A new dawn in Women’s football came on April 14th 2011 although you’d be forgiven if you may have missed it. The launch of The (unnecessarily acronymic) FA WSL was desperately under-whelming given that the new ‘Women’s Super League’ incarnation is the elite domestic ladies competition in England. With The Football Association spending millions (a paltry £3m when you consider other payments paid by The FA in the past) to improve the standard of women’s football in this country, it was hardly an effervescent launch worthy of the talent on show.
Women’s football has certainly come a long way over the past twenty years and is, since 2003, the most popular female participation sport in the United Kingdom. Despite the past histrionics of Messrs Gray and Keys, the quality women’s football in this country is no longer something that is laughed at, but instead should be applauded. The England Women’s team has improved exponentially over the course of the major international tournaments of recent times. At the US-based World Cup in 2003, England did not qualify, whilst they only, rather ignominiously, reached the group stages of the European Championships held on English shores in 2005. The World Cup of 2007 was a much different story. It was the first time in twelve years that England’s women has managed to reach the World Cup finals-proper. Back in Sweden 1995, England reached the last eight before losing to eventual winners Germany, 3-0 in the quarterfinal.
In China 2007, drawn in the same group as the then-reigning champions Germany, England managed to go unbeaten in Group A (including a fantastic 0-0 result against the Germans) resulting in a second place finish and advancing to the next stage. A vastly superior USA side (ranked number 1 by FIFA) subsequently ended their journey in the quarter-final, but there was every reason to be hopeful for the future. That optimism was fulfilled in the World Cup of 2009, where England reached a major tournament final for the first time, succumbing once again to old rivals Germany in their Helsinki swan song.
Their performances did not go amiss – in 2005, BBC Two televised all of England’s games plus the live final and carried a nightly highlights programme. The BBC’s excellent coverage attracted 3 million viewers for England’s games – a record high for viewing figures of Women’s football in this country. For the 2007 Women’s World Cup, the BBC showed all of England’s games live, plus both semi-finals and the final, on either BBC One or Two. There was also a nightly highlights programme on BBC Two every matchday.
Rather incredulously, the BBC changed their policy in 2009, which meant they didn’t cover any of the last Women’s European Championships until the final itself, which England made and thus was promptly carried live on BBC Two. The BBC may feel as if they scored an own goal here having covered the England Women’s team extensively for a number of years before abandoning them for all but the end of their most successful tournament in a generation. That said, 1.5m viewers did witness the final in England, but it wasn’t the fairytale in Finland they had hoped for – Germany running out rampant 6-2 winners, Melanie Behringer scoring a pearler from 40 yards in the process.
Beating USA earlier this month has provided the England Women’s team with a new level of confidence, a new belief that they can challenge with the best in the world. The Women’s World Cup in Germany this summer is something that England should be looking forward to, hoping to fare better than their last-eight finish in Beijing.
Ticket demand has been incredible. 515,000 tickets have already been sold, with an extra 100,000 being made available in the final sales phase. Once again though, British television broadcasters have been slow on the uptake of tournament rights, potentially leaving the England team to play behind closed television screen once again.
What television broadcasters have proved recently however, is that there is a sea change in the way that people think about women’s involvement in a traditionally male-oriented sport.
Richard Keys and Andy Gray’s vilification of assistant Sian Massey at Molineux is something that has been churned so many times in recent weeks so I will refrain from re-hashing old news. However, the rearguard action taking by Sky to remove both from their position, along with the public backing of Massey alludes to a time where attitudes are changing in football. Women’s football is riding the crest of a wave right now, but unfortunately, the people in charge of The FA WSL may have fallen off their lofty surfboard.
Hope Powell, head coach of the England Women’s team has said,
“Women’s sports get a raw deal in this country. Women’s football is no different but we’re trying to change attitudes and mindsets to give it some air time and some space.”
This is where The FA may have missed a trick.
Despite running a weekly highlights programme, only five of the 112 games in the FA WSL are ‘guaranteed’ to be shown live on television by subscription-only ESPN. Compare this to the 115 Premier League games being shown on Sky alone, regardless of the 125 Champions League and 65 Football League games broadcast, with a further 23 shown on ESPN. With the FA WSL running in the first instance until the 12th May before the break for the Women’s World Cup in June, then continuing through to August, it seems absurd that so few games are to be broadcast. With no men’s major tournament scheduled this year, it would have been savvy to have guaranteed the fixture of Women’s football in to the sports schedules, not only to rubber-stamp broadcaster’s backing of the game, but to try and garner some more supporters in the UK.
Broadcast is one area, funding and development is another. The FA have sanctioned a £3m investment in The FA WASL over the next two years (£1.5m p/a) – the equivalent of 26,000 FA Cup tickets in 2011’s showpiece. Statistics published by the BBC also make interesting reading in relation to Women’s football investment. The £1.5m per year package offered is just 0.4% of The FA’s 2010 £314m turnover, 1.4% of the £103m put aside for ‘investment in football’. Or, just over 4% of the annual wage bill for the 568 employees treading the plush carpets at English football’s governing body.
Wages within The FA WSL are in vast comparison to those housed in the corridors of Wembley, with a salary cap enforced requiring no more than four of each team’s players to earn more than £20,000 a year. A year. Eight times less than Wayne Rooney’s basic salary per week, not inclusive of image rights. The reason for this salary cap is to ensure the sustainability of The FA WSL. In principle, I agree with this. But when teams blessed with players carrying an XY-pairing are doing their best to demonise football from the working-classes, The FA’s hypocrisy is insurmountable. Surely, a salary cap isn’t particularly necessary when the player is earning £15,962 after tax per annum? Some male Premier League players are charged more than treble that in tax per month.
There is hope that the smaller league offered by The FA – The FA WSL consisting of just 8 teams as opposed to previously higher numbers – will improve the quality of football shown. Players will be playing against the best players in the country week-in, week-out. That can only be a good thing. We have seen many big names go over the pond to ply their trade in America mainly in part due to the huge fan-base and large wages available in the United States. So the cynical few amongst the football fraternity can at least concede that it is good preparation for the upcoming World Cup. Not only for the players, but also for the broadcasters to feel their way into the uptake of women’s football in the current climate.
During the opening round of fixtures, The FA WSL players did their best to launch itself into the sporting press, with the four fixtures producing an average of three goals per game. Two of these of fixtures saw both a London and Merseyside derby, in Arsenal v Chelsea and Liverpool v Everton – the latter providing a thrilling six-goal draw. What is certain, is that this country has never been party to such a high-class display of women’s football, both with the performances of the international team and the advent of The FA WASL.
It’s just such a shame The FA couldn’t bring themselves to do these women justice and launch the league in the manner which the players did.