It has been 10 years since Arsenal narrowly beat Chelsea on the bumpy Imperial Fields of Tooting & Mitcham United FC to launch the Women’s Super League, which replaced the Women’s Premier League as England’s top flight.
Fast forward a decade and the WSL has moved from its semi-professional eight-team beginnings to a fully professional top tier of 12 sides, a semi-pro second tier of 12 teams and a Barclays title sponsorship worth about £20m, not to mention a shift from broadcasters covering costs for the rights to televise games to a BBC and Sky Sports package worth £8m per season and record attendances. With more women and girls taking part than ever before, this is all fuelling a shift in attitudes around the very idea of their playing football.
If the lifting of the ban on women’s football in 1971 brought the game out of the shadows, then the launch of the WSL in 2011 thrust a spotlight on it.
A decade ago, Kelly Simmons, then the FA’s head of the national game (the grassroots) and now the head of the professional women’s game, said: “We hope women’s football can build an audience on television and at matches and, if it can become more successful and gain in profile, it will help grow football further as a sport which girls and women want to play.”
It has taken time for that broad vision for the game to be realised but now these goals are very much reality and the women’s game is accelerating at breakneck speed.
Who knows where the game will be in 10 years’ time. “Big audiences,” says Simmons going into a milestone week for the WSL but also for her personally, having been such a driving force in the development of the women’s game. “You are already going to see big audiences, I think, next year.”
But it is a sustainable league and sustainable clubs that are the goal and if anyone can be trusted to look into a crystal ball and predict the next phase of the game it is Simmons. “The big change for me will be that the women’s game should be able to generate enough revenue in 10 years to stand on its own two feet,” she says. “At the moment it’s growing revenue.
“You’ve seen a lot of brands come in at club level. Obviously, we’ve seen the Barclays deal, we’ve seen the multimillion‑pound TV rights announcement we made a couple of weeks ago, but it’s not yet sustainable. It can’t survive without money made through men’s football. I think over 10 years, we’ll see that change, revenues will grow and ultimately we should be looking at a sustainable professional league in its own right and that will be a big shift.”
To get to the point where women’s teams are self-financing, Simmons believes it will take a “couple of media rights cycles”.
The growth to date has not come without casualties. “Some clubs couldn’t take that step. That’s been the toughest part of the 10 years without doubt,” says Simmons. “Knowing that the model is built with a part reliance on men’s football club money and therefore we’ve lost clubs along the way, or they’ve had to drop down to find a level of affordability, I think that that is really tough.
“But I still think that without creating that licence, we wouldn’t be setting those standards and we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Enforcing the criteria and standards outlined in the licensing has been a demand in recent weeks, after Birmingham players sent a letter to the club’s board criticising their treatment. “What I would say about Birmingham City is you can’t underestimate how difficult it must be at the moment for all of the clubs who are losing so much money [to the pandemic] and who have major challenges and are adjusting and surviving,” says Simmons.
There will be growth. What we’ve got to do is make sure that it grows without diluting the quality of the product
“It was really great to see Birmingham announcing they’ll be playing at St Andrew’s next season because that was a big area of concern, so that’s a tremendous step forward, and as I understand it from chatting to the people in the women’s club, there are really good discussions going on about addressing the issues that they raised, so hopefully they’ll get things sorted and be ready for the next season.”
Despite the struggles of some clubs at the bottom end of the table, expansion is inevitable, says Simmons. “There will be growth. What we’ve got to do is make sure that it grows without diluting the quality of the product, that we’ve got enough fully professional teams with the right support and the right amount of revenue. Obviously, the more teams we have the more it dilutes central revenues that are being distributed to support them.”
Next year that will mean the Championship will aim to accept two clubs via a fresh round of licensing to bring the league from 11 teams to 12 but the FA is taking a more cautious medium‑term approach to expansion beyond that. Meanwhile, early discussions have begun over league sponsorship, with the Barclays deal set to expire at the end of next season.