Growing the game: review sets out plans for new era of women's football
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The strategic recommendations aim to reorganise the domestic framework of the women’s football game, grow professionalism at the highest tiers of women’s football, improve broadcasting opportunities and increase investment from the grassroots to professional level.
Carney’s Review highlights that women’s football is reaching a defining moment in the UK, with England’s victory at UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup currently being hosted in Australia and New Zealand raising the profile of the women’s game to new heights. The momentum in the growth of women’s football has been seen both on the ground, with numerous record-breaking attendances in the 2022-2023 season, and at the commercial level, with UEFA estimating that women’s football could see a sixfold increase in commercial value over the next decade to EUR 686m.
Reorganisation of the elite women’s game
In advance of the 2024-2025 season, the English FA has proposed to transfer the top two leagues of women’s football in the UK, the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship, to a fully independent entity, NewCo, which would have its own CEO and executive team. The FA has established a Professional Game Working Group, comprised of FA officials and representatives from Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship clubs, to define the vision, governance, and routes to investment for NewCo.
Carney’s strategic recommendations define five key principles for NewCo to guarantee the commercial development of the women’s game: (1) ensuring a financially sustainable, competitive game; (2) stringent financial regulation; (3) provision of infrastructure for staff and players; (4) developing governance structures to embrace independent decision-making; and (5) unlocking of additional revenue and funding streams.
Commercial success and external investment
As regards the final principle above, whilst the Review notes the disparity in revenue generated in the men’s and women’s FA Cup, Carney explicitly calls on the FA to commit to matching prize money as soon as is feasible. The Review also suggests that NewCo should consider disseminating central revenues beyond allocating funds based solely on the final league positions of each relevant club. These “novel distributions” would take into account other factors, following approaches taken in other sports. For example, this year the Rugby League announced a new club grading criteria that could be determined based on a club's finances, fanbase size, stadia, social media and TV viewing figures. The Review also places importance on and encourages external investment from strategic partners, noting an appetite from a range of stakeholders to capitalise on potential growth in the women’s game.
We have seen this in practice – while historic sponsorship agreements on which we advised were often focused on securing sponsorship rights for men’s teams and stadia, in recent years we have advised on more ‘global’ sponsorship deals, which place increasing weight on the value of sponsorship of women’s teams. Given that the majority of the Women’s Super League teams are associated with men’s teams, it will be interesting to see whether clubs continue to grant commercial rights with the same partners for both their men’s and women’s teams, or whether clubs will pursue more targeted commercial opportunities for their women’s team on a standalone basis.
Increasing broadcast revenue
A key metric in growing the fanbase of the women’s game is the success of broadcasting. Facing scheduling conflicts with the men’s game, the Review found that broadcasting of the women’s game was inconsistent, with a difficulty in finding slots that are convenient for match day attendees and broadcast viewers alike.
A proposed solution in the Review is for women’s football to have its own independent and dedicated broadcast slot. Article 48 of the UEFA statutes gives national football associations the right to prevent broadcasts within a 2.5-hour window on selected weekends, in order to incentivise attending matches in person. The Review suggests that women’s football matches should be exempt from this rule, with a dedicated broadcast slot at 3pm on Saturday during the blackout for men’s football.
The extent to which these recommendations are implemented will be key to the commercial success of the game in the UK. Some viewed the women’s World Cup as a catalyst in increasing investment and interest in the women’s game, but many have since criticised the commercial rollout of the World Cup as a missed opportunity due to ongoing disputes over prize-money, as well as broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals which have not grown at the rate expected (with FIFA reportedly missing its broadcast revenue target by $100m).
Professionalising the women’s game
A key focus of the Review is ensuring that the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship become fully professional. Whilst the Women’s Super League currently has 12 professional clubs, the Women’s Championship is formed of a mix of 12 professional and semi-professional teams. There is also a mixture of team organisation across the elite game, with some clubs affiliated to men’s teams and others who remain independent entities.
Proposals include increasing the minimum contact time a player has with their club from 8 hours a week as things stand, to 16 hours in 2024-2025 and 20 hours in 2027-2028, in a bid to address the gulf in standards between the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship. The Review also recommends that a salary floor be introduced, along with mandatory elite training facilities and enhancements to the player maternity package.
In relation to young players, the Review also stresses the need for a strategic partner to invest in the pathway for young talent, as well as increasing access at a school and grassroots level to ensure funding flows down the football pyramid. The Review also identifies a lack of diversity in on and off-pitch roles in the women’s game, with the FA asked to urgently address this issue.
The government will set out full responses to the strategic recommendations made by the Review in autumn 2023.
The proposals made by the Review aim to solidify the gains made by the women’s game in the last few years, which have seen huge success on the pitch, as well as capitalising on the opportunities presented by increasing investment and broadcast revenues in sport. As the Lionesses take part in the World Cup finals, fans are also taking a keen interest in the progress being made in the domestic game.
Stakeholders will hope that the momentum following the World Cup can enable clubs and organisations to realise commercial opportunities. Despite criticism that the rollout of the World Cup did not fully capitalise on the commercial opportunity it presented, the Women’s Super League and FA Cup (with Chelsea and Manchester United reaching a record attendance for a domestic game at a sold out Wembley in May), together with English teams’ progression in the Champions League, shows that the women’s game is going from strength to strength in the UK. It is hard to see that the commercial value and opportunities will not continue to grow at the same rate, but such growth will also depend on external stakeholders’ willingness to invest in the women’s game.