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Women’s Elite Sport: Prize Money

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prize money in women’s elite sport.

It is a pleasure, as ever, Sir Charles, to speak under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the Speaker for granting this debate on such an important subject at a critical time for women’s sport.

The issue of prize money in women’s sport featured quite prominently in a debate on women’s football that I led in this Chamber back in January, and it is great to see the Minister announce that there is to be a review into women’s football, as recommended in the fan-led review, the call for which I and many colleagues echoed in that debate. I am sure that the issue of prize money will be included in that. Taken alongside the news that the Women’s EURO taking place in England this summer and the women’s World Cup will be added to the listed events regime, it is a great time for women to be involved in sport. The Minister said in the previous debate that the Government were minded to agree to that change in the regime, so I am very glad that that has now been confirmed. Visibility is vital and I think that will go a long way towards improving women’s sport.

One of the other issues raised by colleagues in the debate was the difference in FA cup prize money that the women’s teams received in comparison with the men’s. At the time of the debate, the women’s competition received 2% of the total prize money received by the men. I am sure most people would be shocked by that. Even if we take into account the fact that around double the number of teams play in the men’s competition, the disparity was huge.

It was therefore extremely welcome that the FA announced two days after the debate that it was to raise the prize money for the women’s game tenfold. The final figure of rewards for the women’s FA cup is still only 20% of what the men get, but this is good progress and I must pay tribute to the FA for its swift action in increasing support for the women’s competition. The FA has already noted that the distribution of that money will be disproportionately directed towards the early stages of the competition, which will go a long way in supporting clubs that need that extra funding, given that some made a loss on their FA cup games in the past and many had to be crowdfunded in order to fulfil games in the event that they progressed further than their budget predicted. The FA has done some incredible work in growing the women’s game, and the increase in the women’s FA cup prize money will help put the money where the game needs it most.

While I start with the good news, I intend this debate to be on wider issues of equality in sport, not just football. I have long taken a keen interest in equal pay in sport, and given the work done by the Telegraph women’s sports team on the new Close The Gap campaign, I believe now is the right time to bring the matter forward. I must thank Anna Kessel, Jeremy Wilson, Molly McElwee, Fiona Tomas and Tom Garry for all their research on this area and their work in bringing the issue to light. The campaign was launched a few weeks ago with the support of incredible sports icons, including Dame Laura Kenny, Steph Houghton and Ian Wright, and it seeks to highlight the massive disparity in prize money awarded to men and women in elite sports, both in the UK and abroad. Jessica Ennis-Hill, who wrote in support of the campaign, said:

“We all tell our children that everyone is equal. I always say to my daughter, ‘Girls can do anything,’ and she says, ‘and boys can too!’ But one day they will go out into the big wide world and they will realise, ‘No, this isn’t actually equal, there is a big discrepancy.’”

Does my hon. Friend agree that financial support for young women’s teams, which sets the scene for later years, feeds into the very issue of inequity that she is talking about, and that funding for young women’s and girls’ football teams is crucial to setting the cultural scene?

Absolutely—and, as I have said, not just in football; this debate is happening across sport more widely. Unfortunately, that is where we are with sport.

Jessica Ennis-Hill went on to say:

“Many of us know the story of how tennis made huge strides around equal prize money, with Billie Jean King and Venus Williams, and others, lobbying for change, but you do not hear much about the discrepancies in other sports. It tends to go under the radar. Unless you are a diehard sports fan most of us probably are not aware how different the prize money scales are across different events. It is only when you take the time to delve into it, and look at the numbers. Then you cannot help but think it is just ridiculous.”

So let us look at the numbers. The men’s European championship in football, which was held in this country last year, saw the men awarded a total prize pot of some £335 million. The women’s European championship, which will be held in this country this year, will see women receive a total prize pot of £13.4 million. The champions league, which of course we do not solely host but many of our clubs play in, offers a £1.6 billion prize fund to the men, but just £20 million to the women.

Snooker is a sport that historically women have been allowed to play, but without equal access to facilities in venues such as working men’s clubs, and therefore they have struggled to gain access to it. Snooker’s world championship winner is awarded a £500,000 prize, but the winner of the women-only competition receives just £5,000.

In cricket, the International Cricket Council’s one-day international World cup for men, which was held in England and Wales in 2019, awards just over £7.5 million. The women’s competition, which was held in New Zealand this year, awarded only a third of that—£2.6 million—although I understand that the ICC is working towards making the situation more equitable.

Without going into too many more numbers, as I am sure people will get the picture from those snapshots, I will offer as a final example rugby union, the sport that I really enjoy—watching, not playing. Although it was difficult to get any finite data on the Six Nations, I understand that the tournament says it does not award prize money but instead awards the participating teams a tenth of its annual revenue from the men’s tournament—that is reportedly around £16 million, although, as I said, exact numbers are unclear—relative to performance. There is no such distribution of revenue in the women’s tournament. Jessica Ennis-Hill said in her article on the campaign for equality:

“At last year’s women’s Six Nations…some teams had to manage without sanitary bins, fresh kit, or even hot showers—it is a hard pill to swallow being underpaid compared to your male compatriots.”

