From dilettantism to the world’s most monetized women’s football league: the English Revolution

Like the English Football Association (FA), Uefa does not mince words. This Euro in England is presented as the greatest event in the history of European women’s sport.

“The impact will not stop after the final whistle at Wembley on July 31”, gushed fifty days before the start of the competition (July 6-31) Nadine Kessler, Uefa’s head of women’s football. In a report, the two authorities have already presented figures: 700,000 tickets available, of which 350,000 have already been sold, which is already more than the record 240,000 total tickets sold during the last Euros in the Netherlands; £54m generated across the nine host cities; 96,000 foreign visitors are expected, but also a cumulative audience of more than 250 million viewers from 195 different countries. “Our goal is twofold: to organize a record-breaking tournament and to leave a tangible legacy for the development of women’s football.”summed up Sue Campbell.

An ambitious challenge that does not deter the head of women’s football at the English FA on her first attempt. Because since taking the helm in 2016, Sue Campbell has started a revolution. In just five years, the amateur championship, in which the England internationals competed, was transformed into a sporting and marketing product, a new benchmark on a global scale.

50 years football ban for women

One would think that in the country where the round ball was born and invades all areas of society, from the playground to the pub, football knows no gender. But until five years ago, women’s practice stuttered, even as the Premier League, the men’s elite championship, was raking in billions. An inequality, a consequence of history. In 1921 the FA stripped women of the right to play football, while after the First World War women’s practice boomed and some footballers such as those on Dick Kerr’s women’s team at the time were developing in front of thousands of spectators. The official reason: playing football would be bad for women’s health. The unofficial reason according to historian Jean Williams, author of the book A nice game, international perspectives on women’s football : Women’s teams compete against men’s clubs. This ban will last fifty years, until 1971. The practice of women will emerge invisible and discredited.

We have to wait another 21 years before the English FA decides to take over women’s training. And despite being hosted on English soil, Euro 2005 is sorely lacking in structure and resources. She lives in the shadows. “When I first started following women’s football in the early 2000s, I took to the streets not really knowing if the game was happening or not.remembers Patrick Higgins, who has been passionate about the discipline for twenty years. Sometimes I had to go around three pitches before I came across the game. »

The FA initiated a development plan in 2010 by announcing the creation of the Women’s Super League, a closed league of just eight semi-professional teams with the aim of providing competition. The championship must take place in the summer to attract spectators, especially the young generation.

But the authority finally postpones the project for a year, citing economic reasons related to the 2008 financial crisis. “If anyone wanted a clear indication of the FA’s appreciation of women’s football, it’s here. They looked at their budgets to see what they could cut and women’s football was an easy option.”at the time Sue Tibballs, the executive director of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, in a remark reported by the Guardian.

The big shift in 2017

After the excitement of the 2015 World Cup, where the English caused an upset by finishing on the third step of the podium, the English FA decided to take a hit this time. It announces the creation of a first professional division and a second semi-professional division for the 2017-2018 season. A little like across the Atlantic, clubs have to apply for a license to develop in these divisions, which continue to operate in parallel on the principle of relegation and promotion. The criteria are strict: pay players at least sixteen hours a week – eight for second division clubs – and create a women’s section for youngsters.

The economic aspect therefore takes precedence over the sporting aspect. The landscape is being turned on its head: historic women’s teams like Sunderland don’t have the budget to get into the nails. They are administratively relegated to the third tier. Conversely, we see the arrival of well-known names in the world of football: West Ham and Brighton reach the elite, Manchester United decide to revitalize their women’s division, which was defunct in 2005, and go straight to the Championship, the second national level.

Chelsea and Manchester City players faced off in the English League Cup final on March 5, 2022. | AFP

The big men’s teams get up to speed in record time by relying on their economic resources. “What bothers me about this system is the way clubs are treatedShe feels sorry for Patrick Higgins. The top tier was designed from the ground up to adapt to what the federation wanted to do with it. As of now we find the same twelve as in the Premier League. But we can’t say anything, it’s a success. » The FA were once attacked for this lack of sporting fairness, but today no one would question this strategy, which has changed the face of English women’s football in just five years.

The biggest broadcasting rights deal in the world

Because since then, under the impetus of the association, but also boosted by the popularity of the 2019 World Cup, a whole machine has been set in motion, which impresses beyond the sporting aspect of creating a real commercial product. Substantial income to boost practice.

After the World Cup on French soil, Barclay’s, already title sponsor of the Premier League, put on £10m (around €11m) to do the same for three years with the Women’s Super League. The deal was touted by the British bank at the time as “the largest investment by a brand in women’s sport in the UK”. At the same time, in France, Arkema signed a similar deal with the French Football Federation for an amount of €1.2 million per season.

In England, the agreements followed one another. On the part of the sponsors, but above all the broadcasting rights, the gold bars of women’s football in the four corners of Europe and the world. Indeed, visibility is essential to the development of a practice. Because it attracts individuals who attract sponsors who bring money to develop the discipline, which attracts even more individuals. It’s a virtuous cycle.

America’s national team star Tobin Heath spent a season at Manchester United before joining Arsenal for a year in the 2021/2022 season. | AFP

Aware of the need to go one step further, the English FA launched FA Player in 2019, an application accessible anywhere in the world that allows you to follow the 132 matches of the season live. At a time when everything pays off in men’s soccer, the intelligent design of this platform has allowed users to follow the championship and its stars with the overwhelming arrival of American internationals who have just been crowned world champions in France at the same time of the association to test its market.

Just over a year later, she announced she had signed the biggest broadcast rights deal in women’s football history with the BBC, the equivalent of France Television, and Sky Sports, the Premier League’s historic broadcaster. The latter broadcast 44 games last season, while 18 to 22 games were shown clear-to-air on BBC One or BBC Two, two of the country’s main TV channels. An economic and symbolic commitment by these two players to help England become the place to be for women’s football in Europe.

Episode 1 : Women’s Euro 2022. From dilettantism to the most monetized league in the world: the English revolution

Part 2: Women’s Euro 2022. “If we want to look like the Premier League then we’re on the right track”

Part 3: Women’s Euro 2022. “Many girls don’t win that in D1”: The French have found their Eldorado in England

From dilettantism to the world’s most monetized women’s football league: the English Revolution

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