27 Aug Future of women’s soccer looks bright in Britain
When Canadian soccer star Janine Beckie takes the field for Manchester City next Saturday in its opening game of the Women’s Super League season, she won’t have to look far to find fellow Olympians.
Britain’s WSL has become one of the top professional leagues in the world and a magnet for some of the best female players. It’s got a growing fanbase, a corporate partnership with Barclays Bank and a new television deal in which up to 66 WSL games will be broadcast on Sky Sports and the BBC this season.
The Tokyo Olympics demonstrated just how far the WSL has come as a hotbed for developing global talent. A total of 44 WSL players competed at the Games for their national squads, including five who played for Canada: Beckie, Tottenham Hotspur’s Shelina Zadorsky, Chelsea’s Jessie Fleming, Adriana Leon of West Ham United and Deanne Rose, who recently signed with Reading. By contrast the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States had 37 players in Tokyo.
“Ever since I came into the WSL it has grown massively,” said Beckie, 27, who joined Man City in 2018. “It’s a really exciting time to be part of women’s football from a financial perspective and as a player.”
These are banner times for women’s soccer in Britain after decades of indifference and outright hostility. It wasn’t that long ago that women were banned from soccer fields – from 1921 to 1971 – and as recently as 1993 England’s Football Association had just 10,600 registered players. That’s now grown to more than 3.4 million and the figure has jumped by 54 per cent since 2016.
The WSL has been among the major beneficiaries of the resurgence. Average attendance at WSL matches tripled to more than 3,000 between 2017 and 2020, before the pandemic hit and fans were banned.
A further boost could come next summer when Britain plays host to the women’s European championship, with the final set for London’s Wembley Stadium. More than 700,000 tickets have been put on sale, potentially dwarfing the 240,000 tickets sold during Euro 2017 in the Netherlands. Organizers are hoping they can match the 80,000 plus who watched the gold-medal game between the United States and Japan at Wembley during the 2012 Olympics.
The WSL didn’t start out as a major force in women’s soccer. The FA launched it in 2011 as a part-time summer league with eight teams. The association created two divisions, which now has 12 teams each, in 2014 but the league remained largely a sideshow.
That changed in 2018 when the FA transformed the WSL into a fully professional operation, hoping to make it a more viable enterprise. Teams were told they had to offer players full-time contracts and open academies to develop young talent. The season also moved to fall and winter from summer, to match the men’s game.
The reforms led to greater involvement by English Premier clubs and today all but two of the 12 teams in the WSL’s top flight are part of EPL outfits such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Man City. It’s much the same, although to a lesser extent, across parts of Europe where women’s teams have been included at Paris St-Germaine, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
The association with Premier League clubs has given several women’s teams better training facilities and improved promotion. “We feel valued by the club which is incredibly important and our resources are unmatched by other women’s clubs,” Beckie said.
She added that the extra financial heft has allowed the WSL to attract dynamic players such as Denmark’s Pernille Harder, who signed with Chelsea last year in a deal that sent a record-breaking transfer of about £250,000 to her old team in Wolfsburg. Other top players include Sam Kerr, Abby Dahlkemper and Vivianne Miedema. “That just makes the quality better and makes the game more attractive to watch,” Beckie said.
It’s also helped to win over fans such as Rodney Cyrus, 52, a life-long Manchester United supporter who became a passionate follower of Man U’s women’s team when it launched in 2018. “In last few years I fell out of love with the men’s game. I just found it to be cynical, there was no real integrity to it,” said Cyrus, who lives in London and hosts a podcast called On And Off The Pitch, which focuses on women’s soccer. He finds the women’s game more honest and better connected to fans. “As a fan I appreciate what I see and I just want to watch as much of it as I can and promote it in my own way if I can,” he said.
A survey of 5,000 British soccer fans published earlier this month by sportswear specialist RunRepeat found that British men outnumber women as fans of women’s soccer. Men make up 62 per cent of the audience for women’s games on TV, according to the survey. That differs from the United States, where viewership is divided equally between men and women, and Europe, where female fans form the majority of viewers.
While the game has progressed enormously in recent years, there remain plenty of challenges. The financial requirements for teams to join the WSL can be onerous and several clubs, including lower-division Yeovil Town, Notts County and Doncaster Rovers Belles, have struggled to survive. There’s also a growing gap between the Premier League-backed teams and clubs that don’t have the same financial clout. And while the WSL has become full-time professional, players earn around £30,000 annually on average, a pittance compared with the average Premier League salary of £3-million.
“There’s a massive discrepancy between the top and the bottom of the league,” said D-M Withers, who’s on the board of Bristol City Women’s FC. “For a lot of the [2019-20] season we were getting absolutely annihilated.”
Bristol City was demoted to the second division at the end of last season and Withers questions whether the club will be able to carry on. “Having academy and full-time professional status, all of those things are really good … but if you don’t have a men’s side who can suck up losses to enable a pro women’s football set-up, then you get relegated,” she said.
Even teams that have the backing of a big club can run into problems. In April, the players at Birmingham City sent a letter to the club’s directors to raise concerns about unequal access to medical services, fitness facilities and financial backing. In a statement the club vowed to address the issues but said it faced constraints: “The women’s football landscape has changed drastically with more investment and resources required year-on-year.”
For now, though, players such as Beckie can’t wait for the new WSL season to begin. She knows she’s lucky to be in the WSL and feels that Canada is falling behind. Canada remains one of the few top-level soccer countries without a domestic women’s league and there is no Canadian team in the NWSL. “You look at all the best teams in the world right now, all of them have domestic leagues,” she said. “So that’s something that Canada is really missing out on.”
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