Having made the semi-finals, things have been great in English Football for a second year running. Yet this isn’t the only thing to celebrate. This year marks a clear worldwide spike in viewing figures and support for women’s football – 11.7 million viewers tuned in to England’s semi-final performance against USA, making it the most watched women’s game of all time in the UK and the most watched broadcast of 2019 so far! Meanwhile, according to Fox Sports, viewers of online Women’s World Cup content has seen a spike of 310% compared to 2015.
This is definitely a step in a really positive direction for women’s football and sport as a whole. We need to continue achieving these steps by maintaining and increasing the viewership and support towards this year’s Women’s World Cup and Women’s football further on. Here’s why:
1. Women’s football has a lot of catching up to do with men’s.
Despite football initially being a popular sport for women (many female teams were established in the late 1800’s, with their biggest event being in 1920, having a crowd of 53,000 viewers), the FA banned women from playing football in 1921, having deemed the sport to be ‘quite unsuitable for females’.
It takes until 1971 for the ban to finally be lifted. Since then, the progress made in women’s football has been a steady yet slow one – with the first Women’s World Cup taking place in 1999 and an official women’s Championship kick-starting in 2005.
However, we are still lightyears away from seeing an equal playing field between male and female sport. A FifPro survey revealed that 88% of Women’s Super League players earn less than £18,000 a year, whereas for male footballers, it’s £2,642,508. Women’s football still receives significantly far less funding, marketing, investment and support than men’s.
2. Sexist attitudes have often been exacerbated by male footballers and fans.
From harbouring trophy wives, cheating scandals and rape allegations, male footballers haven’t always set the best example for attitudes towards women. Support for women in football has also been lacking in some areas: LA Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed that being compared to female players was ‘offensive’, a ‘joke’ and ‘devaluing’, while commentator Fulvio Collovati stated that hearing women speak of tactics ‘make [his] stomach turn’ because ‘a woman doesn’t understand like a man’.
Football has often been treated as a boy’s club for fans too, with many men grouping up with fellow male friends to watch matches. Of course there is nothing wrong with men finding and enjoying a shared interest together, it’s great even! What isn’t so great is when I notice that this seems to be a convenient time for sexist comments and attitudes to be released. I’ve often heard stereotypical comments about a woman’s place ‘being in a kitchen’, seen low-key harassment from fans towards female bartenders, and personally been a victim to sexual groping as a ‘celebration’ for England’s quarter-final performance in last year’s World Cup.
3. Sportswomen are often victims of sexist abuse.
Recently, women involved in football have opened up about the sexist challenges they are still facing. Former England star, now commentator, Alex Scott revealed that she is victim to horrendous sexist abuse online on a daily basis. This issue is shared with current England star, Leah Williamson, who claims that it only motivates her to do even better in the Women’s World Cup.
During the England vs. Scotland match, Twitter was circulating with a long string of offensive jokes and memes, including one image of the women superimposed with irons, laundry baskets and a vacuum cleaner.
It seems that once women enter a sphere that has previously been associated with men only, it sparks a particular force of defensive retaliation in a desperate effort to bully women back into a marginalised domain.
4. Women’s sport isn’t taken seriously enough.
I’ve known many people who religiously watch the men’s World Cup for two primary reasons: they love football and/or they’re feeling patriotic and wish to stand with their country. Surely those two reasons would render fans supportive of the Women’s World Cup too?
Unfortunately not. It’s either a joke or simply ‘not the same’.
Some people who did tune in to watch England this year claimed to have been ‘scouting’: not for talent or skills, but for attractiveness. This attitude probably wasn’t helped much by the FA themselves when in 2018 they posted a picture of the England team on Twitter, captioned ‘Scrub up well, don’t they?’.
From Serena Williams to Aly Raisman, women in sport are judged, and often criticised, on their image and body shape. It’s as if having a conventionally attractive face and a slim, unbuilt figure is what wins women’s sports tournaments. Forget skill.
5. Supporting women’s football and sport now will carve out a better future for young, aspiring girls.
How many times have girls rejected playing and getting involved in football because ‘it’s for boys, not girls’?
The more viewers this year’s Women’s World Cup receives, the more marketing, advertising, support, discussion – the more mainstream it will be, and hence recognised by young girls as a valid and acceptable sport for them to enter into.
This year, girls will be watching players such as Steph Houghton, Ellen White and Lucy Bronze and seeing sports figures that they as females can finally aspire to. They will be witnessing female presenters, commentators, pundits and spokespeople – showing them multiple possibilities that previous generations of girls may not have been as exposed to.
They will see football where women have a firm and respected place.
By watching, or merely showing interest and support for the Women’s World Cup this year, you’re not just supporting your nation, you’re narrowing the gender gap in sport, standing against old sexist attitudes, and carving a boundless, exciting future for young girls and women.