Crisis could be 'catastrophic' for women's football
Special report: After years of forward momentum and increased visibility, how does the sport recover from this pandemic?
In recent years women’s football in England has celebrated record-breaking attendances and television viewing figures, boosting the visibility of the game to its highest ever levels.
However its rapid progress, following a tumultuous history – including a 50 year rule by the FA effectively banning women from playing the sport – came with uncertainty.
Questions were raised over how the pace of growth could be matched with infrastructure and financial stability, even before a pandemic struck.
The coronavirus crisis has heightened concern for the progress of the elite women’s game in England, outlined in a study led by the University of Portsmouth’s Dr Beth G Clarkson and co-authored by Dr Stacey Pope from the University of Durham.
“We know that when there’s an economic recession, women are always disproportionately affected in all spheres of society. And unfortunately, sport has shown that it’s no exception to that,” Pope said.
Many top women’s clubs are supported by the profits of the men’s side and operate at a deficit, which can be in part attributed to its marred history. “The worry is that when men’s football is financially impacted, the women’s teams are not viewed as core business,” Clarkson tells i.
“We’ve seen numerous examples in the past, when clubs come into financial difficulties and the first thing to go is cuts to the women’s team,” Pope adds. “In this current situation it’s obviously incredibly alarming. [It] has the potential to be absolutely catastrophic.”
The financial relationship between the men’s and women’s game has also been critical for its growth, Brighton & Hove Albion Women head coach Hope Powell tells i.
“It’s because of the attachment that the [women’s game] has been able to grow, we must not forget that, Powell said, “we are reliant on the men’s side of the game, they bring in the income and we have to respect that but the sad thing is now there’s a lot of revenue being lost because there’s been no gains.”
Powell, who has been outspoken on the cancellation of the Women’s Super League (WSL) amid the coronavirus crisis, calling it “the right thing to do,” said she stands by that opinion even as the men’s Premier League and Championship prepare to restart.
“[The FA] haven’t got that revenue coming in to then pay out, so I think rather than damage the game’s future, even though this could be quite damaging, let’s have that money that we would have spent on testing, on making sure pitches are disinfected, let’s put it into the future,” Powell adds.
While Clarkson and Pope say the future of the sport can progress with smart initiatives in the wake of the pandemic, arguing that the postponed Uefa Women’s Euro 2021, which could now take place in 2022 to avoid a clash with the delayed men’s edition, which was supposed to take place this year, could be key for more exposure for the game.
Chelsea were crowned Women’s Super League champions after the curtailed 2019-20 season (Getty Images)
“It’s going to be a tough economic circumstance that’s going to result from the pandemic, and we’ve seen in the past a World Cup has been the catalyst for momentum and I think the Euros have that potential as well,” Clarkson says.
The tournament, which is being held in England, could also create another layer of accountability for the governing bodies providing funding for the women’s game, Pope argues.
“Scrutiny might actually be a good thing and create some level of responsibility that we have to continue to progress women’s football because otherwise that’s going to be a bit of a national embarrassment,” she adds.
Remaining upbeat about the bouncebackability of the women’s game after the coronavirus crisis, Powell addresses the current momentum of the sport, noting previous hardships.
“I think everybody’s worked so hard and dedicated their time in order to make the game better in order to give young girls an opportunity to earn a living,” Powell says, “I think it’s something we’ve all – those that have been in football for as long as me – have been striving for.
“We believed it could be at a certain place and quite a lot of hard work was done to support that vision, [the coronavirus crisis] can’t take the passion we have from the game.”
Asked if the coronavirus crisis was the greatest challenge Powell, who managed England for 15 years, had faced professionally, she jokes: “I think playing Germany in the 2009 [Euro] final was a bigger challenge,” referring to the Lionesses’ crushing 6-2 defeat in the Helsinki final.
Powell adds: “But it’s obviously had its challenges because you can’t actually work with the players directly, but in terms of adapting with players and staff, I think most of us coped with it quite well.”