Ominous warnings have been sounded by the international players’ union that women’s football faces an existential threat. When AFC Fylde disbanded their women’s team last week it was probably the tip of an iceberg – but how gloomy is the game’s future?
Although everyone agrees there will be casualties, opinion is split about the extent of any setback. Alan Naigeon offers his assessment from a position of authority as a managing partner of the agency A&V Sports, which represents players such as Chelsea’s Sam Kerr and Lyon’s Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg.
“My expectation is that we’re going to lose one or two years in the growth of women’s football,” Naigeon says. “The investment that is going to be made is going to look closer to what it was right before the World Cup, maybe just after, and if that’s the case then we’re lucky.
“My fear is that we go back two, three, four, five years from now, closer to the previous World Cup in 2015, because the clubs are going to be financially struggling and like in every business you usually tend to cut what is not earning you any money.”
In England a twin track may emerge. Nine of the 12 Women’s Super League clubs are attached to men’s Premier League sides and one senior club source says: “We’ve never had that much to start with and we’ve created an environment now where there’s high reputational risk on big men’s clubs over reducing the budget lines of women’s teams. Whatever happens, there will be players that want to play. Women’s football is resilient, women in football are resilient.”
Clubs that stand to lose most are those without a men’s team alongside them such as the Championship quartet Durham, Lewes, Coventry United and London City Lionesses. Those attached to a men’s club not ideologically committed to its women’s team and unbothered by reputational damage are also in peril. For every club that falls out, though, another is waiting to take its place.
“Some might struggle financially, some might suffer from delayed promotions [because leagues are voided] but, ultimately, if you want to take professional women’s football as a whole – and not focus on the individual entities that suffer – then I think it’s still in a very positive space,” says another agent. “If someone falls out of the WSL, who’s going to replace them? Aston Villa. If someone falls out of the Championship, who’s going to replace them? Southampton.
“However, the longer the uncertainty goes on the more it will start to weigh on the sport. You can lose one or two teams and survive, but you can’t lose half of women’s football.”
Such a bleak outcome is unlikely. Dame Heather Rabbatts, a former Football Association director and the founder of the Women’s Sports Group, is convinced the “momentum behind women’s football will not cease”. She emphasises no sport will be unaffected in the coming weeks and months but wants to ensure the conversation does not “create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy about women’s football in a way that we’re not doing about men’s football”.
Yet even if the game remains “reasonably healthy” at the top, progress appears certain to stall. “In the longer term that’s not really helping women’s football to stand alone and be it’s own sustainable revenue-generating product,” a club source says.
When matches resume may be crucial. On the one hand a lengthy period without competition could prompt players to step away, on the other too swift a return could be detrimental. “The crunch comes when players are told they can come back to work and teams can’t furlough any more,” the source said. “Clubs just won’t have any money.”
Naigeon believes many players out of contract this summer will suffer. “Struggling clubs are not going to take any risks so those players are probably not in as high demand and they’re going to struggle for offers on the same level to what they were on, at best.” With contracts at the top likely unaffected, he adds that the differences between leading teams and the rest “will be accentuated and that’s only going to make the league less interesting”.
Opportunities, though, could arise – at least for some. “On the men’s side, sponsorship was becoming much more difficult even before this,” a representative of a top WSL club says. “Commercially people will be looking for cheaper options and this is a cheaper option. Companies aren’t going to want to spend hundreds of millions of pounds, but the women’s game is at the start of a journey.”
Such optimism is tempered by a source further down the pyramid, however. “I’m not sure they would go for Reading or Bristol City [women’s sides]. Big clubs are in a position of privilege because they have a recognisable brand.”
Reece Land of the Women’s Sports Alliance adds that some lower-league clubs have “sponsors asking for money back – they either want a rebate or a reduction on next season, which will impact budgets”.
A game-changer may be the sale of WSL broadcast rights for the 2021-22 season onwards, which the Women’s Sports Group and Rabbatts are working on with the FA. “That would be a brand-new income stream for women’s football,” another club source says. “We don’t get any TV money.”
Rabbatts says that, for broadcasters, the key is that “the level of interest in women’s football is still really highly engaged” and she argues that values such as collaboration and passion amplified during the pandemic play to its strengths. “Those are exactly the values in the game, and all of those will strike a very particular resonance, and the attractiveness of women’s football is going to be enhanced. The prediction that women’s football is about to keel over, I fundamentally disagree with it.”