Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are you listening, Mr Blatter?

Women’s football isn’t as popular as men’s football. This is partly because the standard isn’t as high, because it’s not as professionalized, because there’s less money in it, because it’s not as popular. There’s a vicious circle for you. I’d rather women’s football was more popular, the way women’s tennis and athletics are. Why? I suppose it’s because I like equal opportunities, football, and women. There also seems to be a lot of interest in playing football among women, and I’d like to see that encouraged. That means increasing its popularity.

One thing we could do is make female footballers wear different clothes. That’s Sepp Blatter’s idea, and he’s in charge. But I don’t think it would work as well as my idea, and I’m worried it’d alter the priorities of the game and its marketers. Blatter seems to want to increase the popularity of women’s football by making it more like other popular things women do, like waiting tables in Hooters. I’d rather make it more popular by making it more like other popular kinds of football. Men’s football, for example.

At the moment there are two sets of leagues, one for men and one for women. Clubs often have an affiliated women’s team as well as a men’s team, but their fortunes aren’t tied to one another, except in that the financial success of one might subsidise the other. Most football fans care what happens to the men’s team, and don’t care what happens to the women’s one, even if it’s from their club. This afternoon Arsenal’s men’s team blew its most recent chance of ending its six-year silverware drought, and the Arsenal faithful are not consoled that during that period their women’s team has been very successful indeed. There’s a lot that’s incomprehensible about the mind of an Arsenal fan, but this isn’t. The women’s team isn’t as good, and not just because of biology. They’re only semi-professional, and this means they don’t have the time to become as good as the men. It’s not their fault they’re worse, and it’s not the fans' fault they’re not that interested. It doesn’t make them sexist. The situation is different from that of British Tennis.

Here’s my idea. Have one set of leagues, and at the higher levels of the game a club has to turn out a female team as well as a male one. The women compete against women, and the men against men. The women’s results score league points just as the men’s do. (Maybe not quite as many while it's being phased in, but in that case a timetable for parity should be in place from the start.) As such, clubs are incentivised to put their considerable financial weight behind making their women’s teams as good as a team of women can be, on pain of relegation. The fans have to care about the women’s team because their fortunes are tied to those of the men’s team, but this is fine because the women are playing football as well as Serena Williams plays tennis. There’s nothing about the way I’m envisaging this changing football that I don’t like.

Of course you give the clubs a few years’ warning so they can get their acts together, but there’s already plenty of infrastructure there, and there are already plenty of talented girls who’d like to grow up to be professional footballers if the opportunities were there. As it is, the female Maradona didn’t play football professionally at all, and the female Messi’s wasting half her time as plumber or a librarian or something. What a waste.

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