Last month, football agent Jo Tongue arranged for a female player to transfer to a second-tier English side, only for the club to offer her a full-time salary of £21,000 – less than many male Premier League players earn in a week.
Even this is an improvement on where the sport used to be. For Tongue, one of the biggest triumphs of England’s run to the Euro 2022 final has been that companies no longer ask her players to make corporate appearances for free: “I had got very used to hearing ‘There’s no fee.’ That’s the main change.”
This is the reality of women’s football in England today. A small group of top players in the national team, nicknamed the Lionesses, are on the brink of becoming household names and making substantial sums of money, with sold-out stadiums and enormous television audiences set to watch them take on Germany in the final of Euro 2022 on Sunday.
Lucy Bronze has already signed sponsorship deals with Nike and Visa. Every England player is reportedly in line for a bonus of £55,000 if they win the tournament on Sunday – with further, life-changing sums available through potential endorsement deals.
But for the rest of the professional game there is the perennial fear that interest in women’s football will wane once the tournament is over, crowds won’t turn up to domestic league matches and there will be another false dawn.
“It’s not wonderful there is that disparity,” said Tongue. “There are a few Lionesses who will get everything because brands can be slightly lazy.”
Yet this time she has hope there really is a shift in attitudes towards embracing the wider world of women’s football, with her management agency overwhelmed with interest throughout the tournament. “Previously you’d get all the requests the day before the final. Everyone wanted to speak to you on the day of the game, or the day after, and then it stopped,” she said.
She praised early corporate sponsors of English women’s football such as Barclays, Visa and Nike but said many other companies have been waiting on the sidelines. Euro 2022 has boosted potential sponsors’ interest: “The brands are now looking at long-term deals. They want appearances and authenticity. Women respond well to brands investing in their sport – which is almost a grateful mentality.”
More than a decade since the launch of the top-level Women’s Super League (WSL) in England, money is only just starting to roll into the domestic game, with a much-improved broadcast deal involving the BBC and Sky. Mainstream media coverage – such as the Guardian’s new Women’s Football Weekly podcast – is also helping.
Nicole Allison, the managing director of women’s football consultancy NA Sport, praised Uefa’s decision to sell sponsorship rights for the women’s Euros separately from the men’s tournament.
Allison said the audiences are different: “The men’s game is so fixated on traditional metrics – how many people are watching and seeing the advertising boards. Sponsorship has moved on and is not about eyeballs, it’s about how you can directly engage. That’s what women’s sport is giving sponsors now, people actually seeing what a brand represents.
“Women’s football has had no airtime on traditional media, so we’ve had to create our own content and create our own buzz. Social media has allowed brands to interact with women’s football’s digitally savvy fans.”
She added: “We’ve seen international success before, which is followed by a natural dip. When domestic leagues start again, it’s the job of the clubs and the FA to keep attendance high and maintain the same level of interest.”
Tongue said too many people still perceive women’s football as a grassroots sport where players take part for the love of the game, rather a full-blown professional spectacle.
In particular, clubs need to move on from playing at remote non-league grounds with limited facilities and little opportunity to entertain corporate clients with the high-level treatment many have come to expect, she said.
“There is not an opportunity to take clients to WSL games because there are no hospitality options. There are certain people I’m trying to engage with the game but I can barely buy them a drink at half-time. I’m quite happy with a Bovril but I’d like to take Mr PricewaterhouseCoopers and I can’t. We need to show this is an occasion, this an event.”
This article was amended on 30 July 2022. An earlier version of the article and sub-heading mistakenly said Leah Williamson has a deal with Gucci. The main image was changed accordingly.