Michelle Owen: New format frailties for the Women’s Super League

As the women’s game continues to grow and gather pace, The FA’s approved reform of the Women’s Super League raises more questions than it answers for Michelle Owen in her latest column.

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Starting from the 2018/19 season, the Women’s Super League will reform into one full-time league. The thought of having a league of full-time women’s clubs sounds amazing, but could be a bad idea for the rest of women’s football.

The aim of this new league is to include 8-14 full-time teams, with full-time professional players. The entry would be via a licence system, with a minimum investment promise by each club. There lies a problem straight away.

Investment will not be a problem for Manchester City. They already pay their players decent salaries for the women’s game. However, Sunderland – currently in WSL1 – have already reverted from full to part-time, and I struggle to see how it will suddenly be feasible for them to find the money.

Off-field criteria would dictate which teams make it into the league, meaning those who’ve fought to stay in the top tier could ultimately find their efforts wasted. Financial fair play is one of the plans for a full-time league, but you must have the finances in the first place!

It’s also important to mention Manchester City are supported by the men’s section, who aren’t short of funds, and are in the Premier League. In WSL1, the same league, you have Yeovil Town who are associated with a League Two club with nowhere near the same financial resources. A team like Yeovil therefore would struggle to meet the requirement and contribute the same amount financially in this newly proposed league, one would imagine.

Moving the Goalposts

It feels like The FA keeps messing with the women’s game, while failing to come up with any true long-term solutions. Undoubtedly, there has been a real growth spurt in the last few years with the WSL forming and more girls playing.

The FA say there are over 1.1 million women and girls involved in “kickabout” football – what does that mean? I posed this question on twitter:

Obviously, this is not accurate of the whole of the UK, but from just a quick brief survey I think there is an issue with girls stopping playing at 16. Of course, many other factors come into play. I stopped playing for two years when I was 16-years-old, before returning at 18. The problem is many do not return.

How many talented players are falling through the net?

A major reason they don’t return is because it’s not a feasible career option. The FA probably think they’re creating that option with a full-time WSL league, but if it was to have just eight teams that would mean realistically only 200 players.

There is talk of a second part-time league between 10 and 12 teams. The Premier League North and South would remain as they are. This again, for me, does not add up.

Premier League teams would surely find it a huge task to climb the pyramid up to the full-time league. It’s not clear how relegation and promotion would work. Then there’s the question of how a part-time club in the second tier would make the step into the full-time league?

Clubs at the top of the WSL, like Manchester City and Chelsea, have invested and seen the benefits with trophies and an extremely high calibre of player who are able to train daily. However, the gap has widened between those teams and those who struggle financially.

Nobody needs reminding of Notts County, who folded on the eve of the WSL Spring Series this season, leaving players jobless.

Finding the Best Answer

I do believe girls football is developing only for the better. I have played since the age of three and the only option when I was young was to join a boy’s teams. I travelled miles every weekend to only get on in the 90th minute of a match, despite being just as good as the boys.

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I proved myself on one occasion, scoring two in a match where I had a rare start. The next game I was dropped. Now girls have choices of where to play. For example, my local club have a variety of age groups for girls to join, and there has been positive senior development where a reserve team has now formed to go with the firsts.

For women who still want to play in to adulthood it can be hard to find options. There aren’t many levels and they vary drastically. The County League is only around four leagues from the Premier League, but a poor standard.

What happens at the top level over the next few years will filter down and affect the levels below, which is why it’s so important The FA let the game grow, without constantly changing the format at the very tip of the pyramid.

The WSL has had several incarnations since its inception in 2011, but it needs consistency to let it grow and become established. The FA should be aiming to improve it and make it attractive not only for fans, but also broadcasters and sponsors. Once they have this sussed then further development and perhaps change can follow.

Follow Michelle on Twitter – @MichelleOwen7

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