The Vicious Circle in Women’s Football

By Christina Brauer

Picture of Christina Brauer

Roughly 100 years after football had been invented, women were finally, in 1970, allowed to play football as well. Before, football teams all over the world were legally forbidden to found female teams and let women use their football pitches. The official excuse was that football would harm the female body, soul and grace because of how masculine the sport is. But in reality this ban of women’s football was just another misogynist move.

Three years after the ban had been annulled, my mom was born and all she wanted to do when she was younger was play football in the streets with the boys of the neighbourhood. But just because legally female athletes could join football teams and leagues didn’t mean social approval allowed girls to play. Since football was considered a masculine sport where women could get dirty or fall and scrape their knees, her mom would always forbid her to join the boys outside. Since then, our society has luckily moved into the right direction. Nowadays there are plenty of female football teams, enjoying their freedom to do what they love. But the catch is, no one seems to care about them. Hence, it’s understandably hard for women to establish themselves in the world of football.

It’s a vicious circle. Just like many other sports, football is there to entertain an audience. But if the audience isn’t interested, there’s no point in making the sport in question public or supporting it so it can get better. That’s the problem with women’s football. The male version is much more appreciated by the audience so men get all the attention, brand deals and sponsorships. Men are promoted and shown on TV.

On the flipside, it’s rare to catch a women’s game on TV for this exact reason. People don’t seem to be interested. But the reason they’re not interested is the lack of knowledge about the female teams. Of course it’s more fun to cheer for a team whose players you know by heart and maybe even look up to. A survey from 2021 backs my theory up. It shows that 40% of the 16.000 people that were consulted world-wide blame the lack of media coverage for their lack of interest. This goes to show how immensely the popularity of a sport depends on promotion. Another 41% state they would watch women’s games if they were on TV. It’s undeniable – the interest in women’s football theoretically exists. Now it’s the media’s turn to set it free.

Statistics further show that the size of the audience in a football game severely differs depending on the gender of the players. On average, up to 500.000 people or more come to see the men’s Bundesliga games in person whereas women’s Bundesliga games are only visited by 5.000-15.000 people. A major reason why football fans prefer watching men’s games is the “lower quality” of women’s games. However, female football teams have a hard time improving without any recognition, sponsorships and the money that comes with it. While male players can make a living playing football and even a fortune if they’re really good, women need to work another job part-time, sometimes even full-time to pay for all the essentials in life. These obstacles limit their training time. To give you some numbers, only about 50 female kickers in the world make more than 300.000 Euros a year by playing football (– in comparison, men in the national team make several millions). No wonder men’s football is considered to be “better” than women’s football.

But there’s not just a pay gap between men and women. Especially teams in lower leagues lack essential resources. In the past, my mom’s team has gotten extremely lucky with sponsorships that funded their jerseys and additional clothing like sweatpants, windcheaters and thick winter coats. But this isn’t self-evident. My mom told me about a time when they had to wear the men’s old, worn-out jerseys and trunks that were way too big. A friend of hers who plays football as well summed it up perfectly: “All we really want is a decent football field and enough space for our fans to sit that are coming!” In the end, they want nothing more than to play good and fair football and have fun. But it’s not right to think that it’s “just women’s football” so it won’t matter where they play because nobody is going to care anyway.

Since football is so reliant on public interest it’s not enough to simply be good at it. The key nowadays is marketing. The only female football player that comes to my mind by name is Megan Rapinoe from the national team of the United States. When it comes to male players I could name Manuel Neuer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Neymar…I could go on and on and I’m not even a huge football fan. But why is it so hard for female players to market themselves? After all, women in other sports, like the tennis star Angelique Kerber, have managed to do so. One could argue that women’s tennis has gotten increasingly popular over the last few years. Or maybe it’s hard to market a whole team as it is the case with football. But what about the countless famous men in football? Why is it impossible to market at least some of the female football players? Aren’t women interesting enough to stand for themselves? Whatever it is, marketing is the key to more recognition which is extremely necessary for women’s football.

Something that is the opposite of helpful when it comes to the public portrayal of women’s football in society is its negative connotation. The term “women’s football” is often used as an insult and totally devalues women’s performance on the field. This insult suggests that these women are subordinate to their male equals. Because of utterances like “They play like women” or “That’s women’s football” when men play bad football, it’s implied that playing this sport as a woman is something to be ashamed of.

It’s the overall attitude towards women’s football that needs to change. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that male teams are about a century ahead of female teams. Humans are creatures of habit. They’d rather stick to the old than to be open for something new. With the pay gap between men and women in any working environment getting more attention these days, it’s easy to simply argue that women should get paid the same as men. But it’s not that simple in sports because teams are heavily reliant on public interest as it is the condition for sponsorships and brand deals. Nothing comes from nothing. It’s hard but true. If teams don’t evoke as much interest, they won’t get paid as much.

That being said, that doesn’t mean it’s fair that men in this industry are much more privileged. They get to relax on their throne and watch women struggle in football from above. Men have already established themselves in football and all they needed to do was to be the first to officially play it. Now that women are doing the same, they have to work their butts off to escape the vicious circle and get even close to where men are today. But what’s new, am I right?

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