These blog articles are not based on any in-depth research (although I think it would make a great subject for a thesis!) but on my observations on the way that the Women’s Super League (WSL) has changed in its first decade. Before commencing there is an explanation to be made and an objection to be dealt with.
The explanation concerns the structure of Women’s Football in England (not that this has been stable!) as it is at present. The structure consists of a number of ‘Tiers’: Tier 1 is the WSL, Tier 2 the Championship, Tier 3 two regionalised leagues, Tier 4 a larger number of more regionalised leagues (this progression continues but as I have no knowledge below Tier 4 I will stop there).
The objection to be contested is that my whole attitude is a case of sour grapes based on the decline of Birmingham City Women from a major force in the Women’s Game in 2011 to an also-ran in 2021. I would hope that those who read Part 1 of this blog would understand that my kind of support is idiosyncratic. It is certainly not dependent on my team’s success. Of course, it is not fun to see one’s team defeated again and again, but in normal (non-Covid) times there are always pleasures to be had in vocally supporting the team, ranting at referees and inventing chants against the opposition (these pleasures are denied when watching on TV which is why getting back to live football is so important). In addition my view for a couple of seasons has been that I would enjoy my football a lot more if we were relegated (I could adduce plenty of tweets to this effect but cannot be bothered!). I have been to enough matches at Tier 3 and especially Tier 4 levels to know that I much prefer those games to the WSL as it is now. So whatever defects there may be in my argument they do not result from the decline of my team.
How it all Began
When the WSL was launched there was a heavy emphasis on how Women’s Football was going to be different from Men’s. I cannot stress this essential point enough. Difference. Distinctiveness. A couple of the key differences were that the Women’s Game would….
- Be family-friendly.
- Allow fans to be much closer to players.
Another difference which soon became very obvious to spectators was that there would be a drastic reduction in diving and simulation in comparison with the men’s game (in fact players who did dive were extremely rare and consequently easily identified!).
Now in the first 2 or 3 seasons the FA did make very real efforts in respect of these aims. There were lots of face-painting and fun attractions at games. Clubs were encouraged to build relationships with fans and I think most did try to do so.
And this was certainly very, very different from the upper reaches of the men’s game where the fan has about as much status as a dog-turd.
So yes different and distinctive.
What Happened Next
From 2014 onwards a radical shift in direction became evident. The first obvious manifestation of this was the unilateral promotion of Manchester City into the WSL and the relegation of Doncaster Belles. The latter had a long history, a devoted fan-base and were always an extremely pleasant and friendly club to visit.
What quickly emerged was a complete shift in the FA’s strategy and rhetoric. Talk of difference and distinctiveness were phased out to be replaced by talk of professionalism, of creating ‘the best league in the world’ and putting a lot of resources into the National side. These objectives do not leave a lot of room for ‘family-friendly’, nor for fans.
The reasons for this shift are unknown to me (and anyone else except a small circle of decision makers) but I would guess that the following contributed…
- The WSL was not seeing the kind of increases in attendance which had been hoped for (a classic example of short-termism as the original policies had been long-term ones).
- Failure to build TV and sponsorship deals.
- Demands from major Men’s Clubs (eg: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City) that they wanted a change before investing large sums.
The immediate result of these changes was that money flowed into the game, which then reinforced the new strategy, which led to yet more money – a vicious (or, in the FA’s view, triumphant) circle.
The next major development of the strategy came in 2018 with another re-structure mainly affecting Championship Clubs; this included the demotion of Oxford and Watford – both, in my experience, examples of outstanding clubs as far as the original objectives – being family and fan friendly – were concerned.
So what did money do?
The effects of big bucks had been seen prior to 2014. Liverpool had finished bottom of the League in 2011 and 2012 but the Men’s Club invested heavily prior to the 2013 season – which they ended as Champions (see Note 1). While revealing just how much part money could play, it was only in the years after 2014 when Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and most recently Manchester United have been consistently investing heavily that the effects became clear. A big 3, or now 4, emerged who effectively formed a league within the league. A process which would have come as no surprise to Marx.
The extent of the disparities involved are hard to over-exaggerate; I would guess that the annual wage-bill for one or two of the superstars at these clubs exceeds the entire wage-bill at the poorest clubs (eg: Birmingham and Bristol).
Before proceeding with an examination of where Women’s Football is now it is fair and necessary to point to the beneficiaries of the FA’s strategy and all this money. Above all this means the top players at the richer clubs. They can make a very comfortable living from the game in a way which simply was not possible previously. And I am the last person to decry workers earning better wages! However, it is necessary to emphasise that this applies to at most 400 players (I do not see how it can possibly be more and I may well be considerably over-estimating). Below the WSL the game is very largely either semi-professional or amateur.
The Best League in the World
A frequent claim now made for the WSL is that it is, or is close to, ‘the best league in the world’ (see Note 2). And in certain terms – definitely those of the FA – this has some validity. At the very top of the league there are 4 clubs which have large resources, attract top international players, play some fantastic football and are in strong competition with each other (if this sounds vaguely familiar do not worry I will come to the Women’s/Men’s game debate later). Thus the FA’s strategy switch in 2014 has to a large extent succeeded. When you add in increased attendances (pre-Covid!), wider television coverage and more sponsorship it might seem that everything in the garden is rosy.
However, even those commentators who take all this as gospel sometimes feel obliged to mention a fly in the ointment (I can mix metaphors with the best!). This is the vast disparity between the teams at the top and those at the bottom. To take the current (18/3/21) League Table: the Top 4 have a points per game average of 2.3; the Bottom 4 an average of .64. The Top 4 boast a cumulative goal difference of plus 140; the Bottom 4’s equivalent is minus 111. And this is after only 15 to 17 games!
It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that this indicates a very seriously unequal League. The question is whether this fact impinges on ‘the best league in the world’ assertion. Would more equality between teams not make for a better league? It would certainly make for less predictability. As far as I can recall there has been 1 – yes one – real shock so far this season.
These issues are matters of opinion. From my fans’s perspective the values which I bring to my assessment are quite different ones….
- Are the fans central in the way which they were in the FA’s original vision? I fail to see how anyone could argue that this true (see Note 3).
- Do the players enjoy the game as much? For me one of the great pleasures about the women’s game, one of it’s most distinct characteristics, was how much the players appeared to enjoy the game. It is my belief that the injection of money and the subsequent pressure has seriously undermined this enjoyment. Certainly I do not perceive it. And this impression has been confirmed by at least one player. Furthermore, if anyone wishes to see what I mean, then when we can all go back to live football, I would urge you to watch a Top 4 match – the Manchester derby or Arsenal v Chelsea – then go and attend a Tier 3 or 4 game. Because if you want to see what the WSL was like in 2011 or 12 (in terms of enjoyment) you can see it at those games.
So whatever the quality – and I do not contest that – for me the current WSL may be the ‘best league in the world’ but it is not as good as it was from 2011-13.
To Be Continued…..(see Part 3)