Why this matters
Beginning with the English Football Association banning women from playing soccer in 1920, women's soccer has been systematically underfunded and prevented from growing. As successful women's soccer leagues sprout up around the world today, it's time for FIFA and other governing bodies to pay back the damages inflicted on the women's game throughout history.
The first recorded instance of women playing soccer on the American continent is from 1609, when Henry Spelman, a settler in Jamestown, described a native American game thus:
They vfe betide football play, wch wemen and young boyes doe much play at, The men neuer. They make ther Gooles as ours only they neuer fight nor pull one another doune. The men play wt a litel balle lettinge it fall out of ther hand and striketh it wt the tope of his foot, and he that can strike the ball furthest winns that they play for.
This is one example of what historians usually call “folk football,” where people kick a ball toward some kind of goal, in some kind of organized play, about which we know very little. “Modern” soccer is based on the fixed rules laid down by the Football Association (FA), founded in London in 1863. They were all men, and in Victorian times, women were not encouraged to participate. But they did.
In the 1890s, Nettie Honeyball (probably a pseudonym) formed the British Ladies Football Club and played a match against an XI organized by Mrs. Graham (definitely a pseudonym), attended by 12,000 spectators. Although the medical profession approved of light exercise for women, soccer was beyond the pale. One letter to the British Medical Journal in 1894 warned of the risk of “serious internal displacements. … Nor can one overlook the chances of injury to the breasts.” Opinions like this were common and no doubt enabled the men who ran the FA to dissociate themselves from the women’s game.
But during World War I, female soccer in Britain launched a serious challenge. It was a time of women’s liberation: British women were being drafted into factories to replace the men away at war. Women started to organize their own sporting activities around the workplace and set up charity contests to raise money for soldiers. Soccer officials could scarcely object. At the Dick, Kerr & Co. Munitions and Engineering Works factory in Preston, northern England, some female workers began joining the men in their kickarounds at lunch and teatime. Soon, women workers founded their own team. The Dick, Kerr Ladies would become perhaps the most celebrated female teams ever, considering their popularity despite the obstacles placed in their way.
It continued playing after the war, supplying most of the England XI for the first international women’s match against France in 1920. After a much-publicized tour of France, the Dick, Kerr women played at Everton’s Goodison Park on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and drew a crowd of 53,000 – more than almost any men’s professional club. That game poses the great “what if?” of women’s soccer. What if female players were allowed to prosper? Where would we be now?
The patriarchs of the Football League didn’t let it happen. Stung by the popularity of women’s soccer, they lobbied to ban it. The FA obliged in December 1921:
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged. … For these reasons the Council request the clubs belonging to the Association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”
As the war ended, women were sent back to the kitchen.
British women couldn’t easily fight back. They won the right to vote in 1918, but even then, women under 30 remained disenfranchised. Laws against gender discrimination didn’t exist. No doubt there were also enormous social pressures limiting women’s ability to protest, but the history of the women’s movement has often been about first using the law to expand women’s rights and only then changing social norms.
The Dick, Kerr players were among the few British women undeterred by the FA’s ban. They toured the United States, where they defeated several men’s teams, and the club survived as Preston Ladies FC until 1965. Lily Parr, perhaps the team’s greatest player, played until 1951 and is celebrated now as a pioneer of the women’s game.
But with the men of the FA controlling almost all English soccer fields, the women’s game was exiled to obscure, muddy park pitches and almost died out. Most football associations around the world followed the English lead. In Canada in 1922, Norway in 1931, Germany in 1955, and Denmark in 1963, men refused to have anything to do with female soccer. Women who defied bans were shamed. Pre-war players in Frankfurt were jeered as “Mannsweiber” (roughly, “Male women”), says historian Mareike König, who calls the history of women’s soccer one of prohibition and resistance.
The ban on women’s soccer lasted for half a century. It is now almost forgotten, but it hampers women’s soccer to this day. What is needed now are reparations: a large-scale program of investment in the women’s game, paid from the revenues of the men’s game, to redress at least some of the damage.
Women’s soccer has made great strides since the ban was lifted, but the game is still beset with problems. Poor media coverage, employment discrimination, and systematic physical and sexual abuse are all symptoms of the inequalities that persist. Almost all the problems in women’s soccer stem from a lack of money. At the most fundamental level, rich athletes are less likely to be abused than poor ones. In our predominantly capitalist world, money is the currency of respect.
