Less than a year after England reached a World Cup semi-final watched by 11.7 million people and a new season got under way in front of 31,213 fans at the Etihad Stadium, we are facing more than six months without professional women’s football in England.
Seven months to be precise if, as expected, the new Women’s Super League and Championship seasons begin in September. Meanwhile the resolution of the Women’s FA Cup campaign is yet to be decided, but it is hard to see it returning given clubs are winding down now the leagues have concluded.
How we reached this point has been messy. The dithering over a decision on whether to curtail the league season left most clubs, players and fans fatigued to the point that they saw no alternative to cancellation. These are extraordinary times and mistakes will be made. However, there have been 10 weeks to find a way to play, to find a way to fund and safely manage a return, to find a way to prevent a complete halting of the progress that has been made.
All we have been told by the Football Association is that the decision to end the season was made “in the best interest of the women’s game”. A statement read: “This will also enable clubs, the FA Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship Board and the FA to plan, prepare and focus on next season when football returns for the 2020-21 campaign.” As fans prepare to gorge on a feast of Premier League football, some of which will be broadcast on terrestrial television, women’s football has been put out of sight and out of mind for the foreseeable future.
Women’s football needs bold and innovative leadership to navigate this period. Increasingly it seems like the FA is unable to provide it. Why? Because, despite some extremely talented and passionate staff working with the best of intentions, women’s football cannot help but be shackled by the FA’s other commitments.
For a while now, the FA has touted the idea of handing over the WSL to the Premier League to run. Early this year Premier League clubs were presented with a feasibility study into a potential takeover but kicked the decision into the long grass, agreeing to have another look in a year. At the time, the FA said that it is “supporting the Premier League in a project to explore the long-term feasibility of the Premier League running the Women’s Super League. This is a purely exploratory project and based on a long-term timescale.”
Despite the constant tinkering with the leagues, with mixed results and many (possibly preventable) casualties, there can be little doubt that the decision of the FA to invest more seriously in the women’s game in recent years has resulted in huge strides on the pitch as well as off it. It has also given the women’s game huge authority in the eyes of the public, sponsors and broadcasters. Women’s football in England needed the FA.
Yet there is an argument that the FA has taken the women’s game as far as it can. That, with the Premier League wielding the real power in English football and the FA unable to make decisions solely in the interests of the women’s game, it can no longer drive the next stage of development with the ruthlessness needed in this most unforgiving of industries. The current crisis has highlighted these shortcomings.
That isn’t to say that a Premier League takeover would be any better – quite the opposite, in fact. This pandemic has shown the selfishness and greed of the men’s top tier in all its glory as a restart plan was pushed through despite Covid-19 deaths and public concern, while a blind eye has been turned to the clubs outside their wealthy ranks. Just as women’s football is not the FA’s sole priority, nor would it be the priority of the Premier League. The way football is run and structured in England means the women’s game will always play second fiddle to the men’s.
One answer could be for English football to rethink its purpose and push closer to how Germany does things. Another answer could lie in independent leadership – a body that can run the women’s game, both the WSL and Championship, and make decisions solely in its interest.
Take a look stateside for what that could look like. The National Women’s Soccer League is managed by US Soccer but the clubs own the league and are in negotiations for a structured separation. The NWSL is not perfect, but during this pandemic it has found a way to fight its corner and is set to be the first professional team sport to return in the US when its new Challenge Cup – a one-month tournament involving all teams that will take place in Salt Lake City – kicks off on 27 June.
Sponsorship deals could easily be in the air as the pandemic rocks the economy but the NWSL has found a way to keep itself attractive – Budweiser, CBS, Nike, P&G, Secret, Thorne, Twitch and Verizon are all backing the league.
The WSL has the authority and profile to tread the same path. It is attractive in its own right and a leadership structure making decisions unhindered could be very effective in this market-driven game.