Against the backdrop of the Women’s World Cup, the Sport & Physical Activity Centre (SPARC) hosted the Women’s World Cup (WWC) Forum on July 17th.
Featuring presentations from Dr Beth Fielding-Lloyd (Sheffield Hallam University), Anika Leslie-Walker (Nottingham Trent University) and Dr Rafaelle Nicholson (Faculty of Media & Communication, BU), the forum set out to explore the contemporary nature of women’s football and how academic work aligns to the apparent pace of growth. Attendees were invited back the following day and spent a productive day unpacking issues raised at the Forum and explored potential areas for further academic exploration.
One week prior to the event, former England International Karen Carney, authored an Independent Report for DCMS, titled Raising the Bar: Re-Framing the Opportunity in Women’s Football. The report offers a comprehensive review of the growth opportunities for the game at professional and grassroots level, but also highlights the significant challenges facing the game. The report, and indeed the SPARC Forum, invited us to look behind the mask of the landmark event and how narratives of ‘progress’ at such landmark events (attendances, media interest, coverage, taglines: the WWC for example is branded ‘Beyond Greatness’) can present a false picture of progress, highlight myths of women’s empowerment and indeed mask new/existing expressions of power.
In particular, discussion at the Forum focussed on developing a sustainable and inclusive fan base for the game (beyond landmark fixtures, average Women’s Super League (WSL) attendance stands at 2,800), funding and diversity issues within the talent pathway, safe fan experience/spaces (marked by religion, gender and race), gender pay disparities, the lessons of prior mergers and governance structures, and broadcasting rights (the UK’s domestic broadcasters offered just 8% of that which they paid for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar) and media representations (that oft tended to reinforce, as opposed to challenge, dominant gender power relations). Indeed, and even as the Forum was in full-swing, the Australian team (The Matildas) broadcast a video highlighting pay disparities, the England team expressed their disappointment over a lack of agreement over their bonuses, figures from the Carney report suggested that 71% of attendees at WSL games reported their experience was ‘short of expectation’, and highlighted that there exists a significant lack of understanding of minority ethnic fans.
As the women’s game grows and transitions from a Football Association-owned entity to a new independently owned management structure (currently named New Co.) this is indeed an exciting time for women’s football. However, the Forum & workshop reinforced the need to peek behind the shiny spectacle of the World Cup and address some of the challenges that continue to be faced in the development of a sustainable, equitable and inclusive ‘product’. After two long, yet productive, days participants left with a compelling commitment to engage with key stakeholders and undertake a programme of work that aims to address inequalities in the game and influence policy, practice and strategy.