A discussion about the future of women’s football
The Ballon d’Or award for the best women’s player on Tuesday evening was perhaps the most anti-climatic ceremony held this calendar year. Aitana Bonmatí was the lynchpin for a Barcelona side that won the domestic league, the Supercopa, and the Champions League for the second time in the span of three years. Bonmatí also led her side to the pinnacle of football, the World Cup, for the first time in Spain’s history. Although the run to world champions was marred by the actions of a contentious and problematic Spanish federation, there is no doubt that Bonmatí’s performance carried the team to new heights.
All this being said, the Ballon d’Or ceremony (as usual) did not shine itself in the most favorable of lights. The ceremony was held during a women’s international window. With the newly introduced Women’s Nations League, it is more important than ever that players maintain a regimented schedule.
Another controversy the ceremony managed to produce was the selection of the award presenters. While the men’s award was given by well-known footballing superstar David Beckham, the women’s award was presented by Novak Djokovic. The tennis icon is the definition of a polarizing figure.
While some believe him to be, as this Athletic article discusses, misogynist and harboring deep-rooted gender biases, others believe him to be the definition of professional. This article will discuss Djokovic as an award-presenter, and the relevance this holds to the women’s game as a whole.
Novak Djokovic’s Persona
One discussion from Tuesday evening was the peculiarity of using a men’s tennis player to announce a women’s football award. This is where women’s football needs to be more open-minded about the future of the sport.
Women’s football has now entered an age where marketability, and ability to appeal to the whole of the sporting community, is essential. In my opinion, women’s football has gone beyond the point of no return when it comes to imitating the men’s game. At this point, most clubs have a men’s side. VAR has been implemented. The intimate footballing community of years past is finally attempting to dissipate. Unfortunately, if the women’s game is to continue to grow, there needs to be a greater appeal to the masses.
The identity of women’s football (and women’s football fans) is to involve itself in social issues. Women’s football pushes against the norm, breaking gender barriers and showcasing modern society’s newly engineered products. Communities bind themselves around the ability to be themselves in a space without judgment. This identity be maintained among a new, wider audience that does not share the same social, political, or cultural views. Money, marketing, and investment come with this wider audience. For the women’s game to improve, they need to follow the money.
Djokovic is a part of this development. Djokovic appeals to the masses. The French Federation is showing where the women’s game is at by placing Aitana Bonmatí directly alongside one of the most legendary athletes of this generation. Although many fans are uncomfortable with Djokovic, these are the same fans who are pushing for more investment, marketing, and technological developments so that women’s sports can thrive.
To discuss the stance of Novak Djokovic on Equal Pay, his comments from 2016 must be revisited. The quotes below are from an article by ESPN following his win at Indian Wells. I highly suggest reading Djokovic’s quotes in their entirety to grasp the full picture of his argument.
“I understand how much power and energy WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that.”
“I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve and they got it. On the other hand I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches.”
Novak Djokovic from ESPN
Although his quotes can be interpreted (and rightfully such) as insensitive to women’s players, one must also understand that salaries in tennis are a completely different kettle of fish to football. In football, players are paid a base salary mandated by the league in addition to tournament prize money (which is given to the club). On top of this, clubs can choose to pay players higher salaries based on their level of value. This has proved problematic when players in leagues like the NWSL, WSL, and Liga F were all paid below $25,000 per year and players had to take second jobs on top of football to make ends meet. This reduces the quality of play and highlights the extreme disparities between men’s and women’s players at the same club. For example, the MLS had a base salary of just over $100,000 for one season in 2021.
In tennis, there is no base salary. Both the ATP and the WTA operate off of an “eat what you kill” model which sees players unable to afford to travel to tournaments, pay for a coach, or train at adequate facilities. This is a massive issue in both men’s and women’s tennis explored in this video from last month by Vox. Djovokic’s comments are in reference to this issue. This in and of itself is not problematic.
The point at which Djokovic’s comments could draw offense is when he justifies the need for men’s tennis to pay higher wages due to the fact that they draw in more spectators. The WTA and the ATP are separate governing bodies. As is the argument within women’s football, the WTA needs to possess the same level of investment, the same tournament scheduling, and the same level of marketing as the ATP in order to draw in the same revenue.
On the whole, Novak Djokovic makes comments that mirror those of many women’s athletes in women’s football right now. Players such as Melanie Leupolz, Lia Wälti, and Ada Hegerberg prefer to discuss equal opportunity instead of equal pay. The battle for pay is separate. Women should fight for what they feel they deserve. If Djokovic is not in favor of equal pay, he needs to be more vocal in his support for the WTA to create equal conditions and opportunities to the ATP.