Many top female players earn in one year what their male counterparts earn in one week, data suggests. But things are starting to change for the better.
On 31 July, the Lionesses sparked euphoria across England as they won the Euro 2022 championships. The women’s squad brought home England’s first major football trophy for over 50 years, after an extra-time goal against historic rivals Germany closed an exciting final match.
On that sunny Sunday evening, there were jokes across social media about how the Lionesses had pulled off a feat that had long eluded their male counterparts. But now, as that initial euphoria settles, could this victory help address longstanding inequalities between female and male players, such as the football’s big gender pay gap?
The UK’s median gender pay gap was 9.8% in 2021/22, meaning that women were paid around 90p for every £1 earned by a man, according to analysis by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development*. But, when it comes to England’s top-tier football leagues, the gap is more of a chasm – the available data suggests that many female players earn less per year than their male counterparts earn per week.
A Women’s Super League player earns £47,000 a year on average, according to a BBC analysis this month, based on figures from seven of the league’s 12 teams. In the men’s English Premier League, the highest-paying league in the world, players earn £60,000 a week on average, according to a 2019 study.
“The [women] players need to be earning more,” says Nicole Allison, a football consultant and owner of Worcester City’s women’s team. “It’s a short career, you might potentially retire between 30 and 35, and then what comes next?…Male players are well set up because of the amount that they’ve earned.”
Allison adds that salaries vary hugely across teams – many players in the Women’s Super League will only be earning £25-30,000, and salaries will drop to around £20,000 in the lower leagues. Some players might also have to retire early if they have a serious injury.
It is hard to find comprehensive data on football players’ salaries, and average figures are skewed by the enormous sums commanded by globally famous male players such as Cristiano Ronaldo. But it is still clear that lionesses earn far less than lions.
In England, today’s inequalities between men’s and women’s football can be traced back to events that happened 100 years ago. The Football Association (FA) banned women’s football for 50 years from 1921-71, despite its popularity with players and spectators, and the women’s game has thus had to recover from a setback that the men’s game never faced.
The first national women’s league, which later evolved into the Women’s Super League, finally started in the 1990s. By contrast, the Premier League and its predecessor have been around for over 130 years collectively.
“The reason why there isn’t enough money coming into women’s football at the moment is that…we were banned, we were purposefully stopped in the growth of the game, and it’s only over the last ten years that there’s been any focus and external investment coming into the game.” explains Allison.
The last decade has indeed seen a steady rise in the money going into women’s football, along with some rebalancing of gender pay gaps. Sky Sports and the BBC struck an £8m broadcast deal for the 2021/22 Women’s Super League season – it was the first time that a broadcaster had paid a fee to show the league’s games. Countries including England, Australia and the USA now pay male and female players the same match fees to play on their national teams.
This steady growth culminated in the Lionesses’ electrifying performance this summer. “The Euros hasn’t just been an overnight success, this is something that the FA and clubs have been building towards for 10+ years,” Allison says. “And now we need to use it as a catalyst for more.”
Across the women’s football industry, there is hope that the current public excitement and momentum will carry through into the domestic season this autumn. Allison hopes that sponsorship deals around both the Women’s Super League and the lower leagues will grow, and that the Women’s Super League in particular will make the most of its commercial opportunities. As more money comes into the game, this will in turn push up salaries.
But Allison is clear that women’s football needs to find its own version of success and not simply copy the Premier League. “I would argue that there’s too much money in the Premier League. It’s a bit disenfranchising for fans, it’s costing £150 for a ticket, and we never want it to get to a point where it’s not accessible for people,” she says.
“Women’s football has to go its own way.”
*Gender pay gap data includes figures for median hourly pay and mean hourly pay. Median hourly pay takes all workers’ pay into account and reports the number in the middle of that range – the median gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s median hourly pay. Mean hourly pay is the average hourly pay – the mean gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s mean hourly pay.