As an avid football follower since the days Paraguay’s goalkeeper was also their biggest goal threat, and a Senegalese man not only convinced then-Southampton manager Graeme Souness that he was George Weah’s cousin, but that he was also a Premiership player, I’ve always been aware of the women’s game.
However, admittedly, it only ever really gained more than half of my attention when the Lionesses reached the quarter-finals of both the 2007 (super Kelly Smith) and 2011 World Cup, or when I was randomly handed the task of managing goalkeeper Pauline Cope on a childhood computer management game.
At the 2012 London Olympics though, that all changed. Despite Team GB losing to Canada in the quarter-finals (there’s a theme here), perceptions started to shift and a new generation of supporters were introduced to the sport – summed up by a record 70,584 crowd which turned out to watch the 1-0 victory over Brazil at Wembley Stadium.
But although it had captured the nation throughout that glorious summer six years ago, drumming up interest during the biggest sporting show on earth – on home soil – is the easy part.
There was talk at the time that the Olympics would leave a ‘legacy’ and it would propel the women’s game to the next level. In truth though, there was more of a ripple than a wave, with the average WSL attendance staying at close to 570 per match the following season.
The WSL had – unbeknown to myself at the time – kicked off a year prior to the Olympics in order to try and create a more commercially-viable division which could take steps towards professionalism. Its long-term aim was to challenge Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and, perhaps more ambitiously, America’s National Women’s Soccer League, in attracting the best players across the world.
Seven years on and, although there’s been challenges in ‘spreading the word’, I can safely say it has been the growth of the annual WSL – not the standalone 2012 Olympics – which now has me, and many other football followers taking a genuine interest.
Players such as Korean star Ji So-Yun (Chelsea), Pauline Bremer (Manchester City) and Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal) have chosen to play their football here. Meanwhile, the majority of England’s top players – such as Steph Houghton, Fran Kirby and Jill Scott – have stayed put where previously they may have opted to make the move abroad. Even two-time World Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd, came over for a taster when she joined Man City on loan in 2017.
These stars – especially the likes of Ji, who was one of the earlier top-class foreign players to transfer in 2014 – have taken the league to a whole new level. This, in-turn, had a knock-on effect to the performance and results of the national team which, no matter what sport you’re involved in, always helps accelerate its growth.
That was the case in 2015 when England produced their best ever World Cup performance to finish third in Canada. Throughout their incredible run, the team trended all over social media and regularly featured on the front (yes, front!) page of the printed press as the sport received press coverage like never before on these shores.
The Lionesses truly captured the people back home with around 2 million per match tuning in, which peaked at record 2.5 million for the narrow semi-final defeat against Japan. Without the launch of the WSL four years prior, I very much doubt the team would’ve reached the levels required to reach that stage.
It’s not just the restructuring of the leagues that have grown the game; some of the club’s attitudes towards it shouldn’t go unnoticed. Following a relaunch of their women’s team in 2014, Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak – invested in the women’s game and, most importantly, delivered one of the first true professional set ups.
As well as signing world-class players on full-time contracts, they based the team alongside the men at the state-of-the-art Etihad Campus facility. A place which also boasts their very own 7,000 seater stadium (the only WSL side to have their own ‘home’) City have really made the women’s side part of the club and not just a side project.
Having shown their intentions, the FA decided to demote Doncaster Belles from the top-flight and replace them with The Citizens. A decision that was controversial – and a little harsh – at the time, it could be argued that it has been to the advantage of the game with the Sky Blues delivering on all their promises.
Whether we like it or not, there will always be an imbalance in football – there is in the men’s game – but, putting finances to one-side, City’s overall brand and worldwide appeal (their combined Instagram and Facebook with the men’s side sees them have over 44.5 million social media followers, compared to Doncaster’s 20k) was too strong to hold back.
Just across the great footballing city of Manchester, rivals United will be hoping to follow in their ‘noisy neighbours’’ footsteps with the introduction – better late than never – of their women’s team who will play in the second-tier. An initial £5m investment (a whole lot more than the majority of top-flight clubs), huge recruitment drive and social media engagement already higher than all clubs combined throughout the 2017/18 season shows – even this early on – how much of a boost it is to have the ‘big brands’ involved.
England’s run in 2015 and long-term vision acted on by clubs such as City, plus fellow professional clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool (though the latter seem to have gone backwards in recent times) helped convince sponsors and partners in the domestic game that things were going in the right direction.
