THE FA Cup Final remains one of the sporting events which is guaranteed free-to-air live coverage and may not be broadcast exclusively on pay TV. It was included on a list compiled during the 1990s which protected for terrestrial television the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of sport, even though declining interest had already begun to tarnish the famous old trophy.
During the past two decades, the lustre has continued to fade. Up to and including the 1980s, before the availability of cable and satellite channels, the annual live transmission of the FA Cup final on BBC and ITV was a rare televisual event. For both players and supporters, the various rounds used to be amongst the most eagerly awaited dates in the English football calendar; at one time, dozens of clubs began the competition harbouring hope of glory (in 1973, 1976 and 1980 the victors were from the second tier). Now participation is widely regarded as a chore, with most clubs from the top two divisions fielding shadow sides in stadiums sometimes sparsely filled.
The FA Cup has for many become an unwanted distraction from the Premier League, this being the priority irrespective of whether a club’s aim is top-four qualification for the Champions League, avoiding relegation or gaining promotion to a league that has for years been economic Elysium. Clubs are now companies motivated less by glory than by gravy; whereas the FA Cup is a bauble, the Premier League is a bonanza.
For last season 2017-2018, even the three clubs relegated from the Premier League each received the thick end of £100million; by comparison, the winners of this year’s FA Cup will get prize money of under £7million. This actually is a substantial hike on seasons past; yet to take as an example Manchester United, the potential windfall for winning this season’s Cup would not cover even three months’ combined pay for Chilean Alexis Sanchez (reportedly £315,000 per week) and Frenchman Paul Pogba (£290,000 per week).
For the FA Cup to become again a trophy coveted by the top division, the reward will have to be qualification for the goldmine that is the Champions League and/or an exponential increase in prize money. Neither is likely.
One club with a definite view regarding the FA Cup’s prize fund is semi-professional Lewes FC, which at the time of writing sits fourth in the Bostik League Premier Division – three promotions away from the English Football League – currently with an average home attendance of 606. The management of Lewes FC is of the opinion that the financial rewards for the tournament are not too little but too great. Or to be more precise, at Lewes they are miffed that the women’s FA Cup carries far less financial reward than the men’s competition.
During 2017 Lewes FC boasted that it had become the first UK football club to operate full gender equality, its men’s and women’s teams not only having shared use of the stadium and facilities but also allocated identical budgets. Director Charlie Dobres conceded that being impeccably PC was ‘probably part of the mood music’ which resulted in Lewes being awarded their place in the FA Women’s Championship. Continuing in this vein, the poster promoting Lewes’s fixture last December against Manchester United Women featured an image of that tough tackler from Moss Side, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, whose great-granddaughter was Lewes’s guest of honour and invited to address the crowd.
Lewes’s board of directors has now sent the Football Association an open letter: ‘We want to put the spotlight on the relative prize money given to women’s teams compared with men’s teams in the FA Cup. This year, the total FA Cup prize fund for men’s teams is £30.25million. The total FA Cup prize fund for women’s teams is £250,000 . . . We are suggesting a radical increase in the women’s FA Cup prize fund. Let’s get these prize funds to a level that we would all be able to tell our children about without embarrassment (try explaining the disparities to a child and you’ll see what we mean).’
Yes, the FA has a duty to foster female football. Nonetheless, even this hypothetical child will be aware that the fan support, income generation and playing standard of the men’s and women’s professional games are not remotely comparable. Should the FA accede to Lewes’s wishes, and signal that the men’s FA Cup, which already is struggling to be relevant, is no longer inherently superior to the women’s tournament, that really would signal the death of the world’s oldest football competition.
By the way, for anyone struggling to place Lewes on the map, it is in East Sussex, only a short distance from the UK’s established capital of political correctness, Brighton. But if you didn’t already know this, you probably had guessed.