Another day, another plan for WSL restructure, writes CARRIE DUNN. This time the idea is for WSL1 to consist of up to 14 full-time professional teams as from next season, with WSL2 a part-time league.
As always, the FA intent is sound; they have consistently said they want to have the best, most competitive domestic league in the world along with a successful international team. Introducing a licencing system to the elite women’s game was something essentially entirely new in English football, which is basically traditionally dependent on a dream – that a team can go from the bottom to the top if they get the results on the pitch. The FA has always wanted a new vision for their elite women’s league – a fully self-sustainable, competitive, exciting WSL, attracting the best talent from around the world, and feeding into a winning England team. That’s all very ambitious, and ambition is good.
Caution can also be good, though. I’ve always been of the opinion that the WSL expanded too much, too soon. The experimental opening seasons, with squad limits and what were in essence salary caps, ensured even distribution of playing talent, and led to interesting, exciting league competition. Sure, it was a closed league, with no promotion or relegation, but to my mind there was no rush to introduce that while the clubs and players settled into their new set-up; there was plenty of time once everyone was used to it, and that included fans and media. It could have slowly expanded, introducing two more clubs to the top flight every two years until it was clear that the structure was working, and then splitting into the two divisions when required.
Still, bolstered by interest in the England Lionesses and their semi-final runs in their last two major tournaments, the WSL split into its two divisions in 2014, and several clubs have had significant financial investment, grabbing attention and front pages.
Let us not forget, though, that in the past calendar year we have also seen one WSL1 club fold and one revert to entirely part-time status; it seems like a peculiar moment to encourage more teams to go full-time when what might be better would be to consolidate what is happening right now, and improve what’s already being done – particularly as we are just starting the first-ever WSL winter season in an attempt to link up leagues and competitions. Nobody knows how successful this calendar change will be yet; a bit of holding back might have been more politic.
There’s also the issue that with a full-time WSL1 and a part-time WSL2, the gap between the two divisions is likely to become ever more marked. There’s already a concern about the Big Three at the top of WSL1 and a potential schism with everyone else; is success in the women’s game now always going to be directly correlated to the amount of money poured into a team by their affiliated men’s club? It certainly seems that way.
Pragmatic consolidation was the intention just four years ago. In 2013, the FA’s strategy was to “taper or withdraw” central funding for WSL clubs by 2018, with the expectation they would be self-sustaining by that point; in today’s announcement there was no mention of that, just a sentence saying, “The FA will continue to provide funding to clubs at both tiers to support day-to-day operations and future development.”
I would argue that the repeated restructuring of women’s football competition will end up having a negative effect. How can a club build a reliable fanbase, or devise a sustainable marketing plan, or bring in a regular income stream, or a TV channel attract a regular audience? Apart from anything else, it’s near-on impossible to assess what has worked and what hasn’t when there are no constants to assess. It’s all very well having self-selecting fan panels giving their views, or bringing in external consultancy firms, but by their nature they are going to give you snapshots of success (and otherwise). With a different set-up to WSL practically every year, there is no possibility of producing reliable longitudinal data that might give you attendance figures or television viewing statistics worth the paper they’re written on.
Instead, there is chopping and changing – and again, always from the best of intentions. What we seem to be presented with is a league that doesn’t really have a strong identity, that doesn’t have faith in what it actually does, and that is so desperate for additional interest that it attempts to be all things to all people – and ends up being none at all.
Follow Carrie on Twitter: @carriesparkle
Carrie Dunn is the co-author (with Joanna Welford
@jwelf ) of ‘Football and the FA Women’s Super League: Structure, Governance and Impact’; and the author of ‘The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football In England’