BT Sport, who started exclusively broadcasting games in 2014, are now covering their fifth season, while the BBC show one live match (BBC Sport Website or Red Button) and a highlights show (BBC One) each week. That confidence broadcasters have has allowed them to train and employ more pundits – some of which have started to sit on panels for men’s football. EA Sports – creators of the world’s leading football video game – couldn’t resist getting in on the action as they introduced women’s national teams to FIFA 16.
On-field success and the backing of these huge media corporations has seen profiles grow and opened more doors for individuals. Ex-England and Arsenal defender, Alex Scott is a regular pundit for the BBC, Sky and BT for both men’s and women’s football, plus boasts 288k social media followers. Meanwhile, current Lionesses skipper, Steph Haughton (MBE) has also appeared on Sky’s Super Sunday, was the first woman to appear on the cover of Shoot Magazine, and has 210k social media followers.
Despite the great strides that have been made, the likes of BT will be well aware that progress hasn’t been as smooth over the past 12 months with attendances down 11% after the switch back to a winter from a summer season. Add to that the unsavoury off-field saga involving Eni Aluko and Mark Sampson and progress has certainly been halted.
So what has been done to get things back on track? Step forward the FA – most notably Head of Women’s Football (and former Chair of UK Sport), Baroness Sue Campbell, Director of Participation and Development, Kelly Simmons and Head of Women’s Leagues and Competitions, Katie Brazier – three of the brainchildren behind the brand new WSL.
For the first time the WSL will be a restructured one-tier league (instead of two divisions) with – most importantly – 11 full-time, professional teams. Each club had to re-apply for their place – needing to meet certain criteria in order to receive their status. Meanwhile, the second-tier has been rebranded the Women’s Championship – instead of WSL 2 – and consists of 11 part-time clubs.
One side will be relegated from the WSL in 2018/19 and replaced with the top two Championship teams eligible for promotion if they can meet the professional criteria. Meanwhile, there will no relegation from the second to third-tier but two clubs could move the opposite direction in order to have 12 sides competing in the top-flight and the Championship.
Despite this and the aim to implement a consistent one-up, one-down system between the top three tiers from the 2019-20 season, the current set-up has seen some miss out on their true-league status (2018 WSL 2 winners Doncaster Belles – again – have been thrown down to the third-tier) in order to make way for those with more financial clout and ambition. Like with City in 2014, this is all being done with the aim take the sport forward and is similar to restrictions that happen at men’s non-league level.
However, the FA have to be careful they don’t try to sprint with this model before they can walk as the sport – despite its recent success – is still not in the safe zone. Getting the balance right between allowing those clubs with the funds and those who actually have the team and set-up to compete in WSL has to be looked at. For example, Doncaster would be more competitive than an Aston Villa (Championship) or maybe even Brighton & Hove Albion (WSL). Just letting clubs with big wallets in won’t necessarily raise the standards straight away. Status should be earned through performances.
Attendance targets of doubling numbers to 2,000 for each match also seem incredibly unrealistic. Currently the average stands at around 950, but when you take out Man City (over 2,000 per game), Chelsea (1,250) and Arsenal (1,000) most clubs will have to triple, or even quadruple what they’re currently getting. How is that supposed to grow in a winter season when on a weekend there’s men’s football on a Saturday, countless games on television, and grassroots for kids Sunday morning? For an organisation shouting about equality, the FA have to be extremely careful that they are not asking things they dare wouldn’t ask of men’s football.
It’s imperative targets are looked at and presented in a way that will get clubs motivated to meet them, not just for the good of the professional level but also at grassroots. Thanks to developments domestically and nationally, football is now the number one participated sport amongst women and girls with around 2.5 million players in total. There’s also around 6,750 teams (youth, women, disability and mini soccer), over 40,000 qualified coaches and 1,450 referees.
These numbers – alongside official partnerships with schools and festivals such as Girls’ Football Week – show it is ready to inspire and bring through the next generation. But, if these targets aren’t met, the league could become less desirable and the national team would suffer. As that trickles down to grassroots it will start to undo a lot of the good work that has been done.
Women’s football has come a long way from when I was oblivious to the WSL. However, whether the game can not only survive, but flourish will very much come down to how the new WSL performs in its first two years. It has already shown its huge potential, but if the FA can’t get the clubs onside new seeds might have to be planted come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where there’s talk of a Team GB comeback.