By James McMahon
Women’s football in England embarked on a rose-tinted new era last month, as the full extent of the FA’s restructuring program was laid bare for the first time. Explicitly undertaken with the goal of facilitating an explosion in the grass-roots women’s game and exponentially widening the sport’s audience to rival the men’s, most of the reaction, that I have seen at least, has been overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the lack of seriousness still afforded to women’s football that much of the coverage surrounding the announcement seems to have shown a complete unwillingness to scratch even a little under the surface, so, on behalf of teams such as Sheffield FC, Sunderland and Doncaster Belles, this is my small attempt to help spread some of the outrage and disappointment that should duly be headed the FA’s way.
Essentially, there have been three major changes to the ‘entry requirements’ a club must meet in order to take part in the Women’s Super League (the top tier of women’s football). First, all teams must now be fully professional, and all of their playing staff must be signed on full-time contracts with a minimum number of contact hours per week. Second, each club must maintain a certain level of financial investment into the team in line with guidelines set by the FA. Third, each super league club must set up an academy for the production and nurturing of young talent.
Now, these three alterations in and of themselves won’t sound particularly destructive to those solely familiar with the men’s game (and that’s not a dig, by the way), so it’s probably helpful to quickly outline the scale of the difference between the men’s and women’s game, financially speaking. In terms of wages, players in the WSL earn on average £26,752 per year, compared to the men’s Premier League average of £2.64m. Clubs in the WSL often make substantial losses too: last season Arsenal lost £264,00, Liverpool £56,022, and Man City £749,000 (and more on Man City later…). Now, of course these are figures for the top clubs, who have been striving to compete at the very top of the football pyramid – they can afford to go into the red as their parent franchises can always bail them out. But that brings us on to those teams who aren’t competing right at the top, those who perhaps don’t have a billionaire oligarch associated with their men’s team.
The FA recognises that less affluent teams would struggle to keep up on their own under the new regulations, so kindly offered to subsidise some of the costs that would be incurred during their overhaul. Unfortunately, the figure they thought appropriate is £120,000 per club. Teams such as Doncaster Belles, Sheffield FC, Durham and Sunderland – i.e. those who aren’t attached to financially successful men’s teams (Sunderland’s women’s team has recently been cut off from their male counterpart) – would be expected to finance a fully functioning academy, pay a full-time professional squad £27,000 each a year, maintain a certain amount of full-time staff members, and still have money left over from somewhere to invest in growing the club. This cannot be covered by £120,000 plus small sponsorship deals and measly gate receipts (my local team, Sheffield FC Ladies, for example, charge £4 per head, £2 for concessions – with attendances of around 200, that isn’t much).
It’s almost as if the FA are desperately trying to forge a fast-track route towards the rampant commercialisation of the women’s game. What the FA really want is for the multi-million commercial sponsorships to come rolling in, to rake in the Sky money from broadcasting rights, watch ticket prices grow ever steeper, and, on the seventh day, sit back and pat themselves on the back for what a great job they’ve done in promoting grass-roots women’s football – grass-roots of course meaning top-tier academies operating off oligarch-tainted cash trickling down from their male parent clubs.
The enforced demise of Doncaster Belles is the perfect example. Formed in 1969, they have been one of the most successful clubs in the history of the women’s game. They’ve won the FA Cup 6 times, and been in the final on a further 7 occasions, and were twice top-tier champions (prior to the formation of the WSL). Despite all this, in 2013 they found themselves forcibly relegated from the Super League after having only played a single game. Essentially, they weren’t able to match the ever-increasing financial demands placed on teams by the FA. Purely by coincidence, the cash-rich Manchester City were allowed leapfrog two divisions and take Donny Belles’ place. In this season just gone, the FA abolished promotion and relegation from the WSL2 (the second tier) due to the incoming structural changes. Which is fair enough – until you consider the fact that Doncaster Belles won the WSL2 by 10 points, winning 15 of their 18 games this season. Before being forcibly relegated. Again. Having originally successfully applied for a licence for the Women’s Championship (the new restructured 2nd tier for the coming season), Sheffield FC and Oxford United also felt it necessary to withdraw from the league for financial reasons, and have been voluntarily relegated.
There is a clear disconnect between what the FA says and what they actually do – you can’t claim to uphold the virtues of grass-roots football while simultaneously pricing grass-roots teams out of your league; deliberately placing ridiculous financial demands upon them so they can be replaced by Manchester City or Manchester United. The FA tries to project an image of inspiring, motivational support for pure, real, proper football; a football in which any team that is good enough can rise to the top, no matter their wealth or background. In reality, they’re drooling in anticipation of the get-rich-quick scam that is professional men’s football, resolutely determined to carefully repeat those very same mistakes over and over again.