As Brighton and Hove Albion step up to Women’s Super League Division 2 after their promotion play-off, there’s all sorts of controversy about promotion and relegation in the women’s football pyramid in England. The football structure in England has always been based on promotion and relegation rather than a closed system – but women’s football is adopting methods that have never been used (or welcomed) here before, with teams no longer guaranteed a place in a division based on their on-pitch success. Why is this happening – and how successful is it proving?
When the FA announced a brand-new plan for elite women’s football, it was met with excitement. The best teams in the country would compete in a small closed league – no promotion or relegation, not yet; just the enjoyment of strong competition and a top-class sporting spectacle.
The strict rules imposed would help with that. There were clear regulations about the specific amount of money that could be paid to players; this meant a spread of talent around the teams, because only a very few at each club could earn the maximum wage (still a very modest one).
The Women’s Super League launch in 2011 was not a rebranding exercise. It was an entirely new concept in English football. It did not entail skimming off the best eight teams in the already-existing National Division; rather, it required potential entrants to fill in an application form to prove they had the financial and marketing plans to succeed. Once that was done, the documentation was assessed, and then the licences to compete were awarded after the consideration of clubs’ location; the FA did not want a cluster of teams in one small area.
It was, effectively, the introduction of franchising to the English game.
“The licensing system for the first season wasn’t necessarily angled directly towards women’s teams based at existing men’s clubs – although I believe FA hierarchy did court the big Premier League sides – but inevitably they were the organisations that could put the necessary resources behind the bidding process, attract other funding, whether actually confirmed or simply projected at time of bidding, and secure suitable training and playing facilities,” says Jen O’Neill, editor of women’s football magazine SheKicks.
The even distribution of playing talent meant that no one team dominated, as had happened in the glory years of Arsenal Ladies, winning almost everything they competed for at the turn of the millennium, and before that the halcyon days of Doncaster Belles in the 1980s; the salary caps meant that the size of a club’s cheque book did not guarantee success on the pitch.
Then things changed. The FA saw how successful the league was, and decided to expand. A second division was introduced for a 2014 kick-off; and all clubs were invited to apply for their licences to compete once more. This time, though, they could shoot for WSL1 or the brand-new WSL2. Nothing was guaranteed – even the existing WSL clubs could not be assured they would automatically step into the top flight.
Indeed, Doncaster Belles – one of the most famous names in women’s football – found themselves bumped down to WSL2, criticized for their strategy and for their independence. The FA’s plan was to encourage every WSL team to affiliate with a men’s club – all the better, they said, to encourage financial sustainability.
Manchester City Women, meanwhile, were parachuted right into WSL1 – a prime example of the FA’s image of a top women’s team, benefiting from the oodles of money sloshing about at the men’s club. They had the same access to the top training facilities that the men’s team did, from pitches to gyms to off-the-pitch support teams.
The salary restrictions were amended, now requiring clubs to limit their player payments only in terms of a percentage of their turnover, rather than an across-the-board number. That freed up the richer clubs to recruit as many expensive big names as they liked, providing they stayed within that arbitrary limit.
Manchester City have wrapped up their maiden Women’s Super League win, with two games of the season to go – at least, mathematically. In practice, City have not been challenged. The league has not been close or competitive; though Chelsea could theoretically still have caught City, it was always unlikely. It seems inevitable that for years to come the FA will point to City’s breakthrough as a victory for their strategy. They will, with some justification, say that it was the licensing system that inspired them to invest in women’s football; without the lure of immediate entry to the top flight, City would likely not have bothered. That money going into the women’s game has provided a showcase for elite players, with the likes of Kosovare Asllani of Sweden joining the club along with established England stars such as Steph Houghton and Jill Scott, and their crowds are large and growing. The FA’s argument will be that City’s success across the board shows the reasoning behind the introduction of club licensing, and the principle has paid off.
“No doubt that allowing clubs like Man City to apply for a place in the top league of women’s football rather than having to start at the bottom of the pyramid has increased the exposure of the sport at a much faster rate,” says Dr Jo Welford, an expert in the governance of women’s football. She says that the WSL has benefited from having one of the giants of the men’s game newly involved, not just through the financial weight they contribute but with the credibility they bring.
