournaments.

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Football is woefully behind. Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé and the rest of the French national team pocketed $38 million from Fifa for winning the 2018 World Cup. In contrast, Fifa awarded a combined $30 million to all teams competing in the women’s edition in 2019.

In our capitalist society, the production and pricing of goods and services is determined by the supply and demand of the free market. Roughly 3.57 billion people watched the men’s tournament two years ago, contributing to the $5.3 billion Fifa made on its showpiece event. Just over 1.2 billion tuned into official broadcast coverage for the women’s event last year. Fifa made around $131 million from the competition. 

Men’s football is plainly a more popular product. Nine male footballers are among the top 10 most followed athletes on Instagram – basketball star LeBron James in fifth is the exception – and it stands to reason that they would attract more commercial interest.

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But just because something is true does not make it right. Similarly, what is true today is neither preordained or unchangeable. Bridging the gap between men’s and women’s football should not be just a platitudinous campaign promise from Fifa executives. It is a real possibility if a new order is established. Before that can happen, there needs to be consensus on one important variable.

“Whether in good faith or not, people who are presented with solutions to a problem that they don’t think exists are likely to dismiss your ideas as impractical as a way of dismissing the argument,” says Stefan Szymanski, co-author of the book Soccernomics and an economist at the University of Michigan. “Until we acknowledge that there is a problem, it is quite hard to actually start envisaging solutions.”

How to fix this problem

To find the solution, we must first go back to the outbreak of World War I. When Europe’s superpowers funnelled the continent’s male population into a meat grinder, women filled the void on the home front. In Preston, England, the women working at the locomotive factory called Dick, Kerr & Co challenged the men to an informal football match. Though women were generally discouraged from organised sport, it was believed that it would be good for morale and help boost production.

After beating their male colleagues, the women of Dick, Kerr & Co formed a team that was soon competing in exhibition games across the country. On Christmas Day 1917, Dick, Kerr Ladies FC beat Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0 in front of 10 000 people. 

While the conflict raged, the team played a series of charity games, raising money for the war effort. They continued after the cannons quieted and in 1920 played the first women’s international against France. Their popularity expanded and in December that year, they beat St Helen’s Ladies 4-0 at a sold-out Goodison Park in Liverpool, attracting 53 000 people to Everton FC’s home ground. Very few men’s teams at the time could pull such sizable crowds. 

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This should have heralded a turning point for women’s sport. But as football historian David Goldblatt notes in The Ball is Round: “Just as the wider male elite feared the consequences of women’s entry into male employment and ensured they returned to domestic labour in the post-war years, so the Football Association feared intrusion by the women’s game.”

In 1921, the Football Association (FA), the governing body of the sport in England, placed a ban on all women’s football from its registered stadiums. A resolution declared: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feels impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged. For these reasons, the council requests the clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.” 

Repercussions of the ban 

It was not just the professional game that suffered. Girls at school couldn’t play because their schools were affiliated with the FA. And because the FA was the most powerful member of Fifa – formed in 1904 – this ban affected the development of women’s football across the globe. 

By the time of the first men’s World Cup in 1930, the women’s game was reduced to a side show, eking out an existence on uneven fields, cut off from formal systems of financing, marketing and coaching. Europe’s male ruling class may have granted women the right to vote, but they would not budge on including them in the people’s game.

“The only way to give women justice in this system is to divert resources into women’s football,” Szymanski argues. “There is an analogy with antitrust law. If there was a ban on women’s sport today, they would take their federation or Fifa to court and they would establish that this was a restraint of trade, which is illegal. Therefore you would have to pay damages because of the harm you’ve done.”

It is impossible to say with any certainty what women’s football would look like today had it been allowed to develop without the ban that was lifted in 1971. In his own words, Szymanski has been “obsessing about propensity score matching and difference-in-difference estimation” which is essentially the measurement of what happens when you treat two groups of people differently. He is channeling his attention towards the possible outcomes of a coronavirus vaccine and wishes he could apply the same model to women’s football. But he can’t.

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“It’s not a controlled experiment,” he says. “There are just too many differences. Sadly there will never be a test.”

Not that the specifics matter. As is clear by the revenue generated, the money invested and the attention garnered by the men’s game compared to the women’s, a clear disparity exists. It is not important how much of an impact 50 years of exclusion has had on the development of women’s football. What matters is that it unquestionably has had an effect and now needs redressing. 

Szymanski has several theories on how best to solve this problem but the one he favours would come in the form of a levy. “What if a percent of all revenue generated by national federations on match day, and a percent of all revenue generated by clubs, goes towards funding the development of the women’s game? 

“It’s important to state that this is not about saying anyone is a bad person. It’s about saying that the football ecosystem wouldn’t exist in its current guise if it wasn’t for the ban in 1921. This is about repairing that. We tax people on high incomes and this would be something similar. Imposing a levy would be a neat way of getting around this. Rather than targeting specific events, we’re saying that whatever money football generates, a set percentage needs to be channeled towards the women’s game as a means of reparation.”

Following intense public scrutiny in the wake of testimonies from former players and administrators, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has embarked on a process of reparations for those involved in the game who have been discriminated against in the past. This is part of the organisation’s Social Justice and Nation Building project. Who will be paid and by how much will be determined after complaints have been heard and mediated.

Balancing the scales 

CSA is famously cash-strapped. World football in general, and Fifa and the major federations in particular, are not. There is enough money in the game to fund a sizable reparation project. 

Apart from the levies Szymanski has proposed, this could be supplemented by private sponsors refusing to subsidise major clubs that treat their female teams like afterthoughts. Liverpool FC have demonstrated their lopsided values by keeping only 10 people listed on the accounts of their women’s team despite boasting a record-breaking financial turnover of £553 million this past year. While Jürgen Klopp’s men romped to a historic Premier League title, Vicky Jepson’s women were relegated from the Women’s Super League.

Excellence on the pitch, however, is still not enough when you’re a female footballer. The United States women’s national team is arguably the most dominant outfit in world sport having won four of eight World Cups to date. That country’s men failed to qualify for the last edition.

Negotiations between the US Soccer Federation and its female players broke down and landed up in court after the women had filed a lawsuit seeking higher pay. “The female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts,” the suit read. “This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players.” 

According to US Soccer, it was not violating the Equal Pay Act, suggesting, “The job of the men’s national team player carries more responsibility and requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength.”

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In May this year a judge ruled against the women, noting that they had actually earned more than their male counterparts once prize money was included. The women intend to appeal since the reason they earned more was because they won a World Cup last year, something the men have not been able to do.

Earlier this year, Mamelodi Sundowns underlined its claim to being the best football club in South Africa as both its men’s and women’s sides won their respective leagues. Predictably, both were rewarded differently by sponsors. The men walked away with R15 million from the Premier Soccer League who run professional football. The women received R500 000 from the cash-strapped South African Football Association.

Some on social media saw no issue with this. One local journalist asked how much revenue each tournament generated. It is an unfair question that fails to acknowledge the perpetual glass ceiling that has been placed above women’s football for almost a century. First there needs to be an acknowledgement that such a barrier exists and how it got there. Then an examination of how it got there must take place. Once these two important steps have occured, attention can then turn to shattering it. The most viable way of doing so would be in the form of institutionalised reparations. Until such measures are taken, women’s football will never catch up. 

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