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05th Jul 2024

Women’s football is more popular than ever, but clubs still treat it as second to the men’s game

Zoe Hodges

Statistically, women’s football has never looked better; it is experiencing record high viewing figures and generating more revenue than it ever has before. However, recent news suggests it is a sport in turmoil across the leagues as players share stories of poor facilities and inadequate pay packages.

Deloitte’s figures from the 2022-23 season show a 50 per cent increase in revenue across the 12 teams in the Women’s Super League, a figure thought to be attributed in part to the Lionesses’ success in the Euros.

Meanwhile, the Women’s Sport Trust announced in May that the first four months of 2024 brought record TV viewing for women’s sport in the UK. This follows research published by them, with broadcast insight from Futures Sport & Entertainment, in 2023 which found the average viewing time per person for women’s sport on TV in the UK increased year-on-year by 131% in 2022.

However, women’s football has been grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the last couple of weeks. Reading Women, who just two years ago were preparing for their 8th season in the topflight of women’s football, withdrew from the Championship earlier this week due to ongoing financial difficulties. They will now play in the 5th tier of women’s football. The Championship will be made up of just 11 teams next season, 16 players have been released by the club and staff have lost their jobs. Young girls in the area have lost their talent pathway.

Meanwhile, another Championship side in trouble is Blackburn Rovers as it was revealed on Tuesday that their women’s team has been given a wage budget of £100,000 and their players are set to receive just £9,000 a year. Stars of the women’s game such as Georgia Stanway, Ella Toone and Keira Walsh spent time at Rovers. Players will operate on contracts of just 16 hours per week with training taking place Wednesday – Saturday with games on Sunday. This does not factor in travel to away games and possible overnight stays and will make it difficult for players to top up their wages with secondary jobs. At the conclusion of the season, 10 players were released.

Georgia Stanway on X: “Myself and so many others are indebted to the opportunities Blackburn gave us when we were younger. Very sad to see the club choosing not to back their women’s team. Football and people in the North West need Blackburn to continue to properly support the game!” / X

Ex-players took to social media to speak of their disgust and share their own experiences including Stanway who said: “Myself and so many others are indebted to the opportunities Blackburn gave us when we were younger. Very sad to see the club choosing not to back their women’s team. Football and people in the Northwest need Blackburn to continue to properly support the game!”

Ellie Leek on X: “When I was at Blackburn, the club captain, the vice captain and I had a meeting with Steve Waggott. We wanted to discuss the conditions we played in, which included sharing two portable toilets with the entire boys’ academy. He told us we needed to be grateful for that £100k. 🧐” / X

Kayleigh McDonald recalled her treatment at Blackburn: “I remember we got begrudged using the men’s coffee machine and had to use the sachets instead. Quick enough to plaster Keira, Georgia and Toone when they’re smashing big comps but can’t look after their own.”

Shannon on X: “Players & staff were not allowed to use the toilets, drink machine and desks/canteen during the 22/23 season – only allowed when the men’s team had gone home 🙃 This is honestly only the tip of the iceberg of the poor standard us staff & players had to suffer whilst at Blackburn” / X

Meanwhile, MK Dons Women achieved their highest-ever points total in the FA Women’s National League Southern Premier Division but at the conclusion of the 2023/24 campaign, 27 players left the club along with manager Charlie Bill. There is an ongoing dispute between the club and some of the players.

One club that has seen an increase in revenue is Manchester United who won the women’s FA Cup in May. Figures from the 2022/23 season showed United brought in £7 million, the highest figure of any WSL club. 74% of its revenue was generated through commercial partnerships.

Despite the growth in revenue, its top tier status, and recent cup success, Manchester United women are a team who are also battling demons. For the second time in three years the Professional Footballers Association is seeking conversations with the club as the team are temporarily moved from their £10 million purpose-built facility, which only opened last year, into temporary buildings so that the men’s team can use them whilst Carrington is being refurbished. Now, due to the backlash the club has received, the women have been given an alternative option to temporarily move to St George’s Park to train…50 miles away from Manchester.

It’s a situation that has infuriated fans and those working in women’s football but a move that clearly aggrieved some players too for the PFA to get involved. Manchester United Women only reformed six years ago but it is not the first time they have had to work out of ‘temporary structures’. Following the pandemic, the team moved from training at Leigh Sports Village to Carrington but had to use temporary buildings to get changed in and a marquee was being used as a makeshift gym. No amount of money seems to be able to change people’s perceptions of where a woman’s place is in a football club. Luckily for Manchester United, their blushes have been spared somewhat as further scandals lower down the football pyramid are grabbing the headlines now, and rightly so. But if players at the biggest club in the world are having to fight for their rights, what chance does anyone else have?

Former CEO of Lewes FC, Maggie Murphy, attributes Reading’s demise partly to women’s teams being too reliant on their male counterparts due to the way the league and cup competitions are structured. The licence requirements for a team to operate in tier two is increasing at a disproportionate rate to the revenue being generated, making it almost impossible to meet the requirements if a team is not affiliated to a big-sized men’s team. She warns that Reading will not be the last if change isn’t implemented soon.

Murphy writes in The Guardian: “While the Reading story will be presented as one of an uninterested ownership group – which of course it is – it is also an effect of having created structural incentives toward dependency on men’s ownership groups whose level of interest simply cannot be controlled by women’s football actors.”

The Karen Carney review called for the game ‘to grow in its own right to reach its true potential and stand on its own two feet’. One team that looks to be trialling that on the surface are current WSL champions Chelsea who yesterday announced their first women’s-only principal partner as Three UK. It comes shortly after the Blues unveiled their long-term strategic plan to accelerate the growth of the women’s team. It aims for the team to sit alongside the men’s team in its structure instead of beneath them, with independent resources focused solely on the women’s team. However, this is still a far cry from teams such as London City Lionesses who really are trying to carve their own path without any affiliation of a men’s team.

Worryingly a survey conducted by Women in Football found that another issue ravaging the game is the rise in discrimination that women in football are facing. In their latest survey 89% of women working in the game have experienced discrimination in the workplace, up from 82% in 2023 and 66% four years ago.

The running of the top two tiers is changing hands next season as the FA passes the reigns to NewCo. Changes to the Championship license have been proposed but not yet approved. However, the new organisation will have to tread carefully with so many teams in such a precarious situation.

In short, it is a pivotal time for women’s football and though on the whole it seems to be on an upwards trajectory, it is in danger of orchestrating its own downfall as many get left behind.