Dr Welford suggests, however, that the FA and the WSL need to look a little bit lower down the system to see the true impact of their governance structure.
“Football across Europe has a strong tradition of promotion and relegation and fans value these roots,” she says. “The licensing system allows football clubs to bypass leagues, to move up as a result of off-field strategy rather than on-field performance: alien to European football.”
Indeed, even though there is now ostensibly a promotion slot allowing one team from the Women’s Premier League to step up to WSL2, that is not guaranteed; the WPL team must go through the WSL application process to prove they are prepared for life at the top – showing that they have the same financial plans, marketing strategy and community outreach as any other club had to when they got their licence. Even though this seems to be a mere formality, with Sheffield promoted in 2015 and Brighton in 2016, it is certainly plausible to envisage a scenario where strong amateur WPL champions simply decide not to go through the rigmarole of applying for a WSL licence. Instead, it could be that their forfeited place is offered elsewhere – perhaps to a team less successful on the pitch but with some sound financial backing.
Thus the traditions of English football begin to be eroded; even in the mercenary world of men’s professional football, open promotion and relegation have been staples. The occasions when clubs have been denied promotion due to off-field considerations have been rare and notable; Stevenage Borough in 1996 famously could not upgrade their ground to meet Football League standards because of a beautiful tree by one terrace.
Professional women’s football, in its infancy in England, has already done away with this, prioritising the big names and the big bucks. Jen O’Neill is cautiously positive about these developments.
“The licensing system rewards forward thinking boards and clubs, with access to good facilities and those with capital at their disposal, be that from sponsors or the parent club,” she says.
Sometimes, although given the relative youth of the women’s game here, it seems to happen uncomfortably often, the greater good of the sport has to come first, though sadly there are always casualties – sporting collateral damage, as it were. It didn’t take long for it to start to seem like the norm, and for the new fans coming to WSL grounds on the back of the 2012 Olympics and 2015 Women’s World Cup what happened before is of little import. In a few years’ time, I doubt any of these decisions will be doubted, it will be newer issues that will prompt debate and concern.
Dr Welford is extremely wary that what was a promising start to WSL football has been overtaken by the rush to professionalise and commercialise. She wonders about the alternative destiny of Manchester City Women had 2016 been less successful.
“Man City Women receive significant funding from the male football club; if a league title had not come, would they continue to invest?” she asks. She has a concern about the FA’s recent insistence that women’s clubs need to be affiliated – read: dependent – on men’s clubs. “The licensing system requires investment, which is most readily found in male football clubs. Unfortunately this puts women’s clubs at risk, as the investment could be withdrawn at any time.”
She warns that the rush to WSL expansion and the encouragement to big-name men’s teams to put their money into buying a licence for affiliated women’s teams is likely to have massive, far-ranging changes on the entirety of women’s football; rather than rewarding merit, it will reward money.
“With the WSL, elite women’s football is becoming an uneven playing field,” she says. “There is a real chance that the league will now be dominated by those clubs who have the most money. Man City are investing in their women’s team; other clubs are not. This may have paid off for them but if it increases the gap between the top clubs and the rest, it is not paying off for women’s football more widely.”
O’Neill agrees that the FA’s implementation of a strict, closed system from the outset of the WSL and then its painstaking licensing requirements has had an unexpected effect of leaving poorer clubs even further behind than they already were.
“The FA are still adamant that they will maintain the licensing system into the future and, given they will revert back to the winter from 2017 and allow promotion and relegation, it shows how important the system is,” she says. “Given the level of financial input and support offered by the FA itself, it’s the best way to protect or at least safeguard their investment. It had to be closed to get it to work, although ironically the gulf between the top sides in WSL1 and the rest is arguably bigger than it has ever been in the women’s game in England.”
In the meantime, that will not trouble Manchester City Women. Their first WSL title is in the trophy cabinet, and they have the chance to put the FA WSL Continental Tyres Cup alongside it on Sunday. They are a stellar success story, showing what can be achieved in women’s football with sound investment and strong marketing. It is difficult to envisage, however, any current club challenging their domestic dominance unless they were to completely rethink their set-up. Rapid expansion and massive investment are, oddly, not necessarily the best ways to grow a sport top to bottom.