When Baroness Sue Campbell took over as head of women’s football at the FA, she knew she would have a lot to deal with.
Her first job has been to assess the Women’s Super League calendar; since the league was launched it has run as a summer season, meaning it has been isolated from the FA Cup competition as well as the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The idea was that over the summer the women’s game would be able to bask in the spotlight away from the men, and that the improved weather would encourage crowds along.
From 2017, the WSL will be running as a winter season, September to May, just like all the other domestic leagues in England. There will be a mid-season break in an effort to avoid too much inclement climate, but other than that, the footballing pyramid will once more be joined: prior to the WSL, all leagues ran from August to May.
Developing this new strategy has meant that Campbell has had a lot of listening to do – to clubs, players, and the England national coaches at all age levels.
“There’s a real consensus this is the right thing to do – predominantly for player welfare and player development,” she says.
There may be some concerns about the way the league might be organised; after all, most WSL clubs share a ground with a men’s team (Arsenal Ladies play at Boreham Wood FC; Manchester City Women share their club’s Academy stadium) who will inevitably end up taking priority when fixtures are scheduled. Campbell can understand that, but says that there would be problems whenever the league was held.
“Are people going to turn out in the winter weather? Well, I’m stood here in July and we’ve just had a monsoon!” she laughs.
“We’ve had massive challenges in the summer, largely because everyone wants to returf their pitches. We will have challenges now – but we believe they will be more manageable in the winter.”
One of the words Campbell uses a lot is “consistency”, and that has certainly been a major issue with the WSL. Fixture scheduling has been impossible to follow, with clubs going over a month between home games, and broadcasters asking for late switches so they can show a game live. Add to that a reliance on Sunday afternoon and midweek evening slots, and there’s a possibility of fans struggling with public transport.
Essentially to really support a WSL club, you need to be savvy with digital media so you can keep up to date with late breaking news and work out where you’re supposed to be going – and you need your own car. It’s not ideal for a league that launched with the intent of appealing to girls and young women, many of whom will be still at school and reliant on parents to help them attend.
Crowds across both divisions of the WSL are still mostly in the hundreds rather than the thousands – incredibly disappointing, but perhaps not surprising for a league which gets limited media coverage and has such a confusing fixture schedule.
Campbell is well aware of that.
“If you play for three weeks, then you don’t play for four weeks, then you play again, people find other things to do,” she points out. “You’ve got to create a well-managed programme, and we are going to do that.”
She promises a marketing budget for each WSL club as part of the new national strategy, to provide more resource and support to appeal to their potential audience.
“The fans want consistency and so do we,” she says. “If we could get to the point where we have a weekly show on television, a weekly opportunity to see it, use digital networks well, I think we can get fans excited about this new working.”