Sports journalism is a topical business by nature. Desperate to fill column inches, writers will always jump on a timely issue. A few months ago, the Women’s Football World Cup was the bandwagon du jour. The plucky underdog narrative was available. And the Matildas duly obliged with a strong showing.
“Turns out our girls are quite good, actually. Who knew? We really should pay more attention. Shame on all of us,” fawned the back pages. Mostly well intentioned, but laced with patronisation.
The timing of the 2015 WWC also offered a stark contrast to the diving, whining, tugging, referee-harassing farce of the Copa America.
But, naturally, the tournament ended, the ‘real’ football returned, and everyone handed back their rental idealism. The list of priorities shuffled and cut again. Back to dealing in the currency of clicks. More asinine NRL analysis? Go on then.
PFA vs FFA: The Stand-off
Now the issue of player payment has well and truly come to a head. Talks between the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and FFA regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) have not so much broken down as exploded in a flaming heap.
It’s all a bit messy with the immediate outcome the cancellation of the Matildas’ blue-chip friendlies against world champions, USA, one of which had sold a reported 60,000 tickets.
‘A full-time program with part-time remuneration’ is the core complaint. And fair enough. Unlike Socceroos representatives plying their trade overseas, or even the A-League players (for whom the minimum senior wage is $55,000), W-League players are paid absolute peanuts. These are women expected to train and perform at the level of full professionals with a fraction of the funding.
Most are forced to earn a patchwork income from the W-League, overseas clubs, and regular, non-footballing day jobs. Others juggle tertiary education. Schedules are horrendously overbooked and development in all pursuits is undoubtedly stunted. Many players were forced to quit their other jobs in the lead-up to the World Cup as well.
Their male counterparts have a host of high-paying coaching roles or punditry available to them when they hang up the boots. Or they can simply retire comfortably on their millions. The lack of funding and coverage vastly limits these avenues for women. There’s also the charming double standard for those deemed not camera-friendly to consider.
For the Matildas, therefore, it’s especially crucial to have fair conditions in place for national representation.
So far, male and female players are standing together. While the solidarity is nice to see, it appears to be the men’s demands that are the main obstacle. The FFA sees one big sum that it’s being asked to front and at which it continues to baulk.
“What happened today was quite extraordinary because, effectively, we’ve been told that unless we meet a wage claim for some $120 million – the bulk of which will go to male professional players in the next four-year period – then the Matildas would not be participating against the USA,” said FFA chief, David Gallop.
Matildas forward, Ashleigh Sykes, had the following to say. “We’re asking for an increase of $150,000 on top of what the FFA has offered. That equates to a maximum $43,000 per annum per top-tiered contracted player. That’s from about $20,000 at the moment.”
“I don’t believe we’re asking for anything exuberant. We’re not asking for equal rights with the men. We’re realistic about the state of the women’s game. We’re simply asking for full-time pay.”
It was a sentiment echoed by defender, Laura Alleway. “We put in just as much time as the men do and we don’t expect to get as much as the men do, but at least give us the common courtesy to pay us minimum wage.”
To clarify, the men are still being paid in the interim – by both the FFA and A-League clubs. Meanwhile, the women’s contracts have expired and they’ve been advised by the PFA to hold the line until all deals are resolved. So they’re getting nothing. Which is fucked.
However, the FFA’s claims to the moral high ground are weakened somewhat by not having paid the Matildas’ outstanding World Cup prize money. Only through public pressure have they now relented to make the payments amounting to over $13,000 per player.
[UPDATE] The latest development is that the FFA is willing to upgrade the Matildas’ funding, provided it comes from the existing overall pot. At the moment, the FFA allocates $30 million per year shared between the A-League (approx $25 million), the Socceroos ($5 million), and Matildas ($1 million). The most likely outcome looks like a redistribution of these funds will be negotiated.
The roadblocks in the women’s game are not solely down to local administration. The problems start at the top, where the crusted-on male figureheads set the tone – and the agenda.
In 2004, outgoing (eventually) FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, was pressed on what could be done for the women’s game to get more traction. He suggested the players wear “tighter shorts” to attract more male viewers. At the Ballon d’Or ceremony in 2013, US player Alex Morgan claimed Blatter didn’t even know who she was, despite being one of three nominees for the Women’s Player of the Year award.
This from the self-proclaimed ‘Godfather’ of women’s football. Smooth.
When the top brass of international football appear to be reading from the same sheet as the mouth-breathers in the local pub, you know there’s work to be done.
Then there’s the minor issue of staging the World Cup exclusively on artificial turf, despite the explicit protests of the participants. 84 players from 13 countries went as far as to file a gender discrimination complaint against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. The case was only dropped after several football federations (who rely on FIFA funding) threatened to ban the players involved from representing their national teams.
Artificial turf greatly increases the risk of injury due to increased friction, heat, and less shock absorption. We’re talking concussions and long-term knee injuries. Not to mention the turf-specific injuries such as severe blisters and burns.
