As various countries around the world start to take their first cautious steps out of lockdown, we are starting to see the reemergence of elite-level sport. Football in South Korea’s K-League restarted behind closed doors last Friday, and is already seeing enormous international interest. The US sports network ESPN recently bought rights to broadcast Korean baseball live, which is attracting great interest in America even though the games are played in the early hours of the morning. There is a huge thirst to watch broad-casts of live sport – even if the teams and players involved are unfamiliar.
We will now begin to see European elite-level football restart behind closed doors. If it can be done acceptably safely and without diverting resources from the NHS, Lewes FC supports the restarting of football. It seems likely that there will be a huge appetite to watch the broadcasts of these live games.
We think that this provides a huge – unprecedented – opportunity to drive a step-change in the prominence of women’s football, by broadcasting elite-level women’s football alongside elite-level men’s football.
This opportunity exists because:
-audiences are more open than usual to unfamiliar content: people are at home a lot and have a real need to watch anything entertaining – particularly live sport;
-women’s football is much less dependent on gate revenue than most men’s football – and so is financially viable even if broadcast rights are sold for relatively low amounts;
-behind closed doors, the matchday experience of women’s and men’s football is identical – so why wouldn’t we broadcast both on the same basis?
-the matchday infrastructure, from safeguarding players to the TV cameras, will already be in place at whatever venues end up being used for the men’s Premier League. Therefore, the marginal cost to also broadcast women’s matches played on the same day at the same venue will be low.
If the 82 remaining league matches in the top two women’s divisions in England, the WSL and FA Women’s Championship, were broadcast live – perhaps immediately before or after the 92 remaining men’s Premier League matches – we think audiences will be high. Many of those new to women’s football will end up as fans for the long term. Women’s football will finally be normalised as mainstream sport. This can be a giant leap forward in driving equality in football.
And that matters. We often come back to Jane English’s statement that “If women and men don’t achieve roughly equal fame and fortune in sports then it leads both men and women to think of women as naturally inferior”.
Football is our national pastime: it means a lot to millions and millions of us. At the moment, women get perhaps 1% of the resources and attention in football. We can make a dramatic change to that right now: there will probably never be another set of circumstances that are as favourable to do so. There are few enough silver linings from the current situation, but this could genuinely be one.
We calculate the total incremental cost for playing these 82 women’s matches to be around £3 million. That would cover all necessary covid-19 testing and protocols, and reimburse clubs for their own additional costs of staging the matches. £3 million is a drop in the vast ocean of football finance and government covid-19 support.
We call on:
-all football clubs, supporters, regulators and anybody in a position of influence to publicly support this request; it is logistically straightforward and low cost and could have enormous benefits.
-the government to offer support – moral and financial – to get this done. Government could even make gender equality i.e. the broadcasting of women’s matches with the same prominence as men’s matches, a condition of approval for the Premier league’s plan. It is a legitimate good news story and offers an opportunity to show real leadership in the world, at little financial cost (if government covered the entire cost of this – and broadcast rights were given away for free – it would cost the equivalent of running the current furlough scheme for 10 minutes).
-broadcasters to approach the FA proactively to express their interest in broadcast rights for elite women’s football for the next 12 months at least. By our calculation the breakeven figure (including all medical protocols) you would need to offer would be less than £40,000 per match broadcast (broadcast rights for the men’s Premier League cost around £24,000,000 per match). Further, we think that the broadcast revenues should be split evenly across the clubs, to avoid lazy scheduling assumptions of game ‘quality’ based on which illustrious men’s club name a women’s team shares.
-sponsors to contact the FA, and/or broadcasters, to express their interest in being promoted through women’s football were it to be broadcast during this period (again, costs will be radically lower than you are used to for the exposure that you’ll get).
One of the FA’s Strategy Principles is to be “Brave: [to] find new ways to elevate the women’s game, in-novate and engage audiences to differentiate itself from other sports and be a leader in the industry.”
Here, we don’t even need to be that brave.
And there’s one final reason to make this bold move, now: In 1921, the then FA ignominiously banned women’s football. That ban lasted for 50 years, but it was another 20 years before the women’s game be-gan to reestablish itself with the advent of the FA Women’s Premier League and the first official FIFA Women’s World Cup. Seventy years of mistreatment and under-investment means that in the present day, women’s football is still playing an unfair game of catch-up on a far from level playing field. So, let’s mark the 100th anniversary of the ban, in 2021, by being able to say that, this time, the authorities did the right thing by the women’s game and, through their actions, perhaps finally acknowledged and recompensed for the great injustice done all that time ago.
Men’s football and women’s football are two versions of the Beautiful Game, one is not a version of the other. Let’s seize this opportunity to recreate a game in the image of equality and set an example that will go far beyond football.