A crowd of 30,000 has gathered at a stadium to watch a women’s football game. For those of you familiar with the history of the women’s game or my recent piece about it, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that I’ve taken you back in time for the brief period when women footballers were drawing in record crowds for their games even in a completely amateur era. The good news is that it’s 2015 and this is taking place at Wembley. Chelsea Ladies are up against Notts County in the first Women’s FA Cup final ever to be played at the stadium – old or new; the first women’s final also to have an official title sponsor, the energy firm SSE who have signed a four-year deal that includes a “commitment to further investment in encouraging girls to take up the sport with girls-only football programmes held across the nation”. In a year’s time, Chelsea Ladies will also be involved in a new Women’s Super League home ground attendance record in their game against Manchester City Ladies.
From being told that the sport was too rough for their delicate constitutions, to later being allowed to have their own league, albeit largely relegated to the background, women’s football is finally receiving the attention and investment it deserves. Much of it is rooted in the five-year plan laid out by the FA in 2014 once they realised that the buzz surrounding the women’s game was going nowhere, but it really took flight with the introduction of the Football Association Women’s Super League in 2011.
The Women’s Super League effect
The FA unveiled the 8-team league in 2011 to increase competition, playing standards, and better avenues of income. Since then it has grown into two divisions – the WSL 1 and 2 (10 teams each) – with promotion and relegation between them. The association aims to make it the second most popular sport in the UK after men’s football (men’s cricket and rugby union are currently 2nd and 3rd) by development at the grassroots, professionalising the top levels of the game, public awareness and investing in growing the fan-base.
“It’s about turning what was amateur into a professional sport.”
– Kelly Simmons, FA director of women’s football
Starting with, well, paying players. For years, many England internationals represented their country for minimum pay and sometimes even for free. In 2009, 18 of them were made to sign central contracts. Now there are more than 26 with an annual salary. Similarly, the women’s game was always lost in the mix for television rights. Now the BBC and BT Sport broadcast games, and there is increased newspaper coverage.
Organisations like Sports England have pledged £30 million by 2017 to create more opportunities for women in football, while in October 2016, the FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn announced that the women’s game was its prime focus, starting with a “transformational” international FA Cup TV deal worth more than 800m over 6 years. He also issued a request to clubs to follow their example –
“Women’s football clubs are still an investment, they don’t make money yet. We own that league and have to make sure the right incentives are in place to continue that investment.”
There seems to be a new awareness of the reality that reflects in the FA’s seemingly measured transition to a fully-professional league. An awareness that prevents comparisons between the men’s and women’s games or the vastly different amounts of success or money involved.
“I think the powers that be have approached it all pretty sensibly and looked for gradual growth. I think they’ve learned lessons from US leagues that have tried to go too big too quickly and have relied too much on the whims of a single sponsor. The WSL peaked between 2013-2015, when there were 4 teams that could realistically win it and title races were going to the final day.”
– Tim Stillman
2017-18 is the WSL’s first as a traditional winter season. Following a very recent directive, each WSL 1 club will have to reapply for the license to qualify and remain in the proposed 8-10 team fully-professional top-tier for the 2018-19 season. Application criteria include a minimum of 16 contact hours per week for players, rising to 20 hours by 2020-21, a minimum financial investment by each club, Financial Fair Play regulations and a squad cap, and a compulsory academy. Most major European superpowers have fewer than 3 fully professional clubs, so this is new, exciting, unexplored territory. According to Katie Brazier, FA’s head of women’s leagues and competitions, these are steps towards an elite environment, a more competitive league and increased commercial viability.
Well-intentioned sentiments all, but Tim’s concerned about the smaller clubs. According to him, the biggest challenge is to give them a reason to continue their investment, and any necessary help for the upcoming transitions. Since the renamed Manchester City Women’s Football Club burst onto the scene in 2014, there’s been an exponential acceleration of the game at the top-most level that even the FA can’t quite claim to have a handle on. Tim worries that women’s football is starting to reflect men’s football closer than it should with teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich going from ordinary some years ago to among Europe’s best (Barcelona had a crowd of 10,000 for its Champions League semi-final vs PSG last season), and Juventus’ newly minted women’s team already a strong contender.
“When the FA made the call to alter the salary cap rule in 2015, they gave the bigger men’s clubs an advantage; they can afford to fund a strong women’s team. Proud, historic women’s clubs like Donny Belles and Sunderland have not been able to. Sunderland have cut right back on funding and Notts County wound their women’s team up in April. Most of them don’t have big budgets and if a football club has to cut costs, the women’s team is usually the first thing to go. Many might look at those at the top and ask, ‘what’s the point?’ I don’t want top flight women’s games going back to the days where ten and twelve goal victories are normal.”
– Tim Stillman
A feeling echoed by Arsenal Ladies’ captain Alex Scott –
“I don’t think you ever want women’s football in this country to be how it was back then again.When you look back, 10 years ago, we were dominant, but some of those games were easy. It’s more competitive now because every team wants to set the bar. That’s great for the league.”
The other challenge, which Tim feels is being handled much better, is to maintain a balance between broadcasting and the families walking through the turnstiles. Women’s football is still very much cause for a family outing, and rightly so because their target audience should be young girls. “Young girls are the primary audience for the WSL and that’s the way it ought to be. The WSL are wising up a little on this now – they will be using Facebook Live and other un-geo blocked avenues to show games” he says.
Together #WePlayStrong: not a false dawn
Football, the fastest growing women’s sport in the world, is becoming an increasingly lucrative possibility for broadcasting and advertising – a record 750 million viewers worldwide for the 2015 World Cup final, 81 million throughout Euro 2017, 51 countries with women’s leagues, and as of September 2014, 2.6 million women and girls playing football in England. UEFA aims to make it the most popular women’s participation sport across Europe within the next five years. Their new campaign titled “Together #WePlayStrong” prioritises “skill, togetherness and positive attitude”.
This shows that while the women’s game is still vulnerable in terms of priority, and although it’s still a work-in-progress, there is more active involvement by those at the top that will hopefully translate into solutions for existing or future problems, and prevent it from suffering like it did in the past. This time around there is enough tangible proof for it to feel like the real thing.
“The research we’ve done on the barriers to women’s football is really clear. Girls feel they’re going to be judged, that people will think they’re a certain type of girl and that’s not the image they want. The other is a lack of support from parents. The two are probably linked. So a lot of the work we’ve got to do is to tackle those things. In 10 years’ time it won’t be an issue. It’s a societal thing that I think is very fixable.”
– Martin Glenn
For many of the current crop to say that they play football for a living, for them to be footballers like the men without juggling another job, is the realisation of a dream they weren’t aware would be fulfilled when they first kicked that ball as three and four year olds. So the Lionesses walking out for their first match at the new “Home of Football” to a cheering sold-out new record crowd, for the first time in nearly 95 years, is definitely cause for celebration and a hearty round of applause for all those involved. The trek is only half-finished, but the climb has been staggering, and everyone deserves a pat on their backs for that.