The Women’s Super League is changing – again. For loyal fans of the women’s game in England, it must feel as though the FA is once more pursuing a Bowie-esque cycle of reinvention of the domestic league. Every couple of years has brought a new idea from the FA – the addition of WSL 2, promotion from the third tier, the Spring Series, winter football and now finally a fully professional league. Whilst constant evolution is necessary for growth in women’s football, at what point will it be one transformation too far?
The hope is a damaging blow will not fall this time. As the 2017-18 season has only just got underway – with the success of a move to a winter season yet to be determined – the FA’s decision is a bold one in every aspect, but nonetheless necessary. It is cut throat, ambitious and takes everyone involved in the game outside of their comfort zones, but shows the FA is unwilling to settle – regardless of the possible consequences.
It’s worth noting the huge risks that have led this to be such a divisive issue among fans, players and coaches alike. The obvious concerns rest with those outside the elite few teams that have been dominating in WSL 1. Yeovil Town –promoted to the top flight last season – are still part-time and will need around £350,000 to achieve professional status. The Lady Glovers will not be the only team that need an influx of funding to obtain a WSL 1 license next season, but they are a prime example of the conflicting approaches of how to take the WSL to the next level.
— Yeovil Town Ladies (@YeovilLadiesFC) September 27, 2017
Yeovil have pursued successful, but sustainable growth. Gradually nurturing a club and a fan base from the ground up – as a majority of the current WSL clubs have – is the logical and safe approach as the quality and reach of the league continues to develop. It is only natural for those in the women’s game to want to protect what has been a slow growing project (despite accelerations in recent years) because as quickly as money appears, it is sure to go away. The collapse of the WPS in the United States is just one case of a league disappearing all too soon.
The decision also sits uncomfortably because it is likely to punish some of the best people in women’s football. The quick change from semi-professional to full time not only demands current WSL clubs get their house in order by the 10th November deadline, it will also immeasurably change the careers of players who hold down part-time jobs. It is a big ask from the FA to force players and coaching staff choose between their careers and football.
So, what are the prospective professional clubs and players buying in to? In some ways, it could be an equally revolutionary change as the introduction of the men’s Premier League in place of the First Division in 1992-3. Professional status for all teams in the WSL makes it a more viable commercial product and the ugly truth is that women’s football needs to sell in order to grow as fans might want.
Therefore, despite the various discomforts that the plans bring the women’s football community, why not back the potential benefits of the changes? The success of this decision rests on a knife-edge and the possibilities of where it could take women’s football in England are endless.
Giving players the opportunity to focus on football full time will only improve the standard of the league – and will help close the gap emerging between those teams that are able to offer professional football and those training part time. Contrary to the narrative often found in the media that praises how far women’s football has come, it is time to embrace the idea that professional football is something women deserve.
The FA have been brave in their decision, so it is time to welcome it and take ownership of the dream so many fans and players have been chasing for so long. It is time to push past being grateful and settling for what has worked thus far and focus on where this change could take the game. An English team winning the Champions League or a Lionesses victory at a major tournament are on the horizon – professional football will bring it one step closer.
Likewise, purpose-built stadia and regular attendances in the thousands can be reached. At certain peak moments like the FA Cup Final or major international tournaments there are glimpses of what could be – now it is a case of consistency. Consistency starts with a level playing field and every team training every day, then everything else will follow.
What’s more, the new WSL licenses aren’t just about teams becoming full time. Another huge positive is the compulsory inclusion of academies at WSL clubs, which will remove countless barriers for future Lionesses waiting to be discovered. Whatever the consequences of recent oversights within the FA, conscious investment and development of the next generation of home-grown talent can’t be a bad thing.
Clubs and players might lose out in the cut throat nature of the transition (which doesn’t seem fair however you look at it), but professional football is coming to the Women’s Super League and if it is to be a success, there’s no choice but to embrace it.