The FA Women’s Super League is celebrating 10 years since the first season began on 13 April 2011 and one of the biggest aims for the next 10 years is financial self-sufficiency and sustainability, which is already being boosted by growing audiences, a new television deal and greater commercial reach.
The landscape of women’s football has changed dramatically in England since the WSL was created to replace the Women’s Premier League as the new top flight. A restructuring created the Women’s Championship in 2014, raising the standards that clubs need to operate at in order to be granted a license to compete, while the WSL went fully professional in 2018.
All of the positive steps since 2011 have served to make the WSL the best women’s league in Europe, and arguably the world. To cement that status, while also engaging in a collaborative approach to help develop the domestic competitions overseas, is the vision for the future.
Professional status in the top flight has improved the standard because players have access to full-time training and coaching, many for the first time, while a multi-million broadcast deal with Sky Sports and BBC will both invest money into WSL clubs and help games reach a wider audience.
That TV contract, announced earlier this season, is the first time that WSL broadcast rights have been sold domestically, with broadcast partners until now only required to cover production costs.
The FA already has an active multi-million partnership for the WSL with Barclays that began in 2019, creating prize money, while the greater profile and quality of the league, as well as growing interest, will only serve to make further commercial deals more accessible in the short and long-term.
Speaking to 90min last month, Megan Rapinoe said the TV broadcast deal in particular is an ‘incredible’ step forward for the WSL and stressed that the money from such partnerships is the single most important tool for the continued development of the women’s game.
The original Barclays deal is set to come to an end at the end of next season, but the FA is already in tentative early talks about what a renewed partnership beyond then might look like.
Such leaguewide commercial and broadcast deals that will share money between the clubs from a central pot, in addition to any partnerships and sponsorships that individual clubs will be increasingly able to negotiate themselves is the way forward to financial sustainability.
It was the lack of finances that killed both WUSA and WPS in the United States, forerunners to the current NWSL, but the FA is determined that its WSL sides will be able to support themselves in the not too distant future without additional help from the men’s branch of their respective clubs. Ultimately, having a sustainable league is as important as having a quality league.
To help achieve that, some of the challenges the WSL faces in the short-term is ensuring that sufficient infrastructure is in place to support the growth and development of the league. That means having a good standard of pitches available to play on, making sure that the venues where games are held have decent media facilities – both for written and broadcast media, and improving the quality of referees and match officials, who are currently only part-timers.
There are currently no plans to implement VAR in the WSL because of the vast cost involved, but one of the more important current developments surrounds player safeguarding and protection when it comes to social media and online abuse and captain’s meetings have emerged as one of the few pluses of the pandemic, giving players a more open line of communication to the FA and league bosses. These meetings are a way of ensuring that players are more supported.
Among the regrets in the development of the WSL is that rapidly raising standards for licenses to be granted to clubs, such as the formulation of WSL 2 in 2014, now the Women’s Championships, has meant that a handful of the more historic sides have fallen by the wayside. Budgetary constraints have seen certain teams drop further down the league ladder to a more affordable level, but it again all feeds back into making the pyramid as a whole higher quality and financially sustainable.
The first 10 years of the WSL have been a whirlwind, starting as an eight-club semi-professional competition but going on to become a solid two-tier setup with 24 clubs and a fully professional top flight that is the envy of Europe in terms of its status, appeal and competitiveness.
If the next 10 years provide that level of growth and development again, perhaps even at an accelerated pace because of increasing financial power, the sky truly is the limit for the WSL by 2031.