England’s success at the Women’s Euros has boosted interest in women’s football to unprecedented levels, with record-breaking attendances and visitor numbers and a surge in the Women’s Super League (WSL) Season ticket sales. But as is all too evident in women’s football, success relies on investment at both national and club level.
The national teams that dominated the Euros had invested in both player contracts and available resources. They were also crammed with professional players from clubs who have invested in their women’s teams, such as eight-time Champions League winners Olympique Lyonnais and Barcelona.
Of course, with greater success we also see more investment, as companies tend to want to be associated with more proven “products”. And with more money comes more demands on players and teams.
One of the things that fans have enjoyed so much about women’s football is its authenticity, which is evident in the players’ emotional responses, the way they play and the close relationship they have with the fans. But that’s something money can change. So how can women’s football maintain its authenticity when more money is inevitably involved?
Where is the money currently coming from?
Most women’s teams rely on financial support from their club’s overall group (e.g. Arsenal Holdings PLC is the group that owns both the men’s and women’s teams). At WSL, the money comes mainly from the affiliated men’s teams.
So while broadcast revenues for WSL teams have risen this year following the landmark Sky and BBC deal of over £8m a season, there is still the problem of the influence of mainly male boards and men’s teams subsidizing women’s football.
Other revenue for women’s teams comes from ticket sales for games (matchday revenue), which is not a large number given the average attendance for the last pre-COVID WSL season (2019-20) of 3,072. Overall, 90% of Arsenal women’s revenue for the COVID-affected 2020-21 season (the latest season for which accounts are available) came from the ownership group, followed by 6% from broadcast, 4% from advertising and just 0.2% from matchday (that was 17% of revenue in the pre-COVID 2018-19 season).
The women’s teams that play in Uefa competitions like the men or do well in national competitions also get some appearances and prize money.
Where could more money come from?
Of course, increasing visitor numbers would help with income and investment (more money coming in means more money to spend). However, men’s teams at the highest level, such as the Premier League, receive the most money from broadcast, followed by commercial or sponsorship opportunities (shirt sponsorships, commercial partners), with the smallest proportion being matchday attendance. This changes with relegation to the men’s leagues with (very high) dependence on ticket sales in the lower leagues.
Women’s teams have shown in recent years that they can draw crowds, particularly at flagship events on men’s pitches, although teams are still reluctant to host these, as evidenced by the number of teams not bidding to host the Women’s Championship in their own to host stadiums.
So what’s the problem?
The greatest investment potential arises from the increasingly growing broadcasting, advertising and sponsorship opportunities. This is the area where we are already seeing increased interest and investment in women’s sport.
Broadcast interest can affect things like seasons, and therefore both the number and type of viewers – which in turn can affect the family atmosphere WSL is famous for.
There is also a debate over financial distribution – money going to the more successful clubs tends to create an established elite. This can then lead to a competitive balance problem – when a few clubs are so much stronger that the rest cannot even hope to compete, so the winner (or top two) is known from the start of the league or tournament and fewer manage to do so exciting.
Across Europe, the competitive balance in men’s football has declined over the years. Women’s clubs have a chance to steer clear of a similar path by ensuring fairer financial distribution from the start.
Sponsorships are also a potential landmine as they raise ethical questions and can affect emotional authenticity. Football has been criticized for sports laundering (where large sums of money are invested in clubs or leagues, often by regimes with poor human rights records, to improve their external image) and for its harmful links to betting. These are things that women’s clubs should consider before attracting sponsorship.
Despite the temptation to take all the money thrown at them, a more nuanced approach may be needed. Development funds are needed to expand avenues and increase the salaries of current players, but clubs need to ensure the game isn’t defaced as a result.
It is also worth considering whether they can continue to attract more and more fans while maintaining their identity.
Since female soccer players’ appeal relates to their interactions with fans both via social media and on the pitch, this is to some extent possible – particularly for the former. However, crowds in the tens of thousands differ from crowds in the lower thousands. Much larger crowds limit how much players can interact with fans.
Involving more women on both the women’s board and the overall club board, working with women’s football fan groups and carefully reviewing sponsorship and contract terms are key to building women’s football while maintaining the authenticity and vibe that makes it so special . We want the game to grow, players to be rewarded, and development paths to exist for future players. But we also want the sport to stay true to its roots in a way that perhaps men’s football hasn’t.