Levelling the Playing Field

Ushering in a new era for female soccer players and fans

Anoushka Oke, Creative Director

The Euro 2022 final in July was still in a deadlock in the 90th minute, with England and Germany clinging on by a goal each. It remained as such until the second half of extra time, when Manchester City forward Chloe Kelly managed to slot the ball into the net in the 110th minute. Kelly’s goal proved to be the game-winner, handing England the title; it was the first trophy that either English soccer team had won in decades, allowing football to come home at last.

Though the win generated a fair amount of publicity and praise from other athletes and public figures, many fans cannot recognize Kelly’s name or face just a few months after. Why is the game-winner for the final of a major continental tournament being viewed with such little importance?

I was in fourth grade when I fell in love with watching professional soccer. As an avid soccer player and fan in a family that didn’t share the same obsession, I obsessed over the schedules of sports channels—back when cable was still a thing—in search of both men’s and women’s games. Later on, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil only got me more hooked. But as I interacted more and more with other soccer fans both in-person and on social media, I started to notice intense prejudice and a lack of respect towards the beautiful game’s women fans and stars.

In search of a soccer community at my elementary school, I tried to befriend a group of boys in my grade who frequently wore club jerseys and always scrimmaged at recess. Though I followed many of the same teams they did, I felt out of place in their male-dominated circle and sensed that my love for the sport wasn’t taken seriously––at least, not as seriously as theirs. They asked me to list players from different teams to prove that I was a real fan of the game; ironically, I doubt whether they could have named a single player from any of the women's teams I watched. Their conversations assumed the sport is essentially male. Eventually, hanging around them became tiring, and I withdrew. As I then lacked any sort of like-minded fan community, I watched professional soccer less and less frequently.

I noticed this kind of misogynistic sentiment—that nobody cares about women’s soccer, or that it’s not worth watching––persist throughout my years as a fan. This mindset reveals itself in the comment sections of popular soccer news sites and social media. When Bleacher Report Football tweeted about Alexia Putellas winning the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award, many of the comments dismissed the athletic skill of female soccer players, sexualized them, or discussed male soccer players instead. “Who?”, “I don’t care,” and “They celebrate women’s trophies now?”, various netizens wrote. Similar comments can be found under any post about female players, reinforcing the same message: People don’t and shouldn’t care about women’s soccer.

The perception that women's soccer brings in a smaller viewership than men's soccer is not only wrong, but has also influenced the pay gap between athletes of different genders. When women’s soccer is seen as less important, less marketable, and less worthwhile to pursue, people are much more comfortable with the fact that they are paid less. The United States Soccer Federation, for example, responded to a lawsuit filed against them by 28 members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team fighting for equal pay by claiming that the pay gap is based on differences in generated revenue.

Evidence of a booming fandom dedicated to women’s soccer completely debunks such justifications for sexism. As of 2019, the U.S. women’s national soccer team has been bringing in more revenue than the men’s team.

This March, 91,553 fans attended a women’s Champions League game between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou, breaking a 23-year-old record for women’s soccer attendance at an official match. It was the most highly attended match, men’s or women’s, played in Europe that season. In a similar fashion, general admission tickets for a friendly game between the American and English women’s teams this upcoming October sold out within 24 hours.

Shyna Fung, midfielder for the Concordia’s women’s soccer team, described the enthralling experience of watching a live women’s game in an interview with McGill Tribune.

“I’ve been to many women’s soccer games in my life, but my favourite game was when I went to France for a soccer tournament and watched the France national team play,” Fung said. “The atmosphere was crazy, the fans were cheering the whole game [....] You feel so many emotions.”

It’s clear that women’s teams have no trouble attracting people to their games and building a dedicated audience. Cynthia Cianciusi, who works in marketing for Montreal’s professional men’s soccer team C.F. Montreal, believes the real problem with women’s soccer is a lack of accessibility rather than a lack of interest.

“I was trying to watch a Canada game and I couldn’t find it anywhere on my TV. I was trying to stream it and it took me at least 10 minutes before I found a stream [....] It shouldn't be this complicated to watch a [women’s] soccer game,” Cianciusi said. “The reality is not that there isn’t much viewership, it’s that not enough [....] channels are showing the game, so naturally, your viewership is going to be lower as a result, but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested.”

Women’s soccer games do not receive the same amount of airtime that men’s soccer games do. A 2019 study of sports news in Los Angeles networks found that 95 per cent of total television coverage and highlight shows were devoted to men’s sports. Although the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League has become relatively easy to stream over the years, mainly on Paramount+ or Twitch, it's still extremely difficult for North American viewers to access sources to watch European women’s teams—where many of the top players play—without resorting to illegal streaming sites.

