Women’s game is now riddled with uncertainty for clubs and players | Football

It has been said repeatedly, recently, that football, like many other things, no longer exists in a bubble. No area of society is able to stay immune from this crippling disease. There will be casualties in every sphere of life. Football is no different. Women’s football is no different.

Amanda Vandervort, the chief women’s football officer for Fifpro, the global players’ union, said the coronavirus pandemic could be “a major setback to the growth and progress we’ve made as an industry” and called for a “smart and collaborative approach, a common vision that unites national strategies and implements regulatory interventions to ensure we minimise setbacks.”

Having spoken to sources at Women’s Super League and Championship clubs, a picture has emerged of the challenges clubs, players and the FA face in trying to mitigate an inescapable crisis.

Women’s teams in England operate overwhelmingly at a loss with, generally, parent clubs of varying financial strengths footing the bill. With clubs across the men’s pyramid facing the financial consequences of postponed games, it is inevitable women’s teams will, apart from those associated with the biggest Premier League clubs, be impacted.

For the majority of women’s teams, turnstile and other matchday income does not cover the cost of ground contracts or hire, staffing and travel. The broadcast rights for the women’s game are owned by BT Sport and the BBC, who cover their costs rather than paying for rights. This means postponements are significantly less impactful on women’s teams. The biggest losses will be felt through covering player, coaching and staff contracts through an extended season and a potential loss of sponsors.

They face the same questions as the men’s game. Who wins the league? Who gets a Champions League place? Who gets relegated? Who comes up? Except the financial implications of those decisions, or that of a voided season, are insignificant by comparison.

That puts pressure on the FA to maintain a united stance on the resumption, or not, across professional football; the Premier League, EFL, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship. There is a logic to a united position: split things up and they could be accused of mixed messages at a time when clarity in society is sought after.

However, the huge sums of money involved in the men’s game and the consequences of season cancellations or premature conclusions are very different to the problems faced in the women’s. And, even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to not see the teams who have the most to lose or gain, those in the Premier League, dominating decisions.

There is widespread sympathy towards the situation the FA is having to deal with. It does appear that support for women’s teams may be on the cards, with clubs being asked to submit their expected losses and costs to the governing body.

An FA spokesperson said: “These are unprecedented and challenging times for all industries around the world and football is no different. We continue to work tirelessly with the football community, across every level of the game, to assess the impact of coronavirus, while taking the important steps to support the welfare of clubs, players, staff and supporters.”

The lack of a definitive decision on the season is stopping clubs from being able to plan for the future and provide answers to players and staff. On the other hand though, one source voiced concern that the outbreak could be a perfect storm for some clubs that would see it as an excuse to cut loose their women’s teams and that wrapping up the league now could prompt a dismissal of players and staff.

Action from Sheffield United’s game against Blackburn in the Championship in February.

Action from Sheffield United’s game against Blackburn in the Championship in February. Photograph: Paul Currie for The FA/REX/Shutterstock

Either way, players stand to lose. Footballers in the top two tiers of the women’s game are rarely on contracts of more than one year. Bar a handful at the very top, they are not yet afforded the security of lengthy contracts familiar in the elite men’s game. With the majority of contracts ending in June, and some only paid until the season was set to end in early May, players have been anxious to learn their fates and it is not implausible that, should the FA seek to play out the league season, players could find themselves playing their remaining games for other teams.

Many players at Championship level on semi-professional contracts have second jobs and will also find their off-field employment impacted too. Scarily, these are players in one of the most secure footballing environments for women in the world.

Vandevort highlighted the extent of the struggle globally. “After speaking with a number of players over the past several days, a few things have become clear to me,” she said. “First, communication is all over the map and, for the players, crisis management is happening largely at a club-by-club level. Some clubs are communicating consistently and clearly with their players, while others seem to barely share any information at all.

“Second, there is a great deal of variance on whether clubs are allowing players to leave and return to their homes and families. In such a time of a global pandemic, players deserve the ability to make the choices that are best for their individual health and well-being. Lastly, we’re hearing situations where player contracts are already being cancelled, and others where clubs have already restructured their budgets to eliminate women’s football altogether.

“These times are unsettling and players are finding themselves in precarious positions regarding where they’ll be throughout the quarantine.”

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Vandevort said players should continue to contact Fifpro, but is also keen to direct them to local player associations. “We welcome players to get in touch with us if they have questions, but as a first point of contact wherever possible, I’d advise players to first reach out to their domestic unions since they’ll be most familiar with local labour laws and domestic footballing environments. It’s also worth sharing that over the last few years many of the advances in women’s football have come when players and their national unions have worked together to achieve progress.

“From Denmark, to Ireland, Colombia, Chile, Cyprus, Spain and the US, women have achieved progress collectively. On an individual basis it can be challenging but with teammates alongside you can become much more influential and can create long-lasting positive impacts.”

It is highly likely teams will fold and players be discarded. Collective organising and experience sharing could be key in helping players navigate through this tumultuous period. Hopefully, clubs and governing bodies will rise to the challenge of providing support.

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