On Sunday, when I take my son to watch Sunderland play in the FA Cup Fourth Round against Birmingham City at St Andrew’s, I’ll be taking a stand along with football supporters at games up and down the country and raising my voice for equality in our beautiful game. When the game reaches 51 minutes, and then again on 71 minutes, I’ll be chanting “No ifs, No buts, we want an Equal FA Cup”.
This is why.
Getting on for 13 years ago, Sunderland reached an FA Cup Final for only the fifth time in our club’s long and illustrious history. We were beaten 2-1 by a phenomenal Arsenal team that included Kim Little and Niamh Fahey, Jayne Ludlow, and Katie Chapman. I remember watching it on the TV, seeing how our girls battled hard until the final whistle, grabbing a consolation goal in injury time, and being so proud that our club had built a side under Mick Mulhern that could compete at the top of the game.
But the Sunderland side that included former FIFA World Footballer of the Year, Lucy Bronze, and her fellow current England internationals Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Staniforth, and Demi Stokes, is hardly ever mentioned outside the minority of Sunderland supporters who follow the Lasses closely. There’s no mural on the wall at Eppleton CW to commemorate the achievement of reaching the biggest game in the women’s football season for the first time.
As a fanbase, and as a club, Sunderland reflects the majority of the football world and wider society; women’s football is not really valued. Its history is not remembered. Its stories are not told to boys and girls as they grow up. The injustices of the past 101 years are swept under the carpet - the men’s game’s dirty little sexist secret that is best forgotten, lest the women start demanding the wrongs are put right and the equality they deserve.
But that is changing, and we men better start facing up to the fact that we don’t have a monopoly on this sport and, indeed, we never have had. It is her game too, it always has been her game too, we just put it in a box and lost the key for half a century, then, when it was finally released, we ignored it for half a century more.
The UK government has in the last 24 hours announced that the Women’s World Cup and Euros are likely to be added to the list of sporting events that must be shown on free-to-air TV but has kicked the overall review of Women’s Football recommended last year’s groundbreaking the Crouch Report down the road. More action is needed by fan activists to keep moving the agenda forward.
And I am proud that I and a number of other Sunderland supporters, along with our colleagues from fan media and fan groups across the women’s game, are part of the Women’s Football Fan Collective, a movement that is demanding that our game’s governing body - the Football Association - puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to equality in our game.
The FA is a not-for-profit entity with a social purpose - it is not a business (or collection of businesses) like the Premier League or the EFL. It is there to distribute resources where they’re needed in the game, it’s not there to act as an ordinary business subject to market forces. Its remit is explicitly to develop the whole of English football with a focus on the grassroots and women’s games.
There has undoubtedly been significant progress in recent times. The last World Cup was a watershed, this summer’s European Championships will take the game to the next level in terms of coverage and prestige. Expect many more articles praising the products of the Sunderland talent production line that’s still well represented in the ranks of the Lionesses on these pages and across the media when the tournament kicks off in early July.
Bronze, Stokes, Nobbs, and Staniforth - along with Beth Mead, Steph Houghton, and Jill Scott - all now earn the same pay from the FA as Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford as full England internationals.
Sunderland MP Julie Elliot announced in Parliament yesterday that the FA has also negotiated a new standard contract for professional women footballers with the PFA, which should increase their rights to things like paid maternity leave. But when it comes to its flagship competitions, the Men’s and Women’s FA Challenge Cups, the situation couldn’t be less equal.
The inequalities inherent in our game are probably best exemplified in the prize money available for teams taking part in the FA Cup. On Sunday, part-time Sunderland could earn £2,000 for an unlikely win against professional WSL opposition and will be compensated with £500 if they exit at this stage. In the men’s version of the cup, the winners of a fourth round match take home £90,000 - yes, that’s 45 times more!
Almost half of the prize money from the FA Cups currently goes to the quarter-finalists, semi-finalists, and finalists of the men’s competition - which almost exclusively means Premier League teams take home the lion’s share of £15.9 million on offer across both competitions. Only 1% of the prize pot - £300,000 - goes to women’s teams.
"Women’s football will never be financially viable as long as women footballers are not paid properly - & justly - for their work" @WFFCollective urge fans to chant in support of an #EqualFACup on the 51st & 71st minutes of this weekend's #WomensFACup ties. #ProtectWomensFootball pic.twitter.com/Bg6W8KyXyx— Asif Burhan (@AsifBurhan) January 25, 2022
Now, many people at this stage will say yes - but it’s the men’s teams that get the big crowds and the TV deals - we’re not talking about gate receipts and TV money here (although there is an issue whereby in women’s cup games the home side keeps the whole gate, whereas in the men’s competition it’s shared). But we are absolutely talking about the principle of the redistribution of money from men’s football to women’s football - because that is absolutely what needs to happen.
The FA can choose how it distributes the sponsorship money it receives as prize money. As previously mentioned, it’s not a business, it’s a not-for-profit organisation that can, does, and should redistribute resources to areas of the game that need investment and support in order to develop.
The options for how it could change things are clearly set out in a fantastic piece by Nancy Gillen on the Give Me Sport website and have been outlined by the directors of fan-owned Lewes FC, who beat Sunderland in the FA Women’s Championship last weekend.
The two models are a pure 50:50 split of the prize pot between the two FA Cups, which given there are fewer games in the women’s competition would amount to the repayment of revenues lost in the past when women were literally banned from playing on FA grounds, by the men of the FA.
Or alternatively, an equal payment per game played model, which would equalise things but keep the majority of the money in the men’s side of the game.
This move would revolutionise the game overall. It would provide vital finance to allow clubs to further professionalise, it would unlock investment from owners and sponsors that would improve the quality of the product, and it would gain attention and audience that would bring more people to watch in person and on TV.
Moreover, this simple change would breathe new life into the FA Cup as a brand, and could go hand in hand with more equal distribution of prize money inside the men’s FA Cup too, so teams lower down the men’s pyramid benefit too.
I’m part of the Women’s Football Fan Collective that is leading the Equal FA Cup chants on Sunday, and we’re having a Twitter Space about our campaign at 7pm this evening. We would love it if you could join us to find out more.
✊ No Ifs— Women's Football Fan Collective (@WFFCollective) January 24, 2022
✊ No Buts
✊ We Want an #EqualFACup
Fans of all #WSL, #FAWC & #FAWNL clubs unite!
Town hall meeting 7pm Thursday on #TwitterSpaces - get the campaign going - protest at @VitalityWFACup 4th Round games this weekend!
speakers + discussion ⚽️https://t.co/2c3BQWhmjz
Finally, if this idea annoys you - if it pricks your masculinity a little - and you’re tempted to say something flippant about free markets or Tescos and corner shops, try thinking about what you would want if your sister or daughter or niece was training just as hard as men (and often working a full-time job too), travelling the length and breadth of the country, giving their all for 90 minutes, and not getting equal rewards for their efforts. You simply wouldn’t tolerate it if they worked in any other industry.
So I urge you to read a little more, find out about the women’s game. Go down to watch Sunderland or Durham next time they play at home, or if you live nearby come along to St Andrew's on Sunday and cheer a team in red and white who give their all for our club for next to nothing. Please don’t sit there and dismiss women’s football - which was almost killed off in 1921 so that men could play on with no competition for audience or revenue - as not worth a relatively small sacrifice - the price of a journeyman striker from Burnley - on the part of the game overall.
But don’t doubt how seriously we in the Women’s Football Fan Collective take this issue. No ifs, no buts, we want an equal FA Cup.