One of the things I find most amusing about women’s football in England is the absolute level of fume and bristle that arises whenever a contentious refereeing decision occurs. “We need VAR now,” goes the seething howl. To which the only possible response is: maybe be careful what you wish for? And if you set aside the obvious corollary that perhaps people just like being furious, this is a situation that encapsulates the women’s game in this country quite well at the moment. Proud to be different from men’s football. But also, insulted and a bit outraged.
This is perhaps the central tension in a sport trapped between two competing, almost paradoxical forces: the urge to be a distinctive counterpoint and an alternative space to men’s football, with all its greed and toxicity and rapacious disaster capitalism, and the urge to emulate its growth and wealth, to thrive and prosper. Right now, those two forces are colliding in strange and unpredictable ways.
Last week the 24 teams of the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship finally announced the formation of a new competition that would ultimately break away from the control of the Football Association. Led by the former investment banker and Nike executive Nikki Doucet, the new league will begin next autumn after a consultation process led by a working group of 12 members, eight of whom represent big men’s clubs.
By any measure, these are brave new worlds. The exponential growth of the women’s game in recent years has created an expectation that, after decades of subsidies and meagre handouts, it is about to hit the jackpot. The next set of domestic broadcast rights is attracting a lucrative bidding war between Sky and TNT that will blow the current £8m-a-season deal to bits. US private equity firms are reportedly queueing up to get a piece of the action. “Everybody has agreed to this club-owned new entity to give the women’s game a laser focus,” says Kelly Simmons, the FA’s former director of women’s football.
Of course everyone knows what that laser focus is and, even if Doucet diplomatically avoided mentioning it in the statement announcing her appointment, others have been more than willing to do it for her. The current WSL and Championship board chair, Dawn Airey, has stated that the new competition can be the first £1bn league in women’s sport. The outgoing Chelsea coach Emma Hayes has called for women’s football to become “a business” and for the new competition to develop closer links with the Premier League.
You see that laser focus, too, in the 75%‑25% revenue split of the proposed new league, widening the financial gulf between the WSL and Championship clubs, while cutting off the rest of the pyramid entirely. The Championship clubs, meanwhile, will have no vote on commercial and broadcasting issues. And unlike in men’s football, there is no financial fair play or any effective cap on costs. Women’s football is already an arms race, and the biggest clubs are about to be handed the keys to the gunroom.
I wonder where Bristol City fit into this vision. This year they became the first side since 2018 to win promotion to the WSL without the backing of a men’s Premier League club. Their homegrown coach, Lauren Smith, inherited a team with only six senior players and steered them through a competitive Championship on a shoestring budget. They play in the same stadium as the men’s side and last week attracted a crowd of 14,000 to Ashton Gate for the visit of Manchester United.
In short, Bristol City are doing pretty much everything you want a club of that size to do. Their reward: bottom of the WSL with four points, and in all likelihood a return to the Championship just in time to scrap for a share of that 25%. Their star defender, Brooke Aspin, has already been signed by Chelsea. Should they ever threaten to survive, Aston Villa and West Ham can simply dip into their pockets in January, as Tottenham did last year by signing Bethany England. Reading were relegated that season, forced to go part-time and are now third from bottom of the Championship. Ambition is good. Growth is good. But only, it seems, to a certain point and for a certain few.
There are plenty of ways for women’s football in this country to grow in ways that do not threaten the whole ecosystem. There are remedies available that do not involve turning the WSL into a more PR‑friendly facsimile of the Premier League. Genuinely radical models of financial redistribution. An undertaking by the biggest clubs to help smaller clubs with the increased costs of professionalisation. Sources of income that do not derive from the proceeds of autocratic regimes and do not demand the ruinous returns of private equity. Flat-rate cost controls that do not hamper the ambitions of smaller clubs but will prevent the kind of unregulated investment that has turned the men’s game into a cesspit.
Instead, the marketing people will tell you that the only way to generate a compelling product is to submit wholesale to vulture capitalism and its excesses: spiralling transfer fees and super-agents, more fixtures and longer seasons (three cheers for player welfare, by the way!), perhaps even a closed franchise league further down the line. Perhaps this is what a lot of people want right now. But before long, from the names of teams at the top to the interminable rows about VAR, things are going to start looking awfully familiar.