March 20, 2014
A closed league, licencing and franchising in European football? The FA Women’s Super League experiment.
Will football ever see a European Super League for the top teams across the continent? If it were to become a reality, it would likely follow a closed system similar to American sports with no promotion or relegation. So in a sense, very ‘un-European’. Football remains a sport where the traditional pyramid system is fundamental, and so the proposal for a closed league for the elite few is widely rejected. That’s not how European football works.
However, look closely and you will see a closed football league in full flow within Europe, where the top teams in the country play with no fear of relegation. The Football Association Women’s Super League (FAWSL) was established in England in 2011. Yes, women’s football – but keep reading, as this closed league model, an experiment in European football, has had consequences that should be of interest (and concern) to any football fan.
Women’s football in England has always been overshadowed by its male counterpart – so much so, it’s hard to see at all sometimes. The FA launched the first semi-professional league for women in England in 2011, to increase the profile and standard of the game. But it came with a catch: clubs had to apply for one of the eight FAWSL places, and meet strict minimum requirements of business and financial management, infrastructure, and commercial sustainability and marketing.
The FA asserts that the WSL has increased competition, and fostered a growth in the profile of the game, media coverage and commercial investment. Live matches are shown on (subscription) television, and are played in the summer months when there is no competition with men’s football for pitches or fans. Fundamentally, this should all be of benefit to the game and the army of football-playing girls who need visible role models in a similar way as their brothers have.
But under the surface, tensions are bubbling.
Manchester City Women will join the FAWSL for 2014, with significant financial investment from the male club. They will take the place of Doncaster Belles, with their long history at the top of women’s football, whose licence renewal application was rejected one game into the 2013 season. After 22 years in the top flight of women’s football, they had to play out the season knowing that they would not be there next year, even if they finished as champions. Unsurprisingly, they finished bottom.
Franchising is another concern. The Lincoln Ladies management team put their FAWSL 2014 bid in under the name of Notts County, a professional club in Nottingham. This was to meet application requirements: Notts County (men) could offer more than Lincoln City (men). The Lincoln fan base have seen their local team moved 40 miles away and given a new name and colours – echoing the heavily criticised relocation of Wimbledon F.C to Milton Keynes. Worryingly for the football fan, the FAWSL proves that this was not a one-off. Although this being women’s football, the story passed almost unnoticed outside of Lincoln.
The impact of the club licencing system stretches worryingly beyond the FAWSL. With no hope of promotion, clubs outside the top tier know that they can only ever be ‘the best of the rest’. Players who want to fulfill their dream of elite women’s football will have to move elsewhere. The gap between the FAWSL and the rest may affect the quality of the lower leagues. And so on. Success in women’s football is now more about your off-field performance as your on-field.
Should football fans be concerned that this is a pilot run for a closed league that could be replicated elsewhere? Is women’s football a playground for the FA to trial new ideas? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, this is an experiment that could go very wrong.
Women’s football has never traditionally been dominated by money. There has never been enough floating around for it to be an issue. But in this closed league for the elite, money is becoming a major player. Liverpool’s 2013 FAWSL title win came after finishing bottom the previous two seasons and coincided with Liverpool F.C investing in their female side. The FA claims that the exciting finish to last season demonstrates “the unpredictable nature of the game we all know and love”. The counter argument may hold more weight, in demonstrating the most predictable aspect of modern football: success requires money. Few would disagree that the biggest concerns facing men’s professional football in England increased rapidly when money began to flow into the game at an alarming rate. Women’s football might still be far from this state, but the warning signs are there: money talks, and it rarely says the right things.