No game for ideal women

The last time Barcelona and Manchester United met in the Champions League final, in 2009, 109m viewers worldwide watched on television. That was the biggest sports audience of the year, even bigger than the Super Bowl. The game between the two teams at Wembley on Saturday will probably draw even more.

The calculations are by Kevin Alavy, director of the Futures Sport + Entertainment consultancy, which tracks international viewing figures. But when I asked Alavy how the fast-growing women’s game compares – the women’s World Cup kicks off in Germany on June 26 – he shrugged. “None of our clients ever asks about women’s football because it’s so marginal.” In fact, hardly any women’s matches even make it on to mainstream channels.

It’s usual at this point in the account to become boosterish: “People don’t watch women’s football, but they jolly well should.” However, there’s a different question that occurs: why exactly do people watch men’s football but not women’s?

Only shockingly recently have most women even been allowed to play football. England’s Football Association, for instance, banned its clubs from hosting women’s matches until 1971. Female footballers were exiled to muddy park pitches, and jeered at as lesbians.

From the late 1960s, with feminism, women’s football revived. By 2006 the global football authority Fifa reckoned the world had 26m female players, up from about zero four decades before. “The future of football is feminine,” chortled Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter. Nowadays hardly anyone wants to keep football male except two former commentators on Britain’s Sky TV (recently caught grumbling into open microphones that women did not know the offside rule) and some Iranian mullahs. The rest of us are delighted that women now play.

Yet hardly any of us want to watch them do it. Last month, unnoticed by millions, England’s professional Women’s Super League was launched. Average attendances are around 600. Only when national pride is at stake do stadiums fill: many matches at this summer’s World Cup sold out weeks ago.

Otherwise, the sports media largely ignore women’s sport. In fact, attention for women’s sport has fallen sharply in the past 20 years, calculates the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. In 2009 women’s sports received 1.6 per cent of total airtime for American sports.

People care about male footballers because they are society’s agreed versions of the ideal man. Female footballers, by contrast, aren’t widely seen as ideal women. We boys grew up with posters of footballers on our bedroom walls. They were the men we wanted to become. We revere footballers as the bearers of ideal male qualities: athletic mastery, hard work, team ethic, and, of course, girl appeal. Even when footballers err, and get castigated by the media, they help us wrestle with the dilemmas of being a man. Is he showing disloyalty by leaving the club? Is his ponytail too girly? Should he have headbutted him? And just as players are the ideal young men, the managers – grizzled strategists – are the ideal middle-aged men.

Women, of course, are interested in ideal men too. That helps explain why few top-class footballers have trouble finding a girlfriend. True, men and women who prioritise education tend to deride footballers. But judging by the social status of footballers, that’s a minority position.

Yet while men are reading the sports pages, many women are buying glossy magazines. Just as the sports pages present society’s accepted ideal men, the glossies present society’s accepted ideal women. And the ideal women on these pages are almost never athletes, but singers, models, actresses and Kate Middleton. Here are some recent headlines from People magazine’s website: “Demi Lovato Reveals her Bikini Body”; “Jennifer Aniston’s Dog Norman Dies”; “Real Housewives of NJ’s Teresa Giudice ‘Blacked Out’ at Christening Brawl.”

Even when these ideal women err, and are castigated in the media, they help female readers wrestle with the dilemmas of being a woman. Should she have divorced him? Should she have a baby at her age? Should she wear that bikini?

Only when female footballers become traditional versions of “ideal women” – or trample on that ideal – does anyone notice them. That’s why the most famous image of women’s soccer is Brandi Chastain taking off her shirt after converting the US’s winning penalty in the World Cup final of 1999. From a boring female soccer player, Chastain had upgraded herself to traditional sexy chick.

In 2009 another American woman went the opposite way: she entered the zone from which society still bars women. Pony-tailed Elizabeth Lambert of the University of New Mexico kicked opponents, punched one in the face, and floored another by tugging her ponytail. The video I watched on YouTube had 2.7m hits. Women can now play soccer, but they must still respect the taboo on female violence.

If football is the gauge, most of us remain a lot more traditional than we’d like to believe.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.