Sunderland as a club has a long and proud history in the FA Cup. Twice winners, in 1937 and 1973, and twice runners up, in 1913 and 1992, of the men’s competition, and once runners up in the women’s competition, in 2009.
It’s a competition we all love as supporters, and until recently at least, the romance and potential of a half-decent cup run would brighten even the darkest January.
For kids everywhere, the FA Cup provides that opportunity to see your side play against the big boys and girls, whether it's Coventry United playing at Arsenal Women at Borehamwood this coming Friday evening, or Borehamwood’s men facing Everton at Goodison earlier this month. These are the ties that still make it a wonderful competition.
However, in monetary terms, for Sunderland AFC, it’s hardly worth taking part and probably costs us money. This season we missed out on the £22,000 Mansfield won for beating the Lads in the First Round Proper in November (there is currently no money for losing teams in of the men’s FA Cup between the qualifying rounds and the Semi-Finals) and the £2,000 Birmingham got for their extra-time victory over the Lasses in the Fourth Round in January.
We kept 45% of the gate money for the game at the Stadium of Light but we didn’t even get a share of the receipts for the game at St. Andrews, although we did at least receive a cheque for £500 for taking part - which might have covered part of the coach hire!
On Monday, the Football Association announced that it would be increasing the total prize fund for the Vitality Women’s FA Cup to over £3 million next season, with the welcome additional commitment that a disproportional amount of this increase would go to the early rounds of the competition. This is a huge step forward but is only the first step along a road to equality.
And then yesterday, the little Sussex club at the vanguard of the movement for equality in English football, Lewes FC, published fully costed plans to make the slogan of an Equal FA Cup a reality and “reboot the FA Cup for All”.
This proposal shows how 95% of men’s and women’s clubs - including both Sunderland’s men’s and women’s teams - could directly benefit from a radical redistribution of the combined FA Prize pot in years to come. I want to explore the reasons why this is such a powerful and progressive idea, and what the implications would be for football in our region.
The social purpose of the FA
The 22 clubs of the Premier League, plus those in receipt of parachute payments, currently have a combined income of over £4 billion a season. These are the clubs that bring in the TV audiences and the sponsors to English football, and in a purely private commercial enterprise like the Premier League - owned by its member clubs and operated exclusively in their benefit as a profit-making enterprise, this is all well and good. That is an arena in which the logic of the market ultimately prevails.
The Football Association and the main competition it runs in both men’s and women’s football - the FA Cup - is meant to be different. It’s a competition, we are brought up believing, in which the smallest minnows have at least the theoretical chance of taking home the trophy at Wembley each May. This season, both finals will be played at Wembley on the same weekend.
The FA is meant to promote equality and distribute the money it receives throughout the English game, with a focus specifically on developing and promoting grassroots and women’s football. That is its purpose - that is literally what the revenue created by the interest in the world’s oldest and most famous cup competition is for.
The game’s governing body is not meant to be a commercial operation. As such, it rightly pays the England women’s and men’s players equally, recognising that what they do is of equal value despite the current differences in sponsorship, crowds, and TV viewing numbers in international football.
The men’s FA Cup’s total prize pot is currently over £16 million, with over 45% of that reserved for the eight clubs that make it to quarter-finals and beyond, i.e. Premier League teams.
These are teams that do not, by any stretch of the imagination, need the money. The winner takes home £1.8 million, or about four months’ salary for one of their average squad members. I doubt anyone at Chelsea even noticed that Youri Tielemans’ goal for Leicester had cost them £900,000 as well as another trophy in their cabinet.
The total Women’s FA Cup prize pot is currently the same as the total prize pot for the First Round of the men’s competition; when Emma Hayes’ Chelsea side won at Wembley in December 2021, they received a cheque worth £25,000.
This situation has been widely recognised as utterly unfair and unattainable, and it is why the #EqualFACup protest, organised by the Women’s Football Fan Collective, was started. Yes, my fellow fans from clubs across the country and I have made some noise - online and offline - because that’s what protest groups do (until we’re banned from doing so under the Tories’ new Crime and Policing Bill, that is).
We have provoked some extreme reactions amongst the various men who like to police the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable within English football and others who spend their lives obsessing about what other people say and do.
The tactics we chose to get people sitting up and taking notice may not be to everyone’s liking, but the campaign has forced the FA's hand. From the Sun to the BBC, TalkSport to the Price of Football, the Guardian to the Telegraph, this issue is now covered by every sports media outlet.
The FA’s plan to increase total prize money to over £3 million is a direct result of this pressure, which has also involved the Football Supporters Association’s Equal Prize Money sub-committee and is all built upon Lewis’s original FA Cup For All campaign during the coronavirus in 2020. But the campaign doesn’t stop here.
We can today announce a new landmark investment into the Vitality Women’s FA Cup that will see the competition’s prize fund receive a significant uplift to £3m per year.— Vitality Women's FA Cup (@VitalityWFACup) March 14, 2022
Everyone benefits from a truly equal FA Cup
You may be surprised to learn that the latest detailed proposals now on the table - formulated by the people at Lewes FC - could have tangible benefits for a club like Sunderland AFC, and many of the local men’s non-league clubs that many Sunderland fans follow alongside the Lads.
