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The gender wage gap in football: Patriarchy and profit rule

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Lindokuhle Mandyoli is an Andrew Mellon PhD Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

Corporates throw money at the big football clubs not out of an undying love for the clubs or the sport, but for a fundamental and singular purpose: profit. That’s why we find ourselves baffled by Banyana Banyana not being paid in relation to how proud they make us as a nation, while Bafana Bafana are remunerated way beyond their performances.

In recent weeks, the South African football legend Portia Modise, with the support of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has raised the long-standing issue of wage disparity between the genders in the beautiful game. Elsewhere in the world, this question has been in sharp focus far longer, and the registered progress does shed a glimmer of hope.

Countries such as the US and UK are top of the list of those whose football associations are considering the official legislation of equal pay for women and men. While this has been a welcome resurgence in the South African debate on inequality, its historical roots have been taken for granted abroad and here at home.

Of course, the gender gap exists beyond the football world, or even the sport, arts and cultural fraternity – its roots are endemic to capitalist development all over the world. Yes, I have used development in the same sentence as something as revolting as unequal pay, because development and crisis are interchangeable in capitalist society. The wage gap in the corporate environment, public institutions and even non-profit spaces remains a problem, and the struggle waged by Portia Modise and others is an attack on but one manifestation of patriarchy in our society.

Football is arguably the world’s most popular sport. It draws massive crowds. After the Olympic Games, the Fifa World Cup is the biggest sporting spectacle in the world. The love people have for the game of football – or any sport for that matter – does not exclusively come from the amount of money poured into the sport, at least not wittingly. The notion that the most supported clubs are usually the ones with bigger financial muscle and more success is true, but it’s not the starting point.

Football is a culture to some, a sport with meaning beyond the tussle for one ball by 22 people on a pitch. That culture, camaraderie, fanbase network, identity, history, tradition and on-field success is what draws more fans to the sport and clubs.

Paying careful attention to modern football clubs, one notices the concerted effort to improve the image of the club through the employment of media liaison officers and social media specialists. These are things that seem unrelated to high performance, but they are fundamental to clubs remaining a going concern. This is where brands, sponsorship and fiscal considerations come in.

The more successful, popular and prestigious the club, the better its chances of having financial backing to sustain and even improve that status. With the prestige come reliable benefits of association. To this effect, some supporters find themselves associating, advertently and inadvertently, with brands that are linked to their favourite clubs. That is the target of capital, the exposure that clubs give. More fans, more potential customers, more money.

How does this web of money affect remuneration in the sport? Well, like anything else, the ends justify the means. The more money put into the development of players by certain institutions, the more they expect in return when they put them on the market. However, clubs need substantial external financial backing to develop players. Player development is a science, it is not achievable overnight and needs the right people, environment and infrastructure – which all cost money.

Pursuant to their accumulative proclivities, big corporates support the football institutions, leading to improved quality of the game and increased spectators, and this all creates advertising gold.

Let’s get back to my point on remuneration. The disparity, as I said earlier, exists beyond football, but is particularly sharp in the game. Notwithstanding the brief context I outlined above on the relationship between player development and financial support through corporate sponsorship, the number of academies who focus on developing young women from a young age is a far cry from those focusing on young men in numerical comparison. This is true for the infrastructure, coaching expertise and opportunities to turn pro.

It goes without saying that the women’s game needs equal if not more funding to give a fair chance for young women to thrive in the sport. This goes for the wage gap as well; it must be equalised regardless of any opposition it may attract.

Therefore, young girls get less support at grassroots level and naturally there are fewer women playing at a competitive level than men. The South African women’s football landscape is an example. We have never had a professional league yet we compete internationally with Banyana Banyana – with relative distinction. Compared with men’s football, which has enjoyed the support of big banks, brewing companies, cellphone networks and now Africa’s largest television network, the gap is too wide.

The link, therefore, to remuneration has been competitiveness and aesthetic plausibility for broadcasting purposes. How many teams are supported financially and otherwise in the women’s game to gain the level of competitiveness and pace of the game required by a spectator unmoved by any ethical implications of their consumption of competitive football? The answer is very little to none.

Hence, the players’ remuneration coincides with the revenue streams of the club, which are dictated by sponsorship and grants from the league in which they participate. For instance, corporates throw money at the big Soweto clubs not out of an undying love for the clubs or the sport, but for a fundamental and singular purpose: profit. That is why we find ourselves baffled by Banyana Banyana not being remunerated in relation to how proud they make us as a nation, while Bafana Bafana are remunerated way beyond their application in performances.

It is because football, like ALL sport, is run by capital and with capital there is only one ethic – profit.

It goes without saying that the women’s game needs equal if not more funding to give a fair chance for young women to thrive in the sport. This goes for the wage gap as well; it must be equalised regardless of any opposition it may attract.

The final question is; what can we do to ensure this? First, we must diagnose the problem properly and locate it within its objective historical development. By this I mean, we must be prepared to view this as one manifestation of patriarchy in capitalist society. Also, we must dispel the notion of a natural athletic superiority of men over women, and instead understand it as a history in the sport and elsewhere that the development of women athletes has been constrained by the structures of patriarchy, which prioritise male dominance.

Second, we can support initiatives like the march led by Portia Modise and the EFF to increase pressure on capital. In fact, until we attempt to starve them of viewership for the men’s game in attempts to equalise the wage contradiction, we might not succeed.

Third, we must recognise that quick fixes will hurt progress more than guarantee it. Without deliberate investment in grassroots development of women’s football we cannot guarantee the situation will be any different in two decades to come.

Naturally, these suggestions are proffered as intermediate ways to improve our circumstance, but the ultimate way for meaningful social transformation is to deal with the logic of this invariably parasitical mode of production that is capitalism. To achieve that we must first admit we have a long way to go – partly because of the sophistication of capitalism and because of our own undoing in recent times. DM

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  • When the public is prepared to watch women’s soccer and pay the same price for a ticket, female players will benefit from that. None of what you suggest could possibly address this as you cannot instruct the public as to what they should and should not prefer and public preference instructs investment and nothing else. This has everything to do with human nature and is not dictated by capitalism nor the lame excuse of patriarchy. Still wondering who and where these patriarchs gather to ensure all this evil that befalls the world.

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