Things were made worse for the Matildas thanks to a sponsorship conflict between the kit provider and rival manufacturer whose grip socks are widely used to counteract such conditions. As the branding would have been visible on the ankle, any use of the socks was banned.
“It’s like you can’t really get grip on your feet and your feet keep sliding around in your boots because they’re that hot and kind of sweaty,” said Canberra and Matildas striker, Michelle Heyman. “[The player’s feet] just turn white, your skin is all ripped off. It’s like walking on hot coal with your skin blistering and cracking.”
Amazingly, FIFA and the CSA refused the use of natural grass, even after lawn company Scotts offered free installation at all proposed venues.
One hopes that the recent FIFA corruption scandal sees some fundamental change occur in the subsequent shake-up. The realistic concern is that it’s an organisation so bloated and powerful that accountability is minimal and those promoted to power will continue to get away with as much as they can for as long as they can. The Hydra is a truly fearsome beast.
If a women’s football game is played in the forest and no one is around to marginalise it…
One of the core questions is that of coverage. Governing bodies like FIFA or the FFA will always point to the lack of commercial sponsorship as the reason for funding limitations. The standard argument is that the men’s game is demonstrably a more marketable product. It brings in infinitely more revenue from advertising and merchandise. Therefore coverage is bound to be grossly skewed in its favour.
Twenty3 Sport + Entertainment chief executive John Tripodi sees it differently. He believes a new approach is needed. Particularly for a sport with the global pull of football, governing bodies should look to seek sponsorship for the code as a whole, then distribute those funds in a way that allows female players to actually earn a living.
“It’s the chicken and egg … sponsorship dollars are driven by where the eyeballs are,” Tripodi said.
“[If it’s] on TV, radio, or digital platforms, it will get the interest of the sponsorship community.”
So the line that ‘no one watches it’ is a little rich when previously only one W-League game was broadcast weekly (on the ABC) and sometimes not even that. Fans need to be given a chance to invest, rather than having their indifference assumed.
Grass Roots of the Problem
Following on from the issue of coverage, someone explain to me the inequality seen at club level. I’m talking about amateur, non-televised club football. A level at which there are no real commercial stakes. And yet, the women’s game often subsidises that of the men.
I’m not making this up.
Registration fees for players at NSW premier league and state league clubs can get up around $1000 each. If that seems high, it’s because it is, though amateur clubs are always scrabbling around for money. What doesn’t make sense is that the fees are not equal.
In many cases, fees paid by female club members are put towards the top men’s teams. This means the men either pay minimal, or zero fees. Or it goes towards better playing kits for the men. Some male players may even receive small match payments.
Ostensibly, the WOMEN ARE PAYING THE MEN to play in these instances. Members of the same club. Colleagues.
A lack of advocacy for women among board members means the men are always prioritised. If a club has one primary playing field, for example, it’s not uncommon for rained-out men’s matches on a Saturday to be rescheduled for the Sunday, relegating the previously scheduled women’s game to the crummy back fields.
Signs of Progress?
Thankfully, there are some wheels in motion.
In addition to the aforementioned pay talks, last year the FFA announced a new girls’ and women’s development network thanks to half a million dollars worth of FIFA funding. The majority of the funding is allocated to employing development officers.
Live coverage is set to return to our screens as W-League/A-League double-headers in a new broadcast deal. The matches will precede the men’s games in the same stadiums, which should help boost crowd numbers at the same time.
Exciting new ground is also being broken in the gaming world with Steph Catley (*swoon*) appearing on the cover of FIFA16. This coincides with female teams introduced to the game for the first time. For this, Australia can take some credit. It was far from a global initiative, with the USA and Canada the only other countries to feature women on the cover. Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair respectively appear alongside mainstay Lionel Messi, while Australia’s cover is three-pronged with Messi, Catley, and Tim Cahill.
While the global football season seems to have sprawled into a year-round affair, the women’s game has hitherto only been allowed to peek it’s head above water every four years – and only then assuming the Matildas perform well. It’s well-documented that the Matildas’ quarter final appearance makes them the most successful ever Australian team at a World Cup.
But it really shouldn’t take a superhuman effort or unprecedented success to start the rallying cries for funding. Especially when we’re only talking about a living wage. Without basic job security, let alone that befitting an elite international team, players will struggle to commit and fulfil their potential.
Similarly, support should not just be granted so the FFA can hitch itself to their ensuing glory – rather because it’s the right thing to do. It feels like women’s football could be on the verge of something good here. They need to get this important stuff right. It can’t just be a horizon periodically acknowledged for the sake of keeping up appearances.
Football remains comfortably the world’s most popular sport. The amount of money flying around in sponsorship deals, ticket revenue, and transfer fees is eye-watering. So anyone who claims there’s not a workable solution is lazy and passing the buck. It’s worth reiterating that no one is asking for absolute equality. Just something approaching fairness.
Patience has now run out for placation and grandstanding. It’s time for those in charge to start playing fair.