The chair of West Ham United Ladies FC, Stephen Hunt, has taken a bullet for the equality cause by outing discrimination within the wider club, as Jen Offord explains.
Eight days is a long time in football – as former West Ham Ladies chair Stephen Hunt discovered this week. Hunt found himself surplus to requirements at the club after lodging a formal complaint with the Football Association (FA) against West Ham United last week, on the grounds of sex discrimination against the women’s team.
Just eight days later, the Hammers said they were “delighted” to announce they would take over the running of the women’s team, having been named and shamed, and rather embarrassingly, during Women’s Sports Week.
The club stood accused of breaching “the underlying objectives of the FA to promote equality and grassroots football at all levels.” The Hammers hierarchy – including vice-chair Karren Brady, the first woman to be appointed to the role of managing director of a top-flight English football team – had their own thoughts on the matter.
After deflecting attention onto Hunt, who they said had “threatened the club” and “refused to align” with their principles, and stalling plans to absorb the running of the team, they’ve ultimately been forced to do exactly this – which Hunt says had been his intention from the get go. More than that, the matter has once again sparked debate about the deal women in sport get, highlighting the treatment of women’s teams by big parent clubs, particularly in terms of financial support.
While the parties traded blows via the press last week, the Women’s Equality Party launched a campaign demanding equal pay for female athletes, a campaign that is in part easy to dismiss. In some sports pay is pretty much equal: tennis for example, where the men’s and women’s games both generate huge sums of money thanks to an increasingly comparable level of demand.
“The men’s game is only where it is because of the advantage they took of the FA ban, and women deserve compensation for that.”
However, for many it’s hard to justify any footballer earning £250,000 per week; surely it’s even harder to justify when one (man) plays to an average home crowd of 70,000 people and the other (woman) to 1,000 on a good week? I’d always assumed the real issue was the consistent lack of media coverage, perpetuating a perceived lack of interest and therefore the lack of money.
But explaining his stance in the wake of West Ham’s announcement, Hunt presents an interesting case, and one that goes a little further than the complaint he’d initially lodged. “I am very clear on what should happen,” he says. “Women should argue for half the billions in TV money, and that should be their uncompromising position.”
Back in the day, of course, the women’s wartime league could command a crowd in excess of 50,000 fans: not bad when you consider Chelsea’s home ground Stamford Bridge has a capacity of just over 40,000. But of course with the chaps coming back from the trenches and wanting to return to business as usual, the FA took the decision to ban women from playing on all affiliated pitches – meaning pretty much everywhere – until 1971.
“During those 50 years men developed the game, turned professional, took over all the pitches and developed the fanbase,” Hunt argues.
Had that ban never happened, which of course it shouldn’t have, the disparity would not have had the chance to gather pace as it has done over the years. As Hunt points out: “It would be more like tennis. The men’s game is only where it is because of the advantage they took of the ban, and women deserve compensation for that.”
Despite a move to the London Stadium over the summer, which almost doubled the capacity at West Ham’s grounds (and therefore ticket revenue), alongside a bumper windfall following Sky Sports paying a record-breaking fee for extended rights to coverage of Premier League matches, Hunt claimed the women’s team was completely unfunded by the club.
The final straw came as the club apparently blocked the team from training at their facilities. And this followed the women’s team having already resorted to setting up a fundraising site to pay for their own kit, as well as travel to and from games.
“If half the current TV money went to the women, can you imagine the change?” says Hunt. “To put it another way, it would reduce the income of male players to what they were earning last year.”
For his own part, this is the outcome Hunt wanted for his team, even if he’s no longer part of that process, and he says it had been his intention to secure this outcome since becoming chair on a voluntary basis in early 2015.
There’s still a long way to go, but as Hunt says: “When the men start to complain that women are taking their pitches and cash, we will be close to equality.”
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Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen