The huge success, both social and economic, of England’s Premier League has perhaps made it even harder for the women’s game to establish itself here than in other countries. While, of course, wonderful for the men’s game, the amount of media attention and fan talk which has been lavished on the Premier League since its launch in 1992 has left little space for women’s football. In England, clearly, the art of football is still seen as a predominantly male preserve.
Although now at the forefront of the efforts to strengthen the women’s game, The Football Association itself played a contributory role in promoting this macho culture in the past, most notably when it banned women from using league grounds for half a century, from 1921 to 1971, arguing at the time that “… the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”
The English women’s game is still on its long road to recovery, but progress has gradually been made, this time with the full blessing of The FA. In 2002, football overtook netball as the most popular female participation sport in England, where there are now over 150,000 FA affiliated female players.
The next big step comes in April, when the new FA WSL will replace the National Division of the FA Women’s Premier League as England’s top flight. It is not just about a change of name for the top division, but rather about introducing an entire new concept for how the leading women’s clubs operate.
“We reviewed women’s football and created a new strategy,” FA Head of National Game and FIFA Committee for Women’s Football member Kelly Simmons told FIFA World. “The England youth and senior teams were doing well in major tournaments but everyone we spoke to said the Women’s Premier League was struggling. It hadn’t got the foundations in place to kick on and be what we’d like it to be.”
The previous system had been beset by problems. Matches often had to be postponed due to bad weather. Most pitches were shared with men’s clubs who would often use the surface the previous day, leaving little recovery time. Clubs generally relied on volunteer administrators so marketing would generally be minimal, with attendances averaging around 50-100. This in turn made the end product hard to sell to broadcasters, perpetuating the significant problem posed by a lack of media coverage.
With the new league’s organisers having learned from those previous experiences, the first season of the FA WSL will be played between April and August in 2011, avoiding the icy winter, with a nine-week break during June and July to accommodate the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™ in Germany.
A reduced number of eight clubs will play 14 fixtures per season on a home and away basis. Each club will be entitled to pay a maximum of four players a salary of over GBP 20,000 – the aim being to spread the pool of talent between the clubs and avoid over-spending. Some of those players, England senior internationals, will additionally receive a GBP 16,000 central contract salary from The FA, making them full-time professional footballers, although most players will be semi-professional.
In order to raise the profile of the women’s game in the national media, which currently offers very little coverage, subscription television channel ESPN has been brought on board. The channel will broadcast five live matches in the first season, in addition to a 30-minute weekly highlights and magazine show. Currently, only cup finals and some women’s internationals are broadcast live.
As part of the conditions of a place in the league, clubs must use a coach/manager who has the UEFA A Licence, while their medical, training and playing facilities must meet certain criteria, all of which were laid out with the aim of improving the women’s game as a whole.
Such a stringent approach has proven a challenge to some clubs, including a few established names from the former top division, such as Leeds Carnegie and Sunderland Women. Leeds, who finished fourth in the top flight last season, were unable to secure sufficient financial backing, while Sunderland, fifth last season, could not produce a strong enough commercial and marketing plan.
“We could only guarantee that we could raise GBP 49,000 a season, whereas some clubs showed they could raise GBP 70,000 – a sum which the FA will match,” Sunderland Women’s chairman Maurice Alderson told FIFA World. “It was a devastating blow for the club and everyone was on a low. But we have to use the experience now to grow as a club and re-apply in two years’ time, by which time the league will have ironed out any teething problems. It could be a blessing in disguise.”
Although it has meant some tough decisions, Simmons is confident that the starting line-up of eight clubs is the healthiest possible for the future of the new league.
“We wanted to raise standards in so many areas from commercial and marketing to communication and coaching,” she told FIFA World. “So creating the licence was the best way of putting in place foundations that will give us the chance to grow the game and make it commercially sustainable.”
Simmons and her colleagues frequently use the words “sustainable” and "long-term” when discussing the plans. They have researched other leagues, such as the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and the United States in order to learn lessons from both success and failure elsewhere.
They say that they have learned a lot in particular from the commercial franchiseled WPS in the United States. Founded just two seasons ago, the WPS itself aimed to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor, the over-ambitious WUSA league, which lasted three seasons before folding in 2003 with losses in excess of USD 87 million.
Yet the WPS has had problems of its own, and three franchises have already ceased operations altogether (Saint Louis Athletica, Los Angeles Sol and FC Gold Pride), while Chicago Red Stars have been forced to withdraw from the 2011 campaign due to a lack of funds.
FC Gold Pride, last season’s champions, struggled in particular to fund the high salaries that they had agreed to pay superstars such as Brazil’s five-time FIFA World Player Award winner Marta – a challenge which The FA hope to avoid with the help of their stricter salary rules.
“This is a very different model to the one in the US,” insists Simmons. “And on top of the salaries issue, their travel costs are also much higher than ours due to the greater distances between clubs. We don’t want to go too big too quickly. In addition, we’ve built some jobs into the league structure, firstly to get our best athletes into full-time training, but secondly to help promote the clubs in the communities. So it’s a more conservative and sustainable approach.”
The FA will own and run the FA WSL, unlike the commercially driven equivalent in the United States, and are investing GBP 3 million into setting up the league and running it for the fi rst two seasons.
One criticism that has been levelled at the lucrative men’s English Premier League is that the 20-club structure and 38-game season is not conducive to a successful England team.
Not for the first time, complaints about tired players were frequently aired in the country’s media following England’s round-of-16 exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Many national coaches would be happy to see greater value attached to the performance of their national teams and to have their players play fewer league fixtures.
In women’s football in England, there is no need for the often awkward discussions with clubs about reducing the size of the league, as The FA is responsible both for the league structure and the national team.
Simmons says The FA has worked closely with women’s head coach, Hope Powell, to ensure the domestic fixture list suits the international calendar. “It’s absolutely fundamental that what we do with The FA WSL supports a successful England team because they’re the pinnacle of the game,” she says. “They are the role models that girls aspire to be.”
Powell herself says she is delighted with the new league structure. “I think it’s a really good thing,” she told FIFA World. “It means we are not competing against men’s football (for media coverage or spectators). We’ve got a broadcaster and the fact that it’s in the summer hopefully means that more people will want to come and watch. I think it’s a fantastic thing and I’m really looking forward to the start of it.”