Those who are willing to listen to what we really mean when we shout “No ifs, no buts, we want an Equal FA Cup” can have it spelled out on the famous Liverpool FC podcast The Anfield Wrap (skip to 34:15 or click the Spotify icon to play in the app), below, where Lewes’ elected director Charlie Dobres sets out the moral and financial case for full equality perfectly.
Lewes are unique, they pay their seventh-tier men’s side the same as their second-tier women’s team and provide equal resources and attention to both teams across the board. That their board has spent months working out these plans is a testament to the power of supporter-owned and run football clubs to make a real chance in our game, in their communities, and in society at large.
Their new FA Cup for All proposals are based on four principles:
- Equality (or indeed equity) between men’s and women’s teams in the FA Cup
- Distributing prize funds to where they are most needed
- Creating a transparent and public mechanism for how prize funds are allocated
- None of this requiring additional spend from the FA.
Two options for how to move forward are set out; one based on simple equality, Equal Prizes Per Fixture (PPF) in both competitions - and another based on equity, a 50/50 split of the total FA Cup prize fund between the men’s and women’s FA Cups.
The total prize money - raised from the sponsors (private health insurance company Vitality and UEA state airline Emirates) and the TV companies worldwide - would be reallocated away from the quarter, semi, and final stages of the men’s FA Cup and towards the early rounds of both competitions.
Lewes have opened a public poll to gauge football fans’ opinions of which of these options they would prefer to see and provided a spreadsheet that anyone can use and adapt to calculate different permutations for their respective clubs.
Under both models a club like Sunderland, which entered and exited this season’s men’s competition at the first round stage, and the women’s competition which we entered at the third round stage and lost in the fourth round, would have seen a small overall increase in revenue of between £51,903 (PPF) and £62,341 (50/50) due entirely to the Lasses win over Brighouse in January.
If the Lads and Lasses each win a couple of games in each FA Cup next season (assuming we’re still in the same divisions), we could earn an additional £89,817 under PPF and £113,332 under 50/50.
If the Lads do get promotion to the Championship and win a couple of games in the FA Cup, entering the Cup at the third round and exiting at the Fifth Round, this would mean the club would bring in £5,615 less under PPF, but still gain £21,271 under a pure 50:50 split as under this model a win in the Women’s Fourth round would bring in over £50,000.
Indeed, these cost-neutral proposals have a positive on almost every football club up and down England across both the men’s and women’s pyramids - Gateshead, Hartlepool United, Blyth Spartans, Crook Town, South Shields, Chester-le-Street, Darlington, Hebburn, Seaham Red Star, Sunderland RCA, Ryhope CW - they will all gain if the FA adopts these proposals alongside Sunderland West End and Durham WFC.
Let’s take Sunderland RCA, for example. A modest run of two wins in early rounds of the FA Cup next season for the Ryhope-based club would, under Lewes’ proposals, see them gain either an 86% (PPF) to £6,163 or 90% (50/50) to £6,319 increase in prize money as compared to the current arrangements.
At that level, for a club like RCA, an additional £3,000 is a big deal. Multiply that up across the dozens of teams that come into the cup at the Preliminary and Qualifying stages, and you start to see how this will have a big impact on grassroots men’s football in our region.
But a similar scenario for Sunderland West End women’s team would be truly transformative. Two FA Cup wins now would bring in £1,265 - hardly enough to pay their expenses, two wins under PPF would provide an additional £21,211 and £19,948 under 50/50. That’s enough for them to do a whole lot of good in our community and help to develop the grassroots of the game.
And another thing is absolutely certain - the remaining 5% of clubs who would lose out under either model - i.e. the Premier League’s elite - will not miss the money, and they’ll still almost certainly walk away with the trophy in both competitions.
It’s not just about the money
Alongside such a sustained and substantial investment and redistribution, what the “product” of women’s football needs is to grow its exposure to its potential audience.
The #EqualFACup campaign, therefore, takes in more than just prize money, urging local and national broadcasters to play their part, along with the clubs themselves, in building crowds and viewing figures through clever marketing and quality coverage.
There is no reason why the BBC’s cameras and local commentary teams cannot be at every FA Cup game in both competitions, and why both highlights shows and live televised draws cannot be shown for every stage of both competitions.
Once again, I reiterate, there’s a reason why this campaign is looking for parity between the FA Cups (covered by free-to-air terrestrial TV) and not the Premier League and WSL (which are mainly on pay-TV).
The Beeb is a public service broadcaster that is meant to look beyond viewing figures and towards social impact when allocating their budgets. Like the FA, it has a responsibility to promote equality, and should not be driven by purely commercial imperatives.
As Sunderland have proven over the last couple of weeks, the more people know about the women’s teams in their areas, the more they can buy into their stories, the more people will come and watch both on TV and in person.
Regaining the ground lost over the last century is not going to happen overnight, but it is something we can work on for the benefit of everyone who plays and watches football in England.
But whether or not you care about women’s football, if you only care for the financial health and viability of EFL and non-league men’s teams, I hope you can see that this proposal is a good thing. No ifs, no buts... this is something that you can get behind.
The next step in the #EqualFACup campaign means a better deal for men’s and women’s teams and a reinvigoration of the grand old competition. It will do a little something to bring the romance back to the Cup at a time when the cynical, a-moral big money of the Premier League is under scrutiny once again.
Find out more about the historical injustice of the FA’s 50-year ban on Women’s Football with this 20 minute chat between Lewes FC striker Ini Umotong and director Charlie Dobres.