Fair Play: How the Women’s World Cup Exposes Inequality in Sport
Aneka Hindocha, UK Research & Insight Director, discusses the Women’s World Cup, inequality in football, and how we’re striving for a better future for women in sport.
This year brings us the ninth Women’s World Cup, and it will be the first time that 32 nations are competing, up from 24 since the tournament was last held in 2019.
Since winning the Euros last year, the England women’s football team – known as the Lionesses – have gone from strength to strength, with the team generating positive press coverage and garnering nearly four million social media mentions globally since kick-off on 20th July. However, it’s not always been celebratory, you don’t have to go back too far to find an FA which was openly hostile to the women’s games. Women’s football is finally being celebrated again in the cradle of association football, after it was banned from 1921 until 1971 (yup, for 50 years).
Aside from the wins, the losses and the nail biting penalties, the main online discussions have been around key players, gender equality, the pay gap, LGBTQA+ players and of course, the tournament sponsors.
Equal pay for equal play?
The Women’s World Cup has helped raise awareness about the gender pay gap in sports. Despite the tournament’s success, female soccer players continued to receive lower salaries and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts. To put this into context, the average annual salary of a premier league male footballer will be around £2,800,000. Comparatively, the average player’s salary in the UK’s highest tier of women’s football, the Women’s Super League, is estimated to be around £30,000 annually. Looking at the online conversations and sentiment around equal pay, an overwhelming 72% of these mentions were classed as negative.
Even though footballers playing for their country will give an immense source of pride, players need their countries to provide better financial support.
An analysis of keywords of the four million mentions from social listening tool Brandwatch has showed that when looking at women’s football in general, it was perceived as more ‘inspirational’, ‘competitive’ and ‘family orientated’ than the men’s football – whereas keywords relating ‘money’ and ‘salaries’ tended to show up more when looking at mentions around the men football games.
The importance of brand sponsorship in the women’s football
As attendance (up 23% since last year) and fan engagement around women’s football continues to increase, sponsors are taking more notice of the opportunities this provides them. Only very recently has women’s football started to emerge as a key environment for organisations to invest in, to reach their key target audiences. Analysing the sentiment around sponsorships mentions, 61% have been classed positive.
Brands have to match the make-up of the women’s football fandom, as well as the unique sponsorship category and price point opportunities in the women’s game to provide the avenue to reach new consumers and better the perception of their brand.
Sponsoring women’s sport involves much more than a financial investment in players – it is an investment in equality and meaningful change within the sporting arena. Among the many sponsors this year, Visa has stated its commitment to providing these resilient women with the tools and resources necessary to continue working for a level playing field.
A week before kick off, adidas released its new campaign, which is dedicated to next-gen icons, Alessia Russo, Lena Oberdorf and Mary Fowler. The campaign was set out to drive more global attention for the game and inspire other young women and girls to follow in their footsteps.
Major sports brands urged by MPs to promote female football boots
Even though there has been more attention from sponsors this year, we have seen key Lionesses and five global players missing from the World Cup because of injuries linked to football boots that have been designed for men. Wearing boots that are designed for men are causing blisters and stress fractures in elite female players – with several tearing their ACLs due to wearing the wrong boots.
Brands such as Nike, adidas, and Puma have responded to claims from MPs that there is a lack of football boots designed specifically for female players.
Boot manufacturers have told MPs they were investing in women-only and gender neutral products but retailers were sometimes reluctant to stock them because there was lower consumer demand and awareness of the products. This unfortunately comes down to another monetary issue – boots for women can cost over £200 more than boots for men.
Positive social movements
Since the Euros last year, the hashtag #HerGameToo, a social media movement aimed at tackling sexism and championing women in sport, has generated 90K mentions. UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign to promote its vision that everyone should be able to enjoy football has sparked 25K conversations across the globe. Both of these hashtags have increased significantly since last summer, proving that the conversations around equality are very real.
Diversity and Inclusion
LGBTQA+ communities have been such an integral part of women’s football – particularly when it comes to social media. This year, 13% of all the players competing globally are from the LGBTQA+ community. In particular, we have seen a number of the LGBTQA+ Lionesses being celebrated. This community also saw a 45% increase in conversations as well as a nine percent increase in positive sentiment from the Euros last year (up from 56% to 65%).
History was also made this year, as we saw Moroccan player Nouhaila Benzina become the first football player to wear a hijab in a World Cup game. Watching Benzina has helped boost confidence of women and girls to play football – this was part of the FA’s bigger push for inclusivity, with 81% of the overall mentions being marked as positive. From this, it was incredible to see the news that FIFA 23 has updated Benzina’s player model in its video game to include her hijab.
It’s a relief to see some progress in women’s football, but it’s clear we still have a long way to go – in a recent survey, 91.9% of women have said that they have seen sexist online abuse towards women in football, 63.1% have experienced it themselves and 58.4% have experienced abuse in real life at a football ground or in a pub while watching football.
The Lionesses’ roaring success comes at the same time as Barbie’s huge triumph in the past month, with the movie exceeding over one billion at the box office – surpassing predictions. With “pink fever” and hype around women’s football sweeping the globe, women’s talent is in the limelight, sparking conversations around feminism, candidly representing what it is to be a woman – from all angles. So how can we take this further, ensuring a better Women’s World Cup in 2027? A correct fitting boot, for starters!
Female footballers must have their countries’ investment so we can continue to see this growth in the generations to come. Whilst supporting and cheering the Women’s World Cup, we must also simultaneously advocate for justice and protection for them and for continued reform in women’s sports.