Today, at Wembley Stadium, the Football Association unveiled its 5 year strategy for women’s football from 2013 with the intention of making it the second largest team sport in the country. This would put it just one place behind its male counterpart, with the FA also promising an investment of some £3.5m between 2014 and 2018.
Following the governing body’s current 4-year strategy at the point of completion, FA Chairman David Bernstein noted, “Women’s football is the area with the most potential for growth in the nation’s favourite game.”
Fundamentally, the Association’s strategy notes four central precepts to help facilitate the game’s growth potential, providing on the pitch development and off the pitch infrastructure. The last, growing participation, is essentially an anticipated result of the main three commitments: the appointment of a Head of Elite Development and associated Elite Performance Unit; the delivery of a new commercial strategy; and, expansion of the WSL.
Easiest to deal with and – in some ways – most encouraging for the longer term is the first point. The women’s game has been crying out for a continued level of sophistication within its performance and development infrastructure, and the appointment of a figurehead in a similar role to that filled by Dan Ashworth in the men’s game is an encouraging step in the right direction. While most elite players will enjoy a level of professional development through the club structure, centralising a development philosophy will help to take the English game on towards the levels seen in the US – from a player perspective, at least. The fact that this dovetails neatly with the opening of the St George’s Park complex will help to ensure continued representation of the women’s game in the elite development circles of football. One area in which this element of the strategy promises to deliver – and on which it needs to concentrate – is the development of elite coaching practices and elite coaches and it will be fascinating to see how the existing coaching strategy and development projects tie in to the new plan.
The essence of the strategic plan, to some great extent, revolves around an evolution of the commerciality of the women’s game and the recognition of a more focussed commercial strategy is something of a lynchpin to the wider plan. As the FA rightly recognises, now is the time to capitalise on increased interest in the women’s game largely on the back of the astonishing growth in profile seen by women’s football through the 2012 Olympic Games. The time is right for more than one reason, though, and the successful launch of the WSL in 2011 backed by a media broadcast partner in ESPN has helped to demonstrate that there is a genuine appetite for women’s football in a market which has been traditionally dominated by the men’s sport. While supportive commercial partnerships are undeniably vital, the key here is for the FA to secure media representation which not only pays the bills but offers genuine commitment to coverage. ESPN have been a great model for the WSL to date, where the combination of multi-channel delivery, highlights packages and fan engagement has been first rate. For media partners, this is a rare opportunity to take a slice of a market which has, for the most part, been monopolised and over-subscribed since the early 1990s. For the clubs and for players, it is a chance to gain better profile for the women’s game and to encourage a more significant degree of interest, investment and involvement. For the FA, getting this deal right ought to ensure that any subsequent commercial cycle increases the monetary reward available.
The expansion of the WSL, meanwhile, is both an obvious step and a welcome one. Naturally, much will need to be assured from an infrastructure point of view – What will the promotion and relegation models look like? How will the central contracting of England national players work? Will investment and financial support be consistent throughout the league structures? Will a salary cap be taken under consideration? – but the implementation of a fully-fledged second-tier of the successful league structure is a fundamentally positive step in the right direction. League football in England’s women’s game may never be a wholly professional model, and the recent travails in the US where support and investment are both at a far advanced stage demonstrates the pitfalls that can occur when the money is coming from anybody with too much of a commercial interest in their investment. That said, measures must be put in place to ensure that talent is brought into the game, trained to elite levels and retained there. Many of these measures exist or are beginning to come into play, but the new strategy has to be certain that it can have enough agility to adapt to changing demands on a game which is only going in one direction. Whether that means providing greater support to players wishing to raise families or ensuring that greater money on offer in other nations’ domestic leagues cannot become too much of a lure for the up and coming talent of the game, the FA needs to ensure that women’s football builds upon its burgeoning status in the country.
The ‘Game Changer’ strategy offers many encouraging paths and much to be hopeful for. What it needs next is the commitment to deliver it.
Image from ‘Game Changer’. To read the full report click here