The World Cup has already changed attitudes to women’s sport. But how far is now up to us, writes Lesley Riddoch
Has the Women’s World Cup finally broken the glass ceiling in Scottish football, or will soaring interest in the beautiful game, fail to be translated into female boots on pitches?
A lot depends on the SFA, BBC Scotland and the men’s clubs.
The SFA received about £1 million from the Scotland Women’s National Team’s (SWNT) participation in the World Cup and had promised to spend it entirely on developing the women’s game. But will that million finance the national squad (for which the SFA are responsible), or the regular domestic game organised by Scottish Women’s Football, which runs two premier leagues and six regional leagues (with associated league cups) plus one national Scottish cup and 47 youth competitions involving teenage girls? With limited cash to go around, what is the best way to ensure that, just for once, the legacy of a Scottish sporting triumph is genuinely game-changing?
Opinions on the best strategy differ, but no-one’s denying the massive impact the eighth Women’s World Cup – won yesterday by the United States – has had on social attitudes across Britain. The TV audience doubled from an impressive 6.1 million for Scotland’s opening game against England to a peak of 11.7 million during England’s ill-fated semi-final against the USA – the most-viewed programme this year. Set up 60 long years after the first men’s tournament, the Women’s World Cup has finally received the attention, kudos and media coverage the sport deserves and both qualifying home nations did well.
So, what went right?
The English Lionesses performed spectacularly at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, beating Germany to come third (the best result by an England side since the men’s oft-reprised victory in 1966). The next year, the English FA appointed a new head of women’s football – the “formidable and feisty” Baroness Sue Campbell who was credited with masterminding Team GB’s record medal haul in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in her previous role as head of UK Sport. In 2017, the SFA launched Girls’ Soccer Centres across the country – now there are 28, each with an ambassador from the SWNT.
The BBC has also undergone seismic change, appointing former Olympic gymnast Barbara Slater to be its first female director of sport in 2009. More recently, BBC presenter Claire Balding fronted Channel Four’s ground-breaking Women’s Football World – featuring the best women’s football from around the world – and a Channel Four’s documentary about the massive popularity of the women’s game during the First World War, when the men’s Football League was suspended.
Doubtless, this competition helped prod Aunty into the unparalleled build-up and coverage of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, spurred along by an FA that finally seems to believe in the potential of the women’s game.
Meanwhile in Scotland, BBC Alba has had live coverage of women’s rugby, shinty and SWNT games for several years, culminating in spirited Gaelic World Cup match commentary, with contributions from English-speaking commentators. Earlier this year, Heather Dewar was appointed as BBC Scotland’s first dedicated reporter for women’s sports. So far, so good. BBC Alba will continue to cover SWNT home games for another two years. But then what?
It’s an important question, because though the Under-19 championships are being held in Scotland this summer (with Scotland fielding one of the few all-amateur teams) and a couple of players may appear in the controversial Team GB Olympic squad in 2020, the next big outing for the Scotland Women’s squad should be the UEFA Women’s Championships in 2021.
Will TV coverage, viewing figures and match attendance have risen by then? Will the SWNT performance have improved? Of course, the two are related. But France 2019 has proved that when broadcasters promote women’s football with a fraction of the energy, air-time and enthusiasm devoted to the men’s game for decades, people sit up and take notice.
Just 15 years ago former Fifa president Sepp Blatter was able to get away with saying that women footballers should wear “tighter shorts”. Views like that are unacceptable now – in public at least – and women who “don’t do” sport have joined obsessive followers of men’s club football, to watch and critique every match.
But is all of that enough to get women’s football in Scotland anywhere near level pegging?
£24m will be awarded to the teams competing in the Women’s World Cup compared to £315m in prize money at last year’s men’s event. Earlier this year, the American women’s national team took their governing body to court for gender discrimination and unequal pay. The lawsuit states that US Soccer gave American men a bonus of £4m after they crashed out of the final 16 in the 2014 World Cup, but awarded just £1.5m to the women who won their World Cup in 2015.
Even Manchester City, credited with changing the landscape of the women’s game in Britain, have revealed that their female players earn 88 per cent less than male counterparts on an hourly basis.
The situation in Scotland is even worse – because only a handful of female players are paid anything.
Glasgow City FC was formed in 1998 by two women, because men’s clubs were simply not interested. They’ve won the Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL) 12 times in the last two decades with their entirely amateur team, but that dominance is being challenged by Celtic, which has announced that its women’s team will turn professional next year. Hibs Community Foundation and Rangers have introduced modern apprenticeships, giving young players basic contracts and low salaries, while Hearts have reportedly invested a six-figure sum so their women’s academy moves on to the same footing as the men. In short, the prospect of a semi-professional SWPL beckons. And that matters. Only seven of Shelley Kerr’s 23-strong Scotland squad still play football in Scotland. The vast majority started their careers here before moving to England or further afield to become full-time professionals. It’s an old, depressing story.
But it can change if World Cup cash gets to the grassroots, where women’s clubs have proved adept at finding sponsorship to match even the smallest investment. Barclays have just announced £10m sponsorship of the English Women’s Super League. Surely some far-sighted company can see the potential of doing the same here. Scotland’s female footballers deserve the chance of home-grown progression at last. To borrow a slogan from the men’s team #NothingMattersMore.