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Was 2019 Really a Watershed Year for Women’s Football?

Are the latest, well-overdue milestones papering over other issues facing women’s football in Australia and abroad?

There is absolutely no doubting that 2019 was a historic year for women’s football, with several crucial milestones being ticked off for the sport.

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup was the most-watched edition of the tournament in history. According to data provided by the game’s governing body, a combined 1.12 billion viewers tuned in to the official broadcast of the tournament across all platforms globally.

The final between USA and Netherlands was the most-watched match in the history of the tournament, up 56% on the final of the 2015 tournament in Canada.

A few short months after the tournament ended, The Football Federation of Australia (FFA) announced that the Australian women’s team – The Matildas – will now receive pay parity with the men’s team.

The Guardian & ESPN’s Samantha Lewis tells Rolling Stone that the deal is an “incredible achievement” considering it was these same national team players who went on strike in 2015 because they were unsatisfied with CBA negotiations

So was 2019 a watershed year for women’s football both in Australia and overseas? Or are these latest, well-overdue milestones papering over other issues facing women’s football in this country and abroad?

Better Late Than Never?

The Matildas’ new pay deal with the FFA has been hailed as a “momentus” step forward which came about as a result of a Collective Bargaining Agreement struck between the FFA and the Professional Footballers Australia.

The deal sees both the Socceroos and the Matildas receive a 24% share of national team-generated revenues, after the men’s team wholeheartedly threw their support behind the deal. More specifically, up to 20 female internationals will now earn around $100,000 a year.

“What’s unique about this new CBA is the way money is allocated: both men’s and women’s senior national teams will now take an equal amount from a shared commercial revenue pool,” Lewis explains.

“The details are a little more complex than that, but it’s safe to say that the Matildas are now largely treated as the professional athletes they are, and have set an important precedent for other national teams and federations.”

The historical deal can’t, however, rewrite the history of a team that has suffered through years of conditions not fit for any group of professional sportspeople.

As Lewis notes, it was less than four years ago that the Matildas were threatening to boycott matches for issues of payment; a time in which many players still had to work second jobs to make ends meet. In 2015, players were paid a measly $500 per international match (as the men’s team earned closer to $7,500) and flew economy when travelling overseas.

When the new deal was announced, Matilda’s captain Elise Kellond-Knight tweeted “Thank you to everyone involved in this momentus day!

“From past to present. So many have played a part to help grow the game to where it is today. But remember, we’re not finished yet.”

The words that Kellond-Knight ended with are not insignificant. There is still work to do if women are to truly achieve equal pay in the sport.

Globally, the game is geared away from pay parity, and despite the deal, the higher prize money at men’s tournaments will see the Socceroos continue to get a better pay packet.

As an example, while both the Matildas and Socceroos will receive 40% of the prize money given to the FFA after qualifying for and participating in their respective world cups, the total amount is still less for the women.

Locally, many players in the domestic W-League are still working second jobs despite playing football in a ‘professional’ league. The minimum pay packet for the league’s 16-week season is just over $16,000, meaning players that don’t also play for the national team, or in a second league overseas, have little chance of making ends meet playing football alone.

But the game is moving forward on a domestic level. A separate collective bargaining agreement guaranteed a number of conditions for W-League players in 2019, as Lewis explains.

This involves “an increased minimum salary that aligned with the A-League an “equal hourly rate” principle, minimum medical standards and insurance, a maternity policy, an increased salary cap and floor, income protection, professional and multi-year contracts, and greater assistance for players planning for life after football.”

Ada Hederberg, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo

The Matildas players are far from the only women’s football players to threaten or undertake a boycott. Their new pay deal comes at a time when other women’s teams worldwide appear no closer to getting what they deserve.

In the last two years, the Republic Of Ireland women’s team went on strike and the Danish women’s team refused to play two games, both over pay conditions.

A particularly galling example can be seen in the USA where their 4x World Cup-winning women’s team has been selling more tickets and bringing in more revenue than than the men’s team (who failed to quality for the most recent World Cup).

The team’s captain, Megan Rapinoe, and former goalkeeper Hope Solo, are leading the charge against the national association US Soccer with a lawsuit over pay. Solo’s own personal lawsuit over gender discrimination predates the team’s claim by six months, and she filed it after being fired from the team in 2016.

“My husband tells me the tip of the spear takes the most hits,” said Solo in mid-2019. “I feel a little bit battered and beat down. But we want the future generations to benefit.”

The world’s best female player, Norwegian Ada Hederberg, even boycotted the World Cup over pay and playing conditions. Hederberg, 23, told the Norweigan soccer federation two years ago that she won’t play again for her national team until she sees tangible progress towards equal working conditions.