At a global level, World Rugby says that it does not do prize money, but there is a “participation grant” in the men’s World cup, which is awarded depending on performance, whereas the women get a “preparation grant”.

I could go on. In golf, women consistently get much less money than men; in tennis, there have been some famous successes, but around the world the situation is still variable; and in cycling, the men’s Tour de France offers a prize pot of almost £2 million to men and just over a tenth of that to women.

The numbers are important because they paint a picture and they show an attitude. First, it is about respect. To reach the levels in elite sport that these athletes reach takes extreme dedication; it takes many hours of practice, energy and commitment to get to the pinnacle of a particular sport. Yet the nature of unequal prize money means that the effort of one person is valued so much more than that of another—in some instances, 10 times or even 20 times more. If we consider the situation purely on the basis of respect, then it is demonstrably unfair.

Secondly, it is about sport being a livelihood and something that athletes can commit time to, in order to take them to the top of the game. Whether that is a world cup, a world championship or the Olympics, it takes time and costs money. When the prize money for even the few who win is not enough for them to commit to an effective and long-lasting training programme in order to sustain high levels of performance, what of those who place lower down but work just as hard? That is part of the reason why there are far fewer female athletes, and why so many more female athletes need second jobs outside their sport—any possible hard-fought win does not provide enough to sustain the process full time. As Jessica Ennis-Hill writes,

“in some sports prize money is an essential part of our income, rather than a cash bonus.”

This takes me to my third point—the wider benefit to the sport of providing a more evenly financially rewarding playing field. The ability for an athlete to make their sport their full-time job is of benefit not only to them, but to the sport’s future. By giving more time to the sport, they are able not only to raise their game and compete on a larger stage for more reward, but to raise the game of those around them and those who train with them. They are able to spend more time in training facilities, learning from the best and passing on what they know to those who are following in their footsteps. And they are able to inspire more young boys and girls to get involved, and perhaps be future champions themselves.

Many of the organisations that I have mentioned will talk about their investment in women’s sport and the money that they put in elsewhere, but the issue of prize money is symbolic as much as anything else. One of the key metrics that they often refer to is commercial revenue; they say that the women do not bring in as much money. But we simply must place that in the context of women being banned for so long from playing different sports—they were banned for 50 years from playing football—of the unequal access to facilities, and of the attitude towards women playing sport that still exists today, as researchers at the University of Leicester reported earlier this year. That has had an effect on the commercial revenues available to people, especially as the visibility of women’s sport still suffers from historical inequalities.

There has been progress in this area. It is clear that women’s sport is getting more coverage than ever. That is testament to those at the BBC, under the incredible leadership of Barbara Slater, and at Sky, for example. There are brand-new deals on women’s sport, and there is the greater exposure that many women who play elite sport receive today. But ultimately, as the organisation Women in Sport notes, women’s sport still accounts for only about 10% of total sports coverage, and when we flick through the sports pages of newspapers, we still have to look much more closely to find women’s sport. There are many excellent journalists out there who are doing all they can to bring attention to women’s sport—not least those whom I mentioned earlier—but there is still so much more to do.

The lack of general coverage and the historical context in which elite sportswomen have operated contribute to the arguments about lower commercial revenue. I know that many of the organisations will point to commitments to raise their game, but it would be wrong not to take this opportunity to say that more can always be done. Above all, this is about a fairer distribution, about respect, and about ensuring that children and young people have the chance to see people like them competing at the highest levels of their sport and to think, “That could be me, too.” I therefore ask the Minister what plans he has to work with governing bodies towards a fairer deal for women’s sport and how he will go about continuing the huge growth that we have seen in women’s sport in the last decade.

I will end with a quote from Steph Houghton, the former Lionesses captain, whom we are extremely proud of in my city of Sunderland; she is a former Sunderland player who grew up in the city. She said this in support of the campaign:

“The prize money in women’s sport to reward and acknowledge personal and team achievements continues to fall incredibly short. Football clubs and sponsors are increasing investment into the sport more than ever before, but prize money seems to have a glass ceiling that needs to be broken. Let’s work together to #CloseTheGap.”

We have seen cracks in the glass ceiling. I am with Steph—let’s break it.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing time for this important debate today. Let us just hope that we can have the same success rate in delivering the things that she has asked for as we were able to achieve in the last debate. We were only half-joking when we said outside the Chamber that I should just stand up, say that I agree with everything the hon. Lady says, and then sit down. This is one of those cases in point, so I will try not to repeat too many of the points that she raised, but she raised such important points and I genuinely do agree with everything she said. I am also signed up to the campaign.

The hon. Lady was right to name-check all the people who have campaigned with her on this issue for so long, including journalists, sportspeople and people in this House. I give credit to her, because I know this is a topic she has been campaigning on for some time.

