The world’s most beloved game could one day be women’s football. This pronouncement might seem extreme but given that its fans are increasing fast and the games are becoming more entertaining each season, it is only a matter of time when women’s football will be as popular as the game played by men.
It is easy in 2020 to dismiss this as an outlandish claim; in the men’s game tens of billions of dollars are spent on player transfers, sponsorships and media rights, while the women are still only scraping the surface of similar commercial scale and potential.
However, it would really only be a case of history repeating itself. A century ago in England women’s football matches regularly drew as large crowds as men’s games – sometimes larger – until the Football Association banned women from playing in 1921. It took another 50 years before women could play on official FA grounds again.
In sport, as so often in society, women’s achievements are discounted. This is driven by an age-old prejudice. But this has been changing and inequalities across different fields have been narrowed, including in professional sports.
Tennis, for example, has been the focus of a successful equal pay campaign by female professionals. It is only the beginning of a broader effort to address a lack of fairness, which the World Economic Forum has pessimistically forecast will take 257 years.
The Fifa Women’s World Cup last year showed how entertaining and competitive the elite level of the women’s game has become. It also has global superstars in Megan Rapinoe, Marta and Ada Hegerberg. Rapinoe in particular has transcended the sport.
The Women’s Super League competition in England, run by the same FA that banned women’s matches a hundred years ago, is fast growing in terms of sponsorship and fan base. The competition included a prize-money pot of £500,000 last year, making it the first time WSL winners were awarded any official prize money.
That said, prejudice lingers even at the top of the game.
Last month, there was a report in the British media that women's teams at three of the Premier League's wealthiest clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – were not being allowed to regularly train at the same state-of-the-art facilities used by the men's sides. Indeed it is fair to say that the quality of facilities is not always the same for women athletes across many sports where men traditionally dominate.
While it is also true that these three clubs are exceptions at the highest level – Manchester City, for example, gives its women’s team equal billing to the men in every area – there should not be any cases where women footballers are denied the same opportunities as men.
Women have made the same – if not greater – sacrifices and efforts to become good enough to turn professional. They should also be allowed the same opportunity as men to fulfil their potential once they do.
Not only is it wrong to put unnecessary obstacles in their way, it is short-sighted and does not serve the interests of clubs or the sport. More girls and women are taking up the game every day. Which teams are they likely to play for and support? The teams who take them seriously as sportspersons or the ones who do not? The future of football also depends on more people following the game.
You might think on the lines that equality is fine in theory but that sport is inherently competitive, which is why the women’s game will not be on par with the men’s because the latter are better athletes and are bound to pull in more fans. If only it was an issue of merit then things could resolve themselves naturally over time. The market would decide. But to understand how flawed that theory is, take the example of serial world champions – the US women’s football team, fighting for equal pay with their less successful American male counterparts who have never won a World Cup. They are also on par in terms of commercial success off the pitch.
This battle is now set for court later this year after talks broke down between the players and the US Soccer Federation, which says it compensates them above and beyond what other teams get in the women's game. A Washington Post analysis of the dispute showed that in a typical season, women earn about 11 per cent less than men. To earn the same, they must vastly outperform them.
As the global governing body, Fifa has a responsibility to try to close this gap. It is expanding the scope of the women’s game ahead of the 2023 World Cup and leveraging its momentum. Yet even as Fifa proposes doubling the prize money on offer for the women, the gap will remain at a staggering $380 million compared to the pot men’s teams will share.
The message this sends to young girls and women is potentially dangerous for the health of the sport. Look at what the issue of inequality has done to the cohesion of communities and societies around the world.
Still I do not worry as much for the women’s game given its inevitable hegemony. More likely, it will be the men’s game that pays the price with fans and sponsors alike for being a symbol of this unacceptable state of affairs that those that run the power to fix. That would literally be the definition of an own goal.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National