“There are federations, there are clubs, there are men in high positions who have that responsibility to put the women in the right place and that’s where I think, I feel, and I know, we have a long way to go,” she said ahead of the tournament.

There have also been a few, less publicised examples in recent years, as Lewis tells Rolling Stone.

“Argentina, despite being one of the most decorated men’s national teams, was delisted from FIFA’s women’s world rankings entirely in 2015 because they didn’t play a single game for over two years,” she explains.

“Similarly, Jamaica’s women’s team — who made their World Cup debut in 2019 — folded completely in 2008 due to lack of funding and has only been kept afloat by Bob’s Marley’s daughter Cedella, who took it upon herself to raise money for the team.

Then, at the 2019 World Cup, Nigeria almost didn’t take part, as they “threatened to stage a sit-in protest at their team hotel in France over unpaid bonuses and allowances”

That’s the cost price that the women’s game is paying to take steps forward. We’ve ultimately missed out on seeing some of the game’s best ever players perform their art.

Using Data To Form A Narrative

It’s no surprise that FIFA has been trumpeting the viewing records set by the recent World Cup in France. Over a billion viewers is nothing to scoff at.

“More than a sporting event, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 was a cultural phenomenon attracting more media attention than ever before and providing a platform for women’s football to flourish in the spotlight,” declared FIFA President Gianni Infantino after the tournament.

“The fact that we broke the one billion target just shows the pulling power of the women’s game and the fact that, if we promote and broadcast world-class football widely, whether it’s played by men or women, the fans will always want to watch.”

Diving into some of the other key metrics, all is not as rosy as Infantino might have you believe. To start with, attendance was down to 1.16 million from the record set at 2015’s tournament in Canada (1.13m).

“I feel a little bit battered and beat down. But we want the future generations to benefit.”

As the BBC reports, 24 games at the tournament were billed as “sold-out” by FIFA. One such game, England’s first against Scotland, only saw just over 13,000 attendees and the ground was found to be 37% full.

You won’t find FIFA or Infantino bragging about the prize money for the tournament.

FIFA announced before the first round kicked off that the total prize money had been doubled from $15 million (USD) to $30 million. On the surface that sounds like good news. But when you consider the men’s tournament has a prize pool of $400 million, and it’s winners, France, went home with $38million.

International footballers’ union FIFPro declared that despite the prize increase, that women’s football is now “even further from the goal of equality for all World Cup players”.

Lewis explains that one significant positive is that European nations seem to be paying closer mind to their women’s national teams than ever before, which could be a signal of a global priority shift.

“For the first time, seven of the eight quarter-finalists were European nations. Europe — one of the traditional powerhouses of football — has finally recognised the importance and value of women’s football, and the last few years has seen many nations start heavily investing in women’s domestic programs. England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain all now have fully-fledged domestic women’s leagues.”

This shift, Lewis says, can act as inspiration for federations in Asia, North and South America, to invest more heavily in their women’s leagues.

Does Attendance Really Equal Growth?

So if the WWC had broken new attendance records, would that have been a clear sign of growth?

Attendance records are often pointed to as a clear sign that the game is growing. After all, if more people are buying tickets, it stands to reason that interest is also growing, right? At a club level in England, clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have moved towards playing Women’s Super League games in their main stadiums.

Some clubs have given away almost entire-stadiums worth of tickets, like Chelsea who gave out 41,000 tickets to a game at Stamford Bridge against Tottenham, only for just under 25,000 people to turn up.

There have been success stories too. Manchester City seem to have discovered a blueprint to filling out their ground, charging just seven pounds for a game against Manchester United. The result was a derby attended by 31,000 people; a fantastic advert for the game, and a strong indication of growing interest in women’s football in England.

The growth in women’s football in England has seen several big-name Australians including Sam Kerr, and more recently Caitlin Foord and Chloe Logarzo, make the move to England.

Lewis says that while this could initially have a negative effect on the domestic league, hopefully “enthusiasm will trickle down the domestic pyramid and make local fans more interested and engaged with women’s football at home, which will (hopefully) benefit the W-League where our next Matildas are currently emerging.”

“From past to present. So many have played a part to help grow the game to where it is today. But remember, we’re not finished yet.”

Locally, records have also been set. The Matildas broke the attendance record for a women’s international with their game at Western Sydney’s new Bankwest Stadium in November, with 20,029 people showing up.

Interest would certainly have been boosted by people wanting to see the new stadium, but that particular national record appears to be a pretty cut and dry example of growing interest in the women’s game.

Milestones should be celebrated as such, but hopefully 2019 ended with the words of Kellond-Knight ringing in FIFA’s ears; “…remember, we’re not finished yet.”