And money is the point at which male sympathizers often balk: Women’s soccer, they argue, fails to generate enough revenues because most people are more interested in the men’s game. If only the women’s game could draw more fans, they argue, it would overcome the financial hurdles and gain the respect it deserves. Some people go further: They say that the men’s game is more appealing because men are stronger and run faster than women. Hence, regrettably, the women’s game is doomed to inferiority. This thinking blames women’s soccer itself for its underfunding. The notion is that every tub must stand on its own bottom and that women’s soccer simply lacks appeal.
You hear this argument in relation to almost all of women’s sport. The problem with this approach is that it is ahistorical. It privileges introspective logic over an examination of what actually happened. (Bad economists make this mistake all the time.) But the facts speak clearly. We know that women’s soccer was banned precisely at the moment when it posed an economic threat to the men’s game. And we also know that when women’s sports aren’t banned, they can generate roughly equal interest among fans.
The case in point is tennis. To be sure, female players like Billie Jean King had to fight for financial equality back in the 1970s, but thanks to them, this is less of an issue today. All four Grand Slam tournaments in tennis pay men and women champions equally, though women are paid roughly 80 cents on the dollar compared with men for smaller tournaments, according to a New York Times study. It’s true that male players can on average hit the ball harder, but there’s a lot more to sport than that.
If soccer associations tried to ban the women’s game today, the response would be rather different from 1921. It’s not just that attitudes have changed toward women’s soccer, but also that the legal weapons available to women have been sharpened. The law in the U.S. and other countries is much tougher now against restraints of trade. It would be straightforwardly illegal – a violation of antitrust laws - to ban women from playing.
Any association that tried to impose such a ban, and lost, would find itself on the hook for a big sum of money. In the U.S., each side in the case would assess the economic damages arising from the ban – chiefly lost earnings potential, as well as any knock-on effects. The judge would then decide which side’s estimate was most reasonable.
Then, under U.S. law, the penalty for an antitrust violation is levied at three times the value of the damages – the idea being to create big disincentives to violate the law in the first place. It’s not possible to bring a retrospective antitrust case against a ban implemented 100 years ago, that lasted for 50 years, and whose consequences still undermine women’s soccer today. But it is possible to hazard a guess at the size of the potential damages. Is there any reason to think that women’s soccer, poised as it was in 1920 to become a popular source of entertainment in England, the home of soccer, would not have grown and spread around the world? This is not about some potential market that had not yet been tapped, but a market that had already been tested and was demonstrating real demand by regularly selling tens of thousands of match tickets. These revenues would surely have grown over time, as did revenues from men’s soccer.
How big would women’s professional soccer have become by now without those bans? Tennis is a natural benchmark, since there have been no bans, and women have organized themselves to manage their own competitions and revenues. Beyond the prestigious Grand Slam tournaments, there is an international circuit of professional competition managed by an organization for men’s tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and one for women’s tennis, the Women’s Tennis Association. In 2019, the ATP reported revenues of $159 million, and the WTA $109 million. That sum equaled 69% of the ATP’s income, or 41% of all tennis circuit revenues.
According to Deloitte, European soccer generated around $30 billion in 2019, almost entirely from men’s professional soccer. It’s not that women’s soccer would have necessarily generated additional revenues, but that it would have shared the soccer market with the men. Let’s say the women would have generated 41% of European soccer revenues in 2019 had it not been for the 50-year ban. That would amount to around $12 billion. If this is a rough estimate of the damage done to women’s soccer, then an antitrust court would treble these damages to $36 billion. And that relates just to a single year, while the economic harm has persisted for decades.
The ban on women’s soccer was so long ago, so little remembered, and reverberated for so long that it is hard to imagine the extent of so much suppressed potential. Soccer organizations today advertise everything they do to promote the women’s game, but they fail to acknowledge the harm they did. Men’s soccer will never make good on these harms in full, but by at least recognizing them we can think more honestly about policies to address them.
FIFA could start. It claimed in its 2019 report that “women’s football development is one of FIFA’s top priorities,” yet the $9 million spent directly on women’s soccer that year represented less than 2% of the total allocated to “development and education.”
The women are not to blame. It’s the soccer authorities who banned their game and then ignored systematic abuse. It’s time for reparations to build up women’s soccer to where it always should have been.
Szymanski is the Stephen J. Galetti Professor of Sport Management at the University of Michigan. His writing on sports economics has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times and Financial Times. This article is based on a chapter from the fifth edition of Soccernomics, by Szymanski and Simon Kuper.
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