I am absolutely committed to supporting women’s sport at every opportunity, which means pushing for greater participation, more commercial opportunities and increased visibility of women’s sport in the media. We should do all we can to ensure women’s sport is treated equally to men’s at all levels, including in areas such as prize money. With that in mind, I would like to set out some of the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain. I will try not to repeat exactly what the hon. Lady said, but it is important to get all this on the record.

I agree that it is vital that women and men are recognised and paid equally for their achievements. I welcome the recent launch of the Telegraph’s Close the Gap campaign calling for fairer prize money in women’s sport—a campaign that I know the hon. Lady and many others have supported, as I do. In a bumper year for sport this year, with the women’s Euros, the rugby league World cup and the Commonwealth games in the UK, I am keen for all sports bodies to look at what more can be done to redress existing imbalances. As the hon. Lady mentioned, we are seeing progress, but we need to see more.

In January, it was announced that the FA will increase prize money for the winners of the women’s FA cup from next season—the hon. Lady gave it due credit for that—and professional female footballers in England are to benefit from maternity and long-term sickness cover in a landmark change to their contracts. It is remarkable to be saying that in this day and age and that it happened just this year. Yesterday, I was pleased to announce that the Government will be launching an in-depth review of domestic women’s football this summer to examine issues affecting the game at elite and grassroots level.

In cricket, last year, the £600,000 total prize pool for The Hundred was split evenly between the men’s and women’s competitions. As the hon. Lady mentioned, tennis is a great example to other sports; it has offered equal prize money in all four majors since 2007. The International Triathlon Union leads the way, having paid equal prize money to men and women in every race for every year since its inception in 1989, more than a decade before triathlon became an Olympic sport.

We know there is still a lot more to do. In September 2021, UEFA announced that it would double the women’s Euro 2022 prize money, but it is still a fraction of the prize money of the men’s competition. The 16 qualifying teams for the women’s Euros will share a pot of €16 million, but the 2021 men’s Euros saw a total prize pot of €371 million. I thought that either I or the hon. Lady had the numbers wrong, but she quoted pounds and I am quoting euros. The currency does not matter—the gap is still huge.

Of course, it is often argued that differing rates of pay for sportsmen and sportswomen is largely down to women’s sport not having the profile or media coverage of men’s sport over the years, but that is changing. Sponsorship and media coverage go hand in hand. If women’s sport does not have the media coverage, sponsors often do not see it as commercially attractive.

Record sponsorship deals have been struck with women’s sports leagues, such as Barclays’ sponsorship of the women’s super league, the premier women’s football league in England. Barclays will also be investing more than £30 million in women’s and girls’ football from 2022 to 2025, doubling its existing investment and becoming the first title sponsor of the FA women’s championship. The media profile of women’s sport is continuing to rise with new and innovative broadcasting deals being struck, such as DAZN’s four-year partnership with YouTube for the women’s champions league.

We have been working to improve the diversity of the listed events regime, first by adding the Paralympic games to the list in 2020. In addition, I was pleased to announce yesterday that the FIFA women’s World cup and the UEFA women’s European championships have been added to group A of the listed events regime, as the hon. Lady pleaded for in January. That will ensure that those tournaments continue to be available to as wide an audience as possible. Research conducted recently by the Women’s Sport Trust shows that almost 33 million people watched women’s domestic sport in 2021, with The Hundred and the women’s super league bringing in 11 million new viewers to women’s events, but we want to continue to push for greater change and strive for more equality and inclusivity in sport.

That is why in May 2021 I set up a women’s sport working group with key sector partners to explore some of these challenges and identify opportunities in women’s sport. Since May, we have held four meetings of the group, which have focused on participation, visibility, commercial investment and major events. We want to continue to use these meetings to bring value to and challenge all aspects of women’s sport. They are not just talking shops; we have some very powerful and influential people in those groups, and we will see, and have already seen, some action.

The hon. Lady asked what I can do. I regularly meet governing bodies of multiple sports—football and beyond. The topic of women’s pay and prize money comes up all the time, and I assure her that I raise it at every opportunity. Although we always get warm words, as she perhaps gets in the conversations that she and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee have, we want to see action following on from that. I assure her that I will raise this issue at every opportunity.

The 2022 sporting calendar presents some great opportunities to demonstrate our commitment to women’s sport. At the rugby league World cup this year, female and wheelchair athletes will receive equal participation fees and will get prize money for the first time in the tournament’s history. I was delighted to see the news last week that all the Lionesses games at the women’s Euros this summer have now sold out, and a record attendance for any women’s football match is expected at the final. It is not true, therefore, that there is no interest in women’s sport; those figures show that that is not the case.

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about women’s sport, but work remains to be done, as the hon. Lady said. I want to leave hon. Members in no doubt that I am personally committed to doing everything to raise the profile of women’s sport, women’s pay and prize money.

Question put and agreed to.