In part eight of our series, Life After Chaos, Katie Whyatt examines the future for women’s footbal. You can also read Jason Burt on men’s football, Daniel Schofield on rugby, Nick Hoult on cricket, Simon Briggs on tennis, Oliver Brown on F1, Fiona Tomas on netball, Molly McElwee on women’s cricket and Tom Cary on cycling.
Of all the professional sports affected by coronavirus, women’s football will face perhaps the most startling reminder of its own mortality. Not every women’s club will survive this pandemic. If the portents of FifPro, the global players’ union, are to be believed, the existence of the sport itself is at risk. Women’s football clubs have, for the past two years in particular, flown as close to the sun as their waxen wings allow. In the coming months, many will drop out of the sky.
When the Football Association announced, in 2017, that the Women’s Super League would become the first fully-professional league in Europe, the game was divided. In principle, this was overdue: increased investment would mean a better product, better players, new career paths for younger players. Yet there was a lingering sense of unease, a feeling that this brave new world was not only built on sand but was also stripping the women’s game of its autonomy.
The licensing criteria for WSL clubs for the 2018/19 season stipulates default off-field spending requirements that come to £120,000. Add in player salaries — from £15,000 a year at the league’s poorer clubs to £300,000 among some players in the top three — and women’s sides are reliant on men’s sides to bankroll them. The likes of Sunderland, relegated two divisions for failing to meet the WSL criteria, are the collateral for landmarks like the arrival of Manchester United.
“Most of the women’s clubs are losing between half a million and a million pounds a year,” says Kieran Maguire, a football finance lecturer at the University of Liverpool, “which, in the context of some of the crazy numbers in football, is relatively insignificant, and is affordable. Having said that, the clubs will be looking at all costs, and the opportunities to cut costs. That puts women’s football at risk.
“Two thirds of the clubs in the Premier League are losing money on a day-to-day basis. For most clubs, the vast majority of their costs are player-related: either wages or outstanding transfer fees because most of the transfer deals in the men’s game are dealt with on credit. Unless we can get those costs down, other costs are pretty immaterial. Chelsea were spending £102 on wages and transfer fees for every £100 that came through the door. That, clearly, is the main reason why they’re losing so much money. Everton lost more than £100 million last season. Therefore, Chelsea’s women’s team losing £745,000 [according to Companies House records compiled June 2018] is, to a large extent, an irrelevance.”
It is of little comfort that the game is littered with so many cautionary tales. When Sunderland were laden with debts of £110 million and Martin Bain oversaw so many redundancies that his Wikipedia page was edited to read “the grim-reaper of the club”, the women’s side were among the earliest casualties. In 2007, Charlton were relegated from the men’s Premier League on the same day Casey Stoney captained the women’s side in front of a then-record FA Cup final crowd of 25,000: later that year, Charlton announced the closure of their women’s set-up to cut costs.
Notts County — disbanded two days before they were due to play Arsenal at the start of the WSL Spring Series in 2017 — are the most notable memento mori. Alan Hardy had purchased both the men’s and women’s clubs five months earlier, aiming to clear debts owed by both sides.
“The chairman came in all guns blazing: he wanted to be here, and he has a daughter that plays football,” recalls Danielle Buet, formerly of Notts County and now of Brighton.
“[But] towards March, April time, you could tell. Our manager became a little bit more stressed, was pulled into meetings. We had to change training pitches a couple of times because the club hadn’t paid for facilities. Then [we] got a text Thursday evening saying we had an urgent meeting Friday morning. Then we found out that we’d been liquidated.
“A lot of the girls were preparing for a World Cup two or three months away. Well, what do we do now? We haven’t got a club. We’re never getting paid – a lot of people have mortgages. We were also in accommodation supplied by the club, so straight away you think your house is going to get taken away from you because they need their assets back. Where do you find a house? I’m going to be homeless.
“With everything going on, there will be unfortunately some financial difficulties for a lot of clubs, men and women.”
For Steve Allinson, a former representative on the WSL management committee and previously chairman of Yeovil Town Women, coronavirus has merely brought pre-existing issues into sharp relief. The reason Yeovil couldn’t survive in the WSL, he says, is because “we were the only club, and still are the only club, that’s ever been in the WSL that’s tried to be self-sustainable.
“I always said to the FA that I was just really concerned about their business model. If you look at the accounts of every Super League team, you will see that they are all absolutely, hopelessly insolvent. The linkage with big men’s football clubs is going to be really, really dangerous, going forward.”
Allison claims a director of one club lamented to him: “I don’t know why we spend this money on our women’s team – surely we should just buy a new striker to try and get ourselves into the Premier League.” Unless the FA realise that they have got to support grassroots clubs more and make everybody self-sustainable, I think we’ve got a huge accident waiting to happen. When the coronavirus is over, the focus will be back on men’s football: I can just see women’s football being squeezed. I really fear for [clubs’] long-term survival.”