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The impact of Covid-19 on women’s sport – how the virus compounds funding disparities

18.01.21

The impact of Covid-19 on sport has been significant but not all sports, or athletes, have been affected equally.  In particular women’s sport and women’s teams have experienced the pandemic very differently from their male counterparts.

In large part the difference comes down to the difference in the resources available to them.  It highlights the need for significant investment in Women’s sport if there is a genuine desire to level the playing field.

In this piece I am using football as the case study.  So, what are the differences that we are talking about:

  1. The financial disparities in football are well documented. By way of example prize money for the Premier League saw Liverpool collect around £175million for their victory in the 2019/2020 season. Winners of the Women’s Super League (Chelsea) received just £100,000.
  2. The Premier League returned and completed the 2019/20 season after the first national lockdown. This gave clubs the chance to earn from broadcast revenue and to compete to determine who was promoted, who was relegated and final positions.  All of which has a big impact on club finances.  Women’s Super League did not return.
  3. The Premier League has been played so far this season behind closed doors. Clubs lose out on revenue by this approach with Manchester United said to be the biggest losers given that a match at Old Trafford is estimated to be worth around £3million.  The clubs do however receive the broadcasting revenue which for many is considerably more than they can expect to earn from fans attending the ground. In 2018/2019, for example, clubs earned at least £82m in broadcast revenue with the top clubs earning nearly double that.  In contrast, WSL relies heavily on fans attending with broadcasters covering their own costs of covering the matches but not paying for the privilege making a return behind closed doors considerably less lucrative.

This is just a few areas in which funding disparities arise between the men’s and women’s game.  What this means in terms of the impact of Covid-19 is:

  1. Men’s clubs have far greater reserves to call upon in difficult times such as a pandemic. Women’s teams usually rely on support from their club (parent company) to balance the books.  In a time of crisis they have no reserves.
  2. Male players generally earn well enough to afford a private gym in their home meaning that they could continue to train throughout. Most female players were beholden to the rules affecting public gyms.  Welsh International Angharad James was stopped by police while attempting to complete personal football drills on a public pitch during the first lockdown.
  3. Premier League clubs are expected to meet various Coronavirus testing requirements as well as adjusted match day protocols aimed at minimising transmission risk. This is more difficult for teams in WSL.
  4. The women’s FA Cup has been suspended during the current lockdown because many of the teams are amateur and therefore unable to train and compete during the present restrictions. The men’s competition has continued since the handful of amateur clubs left in the competition can compete under the elite rules when competing with an elite team.

In most sports there is a direct correlation between success and funding.  WSL is illustrative of this.  The teams receiving the most support from their parent club occupy the top spots in the table.  Chelsea Women may not have won £175m but with the backing of Chelsea they were able to donate their entire £100,000 to charity, in recognition of the fact that they were awarded the title on an algorithm rather than on match performance.  Meanwhile Liverpool Women, who receive very little funding from their club, were relegated.  That the men’s team can enjoy £175m in prize money while the women’s team only maintained 5 full time players says a great deal about attitudes to women’s sport in that particular club.  They are certainly no alone.

What is needed now is serious commitments from Clubs and in other sports, governing bodies, to ring-fence funding for the women’s game.  Female sport was enjoying a significant renaissance in 2019 and the pandemic risks undermining years of progress.  Those who have seen crowds of 70,000 at women’s football, the sold arenas for the Netball world cup and the crowd of over 86,000 for the Women’s Cricket World Cup final need to remember that women’s sport is worth developing.  If we keep up the investment, it will pay dividends in the long run.

Commentary by Lydia Banerjee

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