Following the success of women’s football in the Olympic games, the FA have recently announced a five-year plan named the ‘Game Changer’, in an attempt to spread the coverage of the women’s game in England.
The plan focuses around four main areas: the creation of an elite performance unit and the appointment of a head of elite development for development of youth, delivering a new commercial strategy for women’s football including further broadcast strategy, expanding the FA Women’s Super League by introducing second division in 2014 to enable promotion and relegation and finally to improve participation and extend the existing fan base.
The plan seems to be formulated on the back of the pride of the Olympic games that saw 70,584 fans turn out at Wembley to see Team GB defeat Brazil. David Burnstein believes that ‘women’s football is the area with the most potential for growth in the nations favorite game.’ With manager of the year nominee Hope Powell leading the charge, the plan seems to be grounded on solid evidence.
However, this seems a grand proposal that comes off the back of a very uncertain start for the Women’s Super League. The league was formulated following the cancellation of the Women’s Professional Soccer League, the first professional women’s league based in the United States. That league failed because of the lack of financial backing, and that seemed to be a problem for the new WSL even before the league began, with sponsors Yorkshire Building Society and Continental Tyres being announced days before the league started last season. This season only Continental Tyres remain as sponsors.
This not only puts this seasons financial state in doubt, but also undermines the idea of developing a commercial and broadcasting strategy that is specifically trying to gain a separate identity from the men’s game.
Considering the men’s Premier League received £3bn pounds for their latest television rights, it seems odd that Burnstein is distancing himself from this money which will be used not only to pay for ‘parachute’ payments for relegated clubs, for example, but also to help fund projects in grassroots football. In the place of the Sky/BT deal the WSL is currently supported by ESPN, a company who is under particular questions about it’s viability in the UK after losing out to B.T on a Premier League package, who are showing a mere 10 live matches the 2012/13 season as well as highlights, hardly enough to create ‘strong commercial partnerships to elevate the profile of the women’s game,’ an aim which is outlined in the Game Changer’s mission statement.
The competitive nature of the WSL is also something that Burnstein is looking to address. Arsenal Ladies, Birmingham and Everton have finished in the top three places respectively for the past two seasons, with Arsenal only losing twice in those two seasons. An introduction of more teams to create a second division, and perhaps a real sense of competitiveness is the only real point that carries any sort of weight. However, whereas clubs such as Manchester City seem keen to heighten the reputation of their women’s team, others such as Manchester United have not.
There is also a similar sense of realization regarding England’s coaching strategy. The well documented figure that there are only 2,768 English coaches with UEFA A and B pro badges compared to the 23,996 Spanish, 29,420 Italian and 34,790 German coaches applies to the women’s game as well. This prompted the recent creation of St. George’s Park, a state of the art facility in which the England teams train along with qualified coaches. In this sense, the ambitions of both the men and women’s team are similar- a longing for success in our national sport.
The last ambition of this four-fold plan is to make women’s football the second most played sport in England, behind men’s football by 2018. This final statement of the FA is the perhaps the most crucial outcome of the first three stages of the plan. However, they are a long way off reaching this goal. Despite the high attendances of the Olympics as well as the high viewing figures the BBC receive whenever a women’s match is televised, the average attendance for a WSL match is only 500 people – the attendance of some Northern League men’s matches.
The whole strategy may pay off in the long term and I fully believe that women’s football deserves far more coverage than it currently receives; however, it seems to be fully based on the idea that the same nationalistic fervor for the Olympic games will carry on into the future. The FA should confirm a 2016 Olympic women’s squad, highlighting it as the pinnacle of the women’s game, rather that trying to create a seemingly quick fix solution to the growing schism between the men’s and women’s game.