By Penny M. Venetis
"Women's soccer isn't as fun to watch as men's soccer." "Women don't play as well as men." "There just isn't as big an audience for women's sports." These are some automatic responses to allegations of gender discrimination in women's soccer. But these justifications are factually inaccurate. Rather, FIFA and soccer confederations take deliberate active measures to ensure that women athletes don't receive the same number of fans, equal glory or fat paychecks as their male counterparts. It is not the lack of fans or interest in women's soccer that depresses women's salaries to below the poverty level. (U.S. club teams pay women between $6,000 and $30,000 annually, with most players on the lower end of the scale. Men playing on U.S. club teams can earn up to $7.1 million, and the average salary is $207,831.
FIFA and soccer federations around the world spend millions to ensure maximum viewership for the Men's World Cup, while taking deliberate steps to minimize viewership of women's games. The 2014 Men's World Cup in Brazil overlapped with almost no other FIFA confederation matches -- male or female. On the other hand, the Copa America 2015, a major men's international soccer competition in South America (featuring powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina) overlaps almost entirely with the Women's World Cup. The Women's World Cup started on June 6 and will be ending July 5; Copa America began June 11 and ends July 4. Broadcast coverage for games in both overlaps a total of 10 times! This scheduling overlap, endorsed a year in advance by FIFA, guarantees lower viewership for the Women's World Cup than for men's soccer generally.
FIFA and national soccer federations have promoted men's soccer for decades, while ignoring the women's game. The first Men's World Cup was in 1930; the first Women's World Cup was more than sixty years later in 1991. Women's soccer was banned in West Germany until 1970 and in Brazil until 1979 . The first professional women's league in the U.S. wasn't established until 2001.
Women's soccer hasn't always lagged behind men's soccer. In the early 1900s, women's soccer was so popular in England that the men's teams were losing viewership. In response, in 1921 the English Football Association banned women teams from playing on their fields. Because they had no place to play, women's soccer teams essentially disappeared. The English Football Association lifted its ban on women's teams only in 1971.
Despite FIFA's and soccer federations' inadequate support for the Women's World Cup, viewership for women's soccer is on the rise. More than twice as many people are expected to attend the 52 2015 Women's World Cup matches as compared to the 32 2011 Women's World Cup matches, and viewership for the first eight games has risen 73 percent since the 2011 tournament. These numbers show that support for women's soccer is increasing at a pace far greater than that of the men's games (which saw only a 46 percent increase in viewership for the group stage games between the 2010 and 2014 Men's World Cup tournaments). Yet, despite increases in viewership, research demonstrates that female athletics are covered less in the media now than they were in 1989, declining from 5 percent of airtime to 3.2 percent.
FIFA and soccer federations aren't the only corporations that bestow third class status on women athletes. Apple and Google, the two leaders of the information industry, don't have any information available or answers to searches about the Women's World Cup -- an international tournament of the most popular sport in the world -- even while it is being played. While Apple's omniscient Siri can find you the best hotdog in Cleveland in under five seconds, ask her when the next Women's World Cup game is and she says she can't get any information on Women's World Cup. Google can give you a street view of a home in Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland (population 291) in four seconds, but ask Google who won the 2011 World Cup (the answer is the Japanese women's team) and it gives information about the Men's 2011 Cricket World Cup champion. Notably, a year later, Google still provides abundant statistics and charts about the 2014 Men's World Cup. In response to a search of "women's world cup," Google does not provide its official "knowledge box" or graph -- usually containing statistics or upcoming game schedules. Of course, Google does this automatically for "New York Yankees" or "NHL."
By not adequately promoting, supporting, or even acknowledging women's soccer, FIFA, national soccer federations, and other corporations institutionalize the marginalization of women's sports and female athletes. It's high time for this blatant gender discrimination to end. We need a level playing field, now.
Penny M Venetis is the executive vice president and legal director of Legal Momentum, the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. She leads impact litigation, policy and other advocacy efforts to protect women's rights. Venetis is on the faculty of Rutgers School of Law-Newark and has written widely on human rights law.