High ticket sales show that people are eager to watch women’s soccer when they have the opportunity to do so. When there isn’t easy access to women’s games on TV, however, it is difficult for fans’ interest to be piqued and sustained. After noticing a gap between men’s and women’s coverage, a public broadcasting service in Sweden, Swedish Television (SVT), committed to covering women’s sport at an equal level. They carefully measured the airtime of the content they put out to achieve that goal, and have reached a balance of 49.4 per cent airtime for women’s sports and 50.6 per cent airtime for men. With this equal representation, high levels of viewership to the channel have followed. Women’s sports are //not// bad for business.

The problem goes beyond just TV coverage for the games themselves: Female athletes, in general, are also severely underrepresented and misrepresented in sports media coverage, whether it be in print or online. Amy Walsh, a former soccer player who played for Canada at the World Cup and Olympics, believes this is a major barrier to growing audience interest in women’s sports.

“From the media standpoint, women are 40 per cent of professional athletes or high-level athletes, but they only get four per cent of media coverage,” Walsh said. “How do you promote equity there? And then when you do get media coverage, oftentimes for women, the focus is on how feminine or attractive they are, not their athleticism.”

On the social media accounts of soccer media sites, the gender disparity immediately stands out. On FOX Soccer’s Instagram account, a major U.S. TV channel, women’s soccer made up only 11 per cent of their posts—22 of the last 200. Even worse, on the Instagram of Goal.com, only one of their last 200 posts mentions women’s soccer. A single post celebrates Lauren James, a player for Chelsea F.C. Women, but not without defining her in relation to her professional soccer player brother, Reece James.

Another barrier to growing audience bases for women’s soccer is the inadequate coverage of regular season league games. Much of the present media coverage of women’s soccer focuses on major tournaments like the Women's World Cup, the Champions League, and the Euros. Such tournaments with trophies at stake are thrilling to watch, and can draw a surge of new fans as a result. The difficulty, however, is keeping those fans engaged after the tournament is over.

“You see an uptick in viewership and participation at big events like World Cups or Olympics, but that engagement and visibility drops off because you don’t get the streaming or the broadcast rights and it’s not on people’s TVs, so people forget about these women,” Walsh explained. “We have to make sure that that momentum gets spread out between these events.”

By diminishing the visibility of women’s sports, the gender gap in media coverage contributes to the larger resource inequities that girls and women face in their sports careers.

In Canada, there is a huge demographic to support—about 85,000 girls were registered to play the sport in 2021. Equitable representation stems not only from the decisions of media outlets; alongside the importance of building respect for women’s leagues, it is also crucial to create strong local pathways for women to reach the professional level. For instance, the accessibility of academies, specialized programs that offer intensive training to help skilled young athletes become professional level athletes, plays a large role in deciding who gets to achieve their dreams. Cianciusi witnesses the unequal patronage academies provide male athletes firsthand.

“When you’re a kid, I feel like there is always an investment in kids’ programs because everyone wants kids to play sports,” Cianciusi said. “I think when you reach the more professional levels it's a little different because men in general are put on a much bigger pedestal than women are.”

Institutional support has been growing in recent years, with more and more academies for girls being established—like the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite Academy that was founded in 2015 and helps prepare players to eventually compete for spots on the Canadian women’s national soccer team. Though Quebec currently lacks a strong semi-professional and professional soccer pathway for girls in the province, C.F. Montreal is planning to establish girls’ and women’s teams in their academy.

“It’s not just gonna be like ‘you’re going to play soccer until you’re 15 years old at your local club and then it ends there for you,’” Cianciusi said. “No, there’s going to be a natural progression of, ‘you’re going to play soccer and you’re going to try out for the academy, and if you make it into the academy, the academy is going to make sure that you’re the best that you can be and potentially get you to the professional leagues.’”

Walsh, who is working with C.F. Montreal to try and make this vision a reality, believes that a women’s academy will help fill the gap in Quebec women’s soccer.

“There’s just so much that we can mine in this province—the quality that exists and the talent in this province [when we give] girls equal access, equal funding, and equal opportunities to succeed and potentially launch them to the professional level,” Walsh said. “We’re just starting to build the infrastructure, but I think that if we can just get the grassroots started here in the province with a club like C.F. Montreal leading the way, it bodes well for the future of women’s soccer in this province.”

The creation of academies for women is a crucial first step to expanding representation for women's soccer. It's no surprise that there is a lack of female athletes in our media when the avenues for girls to reach their professional aspirations are cut off.

With stronger support for women’s teams and more media representation, women’s soccer will no longer be seen as second-class. This will establish a place for women and girls in a sport that currently reeks of toxic masculinity. Only when soccer is no longer viewed as a “man’s game” will women fans get any ounce of respect.

I was alienated from the soccer fan base by a misogynistic culture. Despite this, I found a way back to it, with my love for the game unhindered by the hostile attitudes I encountered then and that I still see on social media. Everybody deserves the opportunity to enjoy the sport they love; fan communities should be places where people come together to celebrate their teams, not exclusionary spaces that make certain people feel unwelcome.

Misogyny runs deep within the sports industry and the media, stunting the growth of communities invested in women athletes. For the future growth of women's sports and starved fandoms, both of these entities must dismantle their gender bias.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor