RRule number one in English football: When Leah Williamson tells you to do something, you do it. Especially when she’s screaming at you to the din of over 90,000 fans at Wembley. “We want them to come to WSL games!” – she shouted from the 17 million viewers who watched triumphant climax of the Euro 2022 final on the BBC.
Fortunately, the public took Williamson’s advice to heart. Something has changed here. Arsenal and Brighton kicked off on Friday night new Super League season sold out at Meadow Park. Manchester City have already sold 20,000 tickets for December’s derby against Manchester United.
Season ticket sales for “Aston Villa” increased by 108%. And while the Queen’s death derailed last weekend’s grand opening, the stage is now set for the latest chapter in one of British sport’s great success stories: a game built over decades of violent extinction to create something fresh, exciting and joyful.
Now about the delicate part. With the euphoria of Wembley now a cherished memory, the battle for his legacy has begun. There have never been so many competing visions of what women’s football should look like in this country. Everyone agrees on the need to “up the game.” But how this growth should be created and who should benefit from it in the first place: these are questions that will be resolved in the coming months, questions that will define the soul of the sport.
Hours after England’s win over Germany, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes used her column in the Telegraph to call for a radical rethink of English women’s football. Hayes called for the WSL to be run along the lines of the Premier League, a separate body that aims to maximize the commercial potential of top clubs by seeking “investment from corporations, partners and sponsors” that would create a “trickle-down” effect. through the game. “I’ve always been a fan of the women’s game becoming a business,” she said later. “I think we’ve entered that phase.”
Hayes is by no means alone in seeing women’s soccer as a profitable startup. “It’s literally a gold mine,” Megan Rapinoe said Guardian interview the last month. Meanwhile, Denmark international Pernille Harder expressed her joy spiral transfer fees at the top of the women’s game, saying: “I think it’s good for women’s football when the money is rolling. It shows that he continues to develop.” Naturally, there are several strands to this debate. Hayes’ job is to advocate for his club, which is now looking to expand its boundaries, to attract the world’s best players to London to compete not only domestically, but also at European level. The departure of Kira Walsh to Barcelona and Georgia Stanway to Bayern Munich shows that English clubs still lag behind the cream of Europe in terms of prestige and appeal.
But further down the pyramid, where wages are not enough to live on and training must invariably match the job, you hear a very different perspective on growth. “What’s the purpose?” asks Maggie Murphy, CEO of Lewes FC. “Is this just entertainment, is this a business? Because if so, at some point Lewes FC will fall away and die. If decisions are made that require more and more money in an impossibly short time frame, we won’t be able to keep up. So for us it’s an existential question.” Lewes play in the second-tier Championship, one of the few teams in the top flight not affiliated with a major men’s club. They are owned by the fans, generate all their profits and are still the only club in the UK divide it equally between the male and female sides. Attendance has quadrupled in three seasons. If you wanted to develop and run a women’s football club from scratch, Lewes would be your starting point.
“We are more than just football. We are soccer plus community plus purpose,” says Murphy. “Often I envy the funding of other clubs and then I meet some of the staff who work at those clubs and they envy our environment, our city, our community. You can’t fake these things.” Murphy sits on the board of both the WSL and the Championship, meaning the coming months will bring tough conversations. The Football Association governs the women’s game at all levels in England but is preparing to withdraw from the WSL competition, which it launched in 2011. A search for a new independent chief executive to lead the stand-alone WSL and championship will soon be announced.
The FA would retain a share for three years, but would ultimately leave the future in the hands of the biggest women’s clubs, which are increasingly becoming the biggest men’s clubs too.
Liverpool’s promotion means that the top nine Premier League clubs from last season are also represented in this season’s WSL. (Aston Villa, Everton and Reading are the others.) It’s the crystallization of a long-term trend: while the early seasons of the WSL saw Bristol Academy, Doncaster Belles and Lincoln grace the top flight, over time the gravity of men’s football has shifted powerfully. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have held the top three in every WSL season since 2015. Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and West Ham have been late to invest. Newcastle, who have made women’s football a priority under new ownership, won’t be stuck in the fourth tier for long.
Lewes don’t have a big benefactor and have made it to the second tier purely on membership, sponsorship and match income. If women’s football finds itself in a toxic cost-benefit spiral, an arms race to the top, they simply won’t be able to compete.
“One of the ironies is that the better women’s football gets, the more dependent it becomes on men’s football to fund that ambition,” says Murphy. “You can’t just assume that more money is good. If it doesn’t go hand in hand with good governance and equal decision-making and diversity, then I’m not sure it is necessary. If we assume that more money at any price is a good thing, we’re going to start seeing some dodgy investments that could tear apart the fabric of the culture we’ve built.”
The woman with the unenviable job of finding a compromise between these competing visions is Baroness Campbell, the FA’s head of women’s football. “I wish I could give you a really simple answer, but there isn’t,” she admits. “We don’t want the head to leave the body. What we’re selling to broadcasters and sponsors is a competitive league, not four or five teams. And that’s why growing everything is important. We must take everyone on this journey. I think we all understand that.”
Radical solutions are on the table. Equalizing prize money in the FA Cup will have the potential to transform smaller clubs overnight. A gradual redistribution of broadcasting revenue – towards clubs further down the pyramid – would be even more transformative. But, as Brighton director Michelle Walder admitted to SportsPro: “No one necessarily wants to fund their rivals who might force them to go down. So it’s a balance.”
These are questions that stray from the realm of ideology. But women’s football has always been an ideological thing: from the earliest days it was imagined as an alternative culture, a struggle against traditional authority, the simple idea that existence could be resistance. This spirit has survived to this day. Overall, women’s football is a diverse and safe space, its people approachable and relatable, its product largely untainted by tribalism and abuse, crypto-fraud and super-agents.
In truth, preserving the unique culture of women’s football is a priority that almost everyone agrees on. More importantly, the leading players—virtually all of whom rose from obscurity through a system of underfunding—are united in the importance of securing it all the way. Arsenal defender Lotta Vouben-Moy was behind an open letter from Ilwitz to Liz Truss demanding increased investment in school sports. “They’re very thorough and very authentic,” says Campbell. “They are proud to wear this England shirt, they are proud to wear their club shirt. But they want to keep everything intact.”
This is why the next eight months of conflict, conversation and consensus are so important. The Lionesses have shown what is possible when you invest in the top end of the women’s game. Meanwhile, the WSL’s big three go far. Developing the game in a way that gives everyone else a chance: that’s the battle ahead. And there’s never been a better time to disprove the number two rule of English football: money finds a way, after all.