By John Burn-Murdoch
With the opening round of fixtures in the inaugural FA WSL (Women’s Super League) only days away, the future of women’s football in England is at a crucial juncture. All being well, this new league will mark the arrival of the women’s game as a significant part of the nation’s footballing landscape, both in terms of participation and viewing. That said, it will be some time before the success of the WSL can be properly evaluated, and before hailing the arrival of a long term competitor to America’s WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) we should look at the club formerly known as Fulham LFC, whose brief history provides a cautionary tale.
Most recently playing under the title WFC Fulham, the West London outfit folded at the end of last season, the second time it had endured such a fate in its seventeen year existence. Made professional in 2000, an initial rush of success followed, but insufficient revenues necessitated a downgrading to semi-professional status only two years later and in the years that followed the club was plagued with further financial difficulties. An accompanying downturn in form resulted in successive relegations in the 2008/9 and 2009/10 campaigns, and when sponsors withdrew in June of last year the decision was made to dissolve the club.
Fulham had been seen as the golden standard for others to aim for when they first turned professional, and this move had received a considerable amount of attention in the press, but unfortunately both media coverage and public interest waned over the following years and there simply wasn’t enough money to sustain their financial model.
The FA are keen to avoid such pitfalls this time round, and have scaled back their initial plans for a professional league, adopting a more financially sustainable approach whereby clubs will work with budgets of around £200,000. While a select few players will earn enough to be considered professional, the vast majority of those plying their trade in the WSL will most likely need to take up additional employment to supplement their earnings from football.
In taking this approach the FA are looking to avoid the kind of problems seen in the WPS, where four teams have been disbanded due to financial pressures since the opening season in 2009. The American league is much wealthier than the WSL can hope to be for some time yet, but this has not stopped some of its clubs falling victim to the same type of problems that put paid to Fulham. Budget shortfalls and the withdrawal of sponsorship deals have set back the development of the WPS, and the collapse of Saint Louis Athletica midway through last season left the league in disarray when fixtures had to be hurriedly rescheduled and players redistributed to ensure that the competition could continue.
The FA have secured a four year broadcast deal with ESPN which will see five live matches shown per season alongside a weekly highlights package, and with the organising body providing around £3m in investment it would appear that the immediate future of the WSL is safe. The long term plan is for the league to be expanded from eight teams to twelve by 2016, dependant on its initial success both financially and in terms of its overall quality.
An auspicious opening to the WSL could set it on its way, and with the Women’s World Cup taking place half way through the season, all of those involved will be hoping that the feast of football on display over the coming months can capture the imagination of the public, helping to usher in a new era in the women’s game on these shores.
The WSL gets underway on Wednesday April 13 when Chelsea host Arsenal in a match that will be broadcast live on ESPN from 3:30pm. The complete first round of fixtures is as follows:
13/04 17:30 Chelsea Ladies vs Arsenal
13/04 19:45 Lincoln Ladies vs Doncaster Rovers Belles
14/04 19:45 Birmingham City vs Bristol Academy Ladies
14/04 19:45 Liverpool vs Everton