Leeds Varsity: Equal Pay or Paying for Equality?

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Just two weeks ago it was that wonderful time of the year again. No, not Christmas, but an occasion at least as merry: The grand finals of Leeds Varsity. The streets of Leeds coloured green and purple with excited, well-spirited and most of all drunk students, all of them ready to support their university.  It was a beautiful occasion, and not only because of the victory – this was also the first year women’s rugby Varsity was played alongside the men’s at Headingley Stadium. 

This is just one of the many small steps currently being taken towards greater gender equality in the world of sports. Not only rugby, but other big sports such as the all-time favourite football, are apparently becoming more accessible for female players everyday. And this is not just on the field itself, as the growing interest in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this year would also suggest that women’s standing in sport is reaching new heights.

However, while changes such as these are definitely a step in the right direction, a reality of true gender equality in sports is still far away. While the highly debated issue of equal pay is definitely part of the overall problem, it is not the root of it. The real problem is a catch-22 situation: women’s sport does not receive as much media coverage, and so is less profitable, and so receives less coverage.

Just look at the coverage of the Women’s World Cup in football this year. Sure, the Women’s WC has never been this popular before, but the expense spared is still a far-cry from the ‘regular’ Men’s World Cup. Games, commercials, player-tributes, marketing, sponsors, news-programmes: they are still mainly focused on men’s sports.

And all of it is understandable, isn’t it? Why would the media schedule women’s sport during primetime, when men’s is more lucrative? Why focus adverts and sales on women’s merchandise, when men’s is way more popular? It simply would not make sense businesswise.

But what if women’s sport would be equally programmed, supported and advertised? Would this make women’s sport profitable enough to be treated equally? Initially, probably not, as several short-lived trials have shown over the last few years.

However, a large enough and mostly willing public seems to be available, so why won’t it happen? The problem seems to lie in our current economic model. While the public is statistically more open and ready than ever, our current form of capitalism is not. If something does not generate a fast and steady amount of profit, it is simply deemed too risky for the world of sport and its media-outlets.

As the professional world of sports resists progress, the small steps taken by Leeds Varsity seem all the more significant. Yes, there is still a long way to go for competitions such as these, but it is a much needed sign of good changes to come.