Women’s super league cash trap

 

 

This year’s FA Women’s Super League (WSL) began with unprecedented expectations. After a captivating World Cup and a neat new TV deal, there was a palpable feeling that this could be the year that the women’s side of things catches some of the spillover of the unparalleled popularity of the brands involved. Perhaps even generate a unique fanbase.

Two months in and it’s fair to say that everything is on track in that regard. The attendance record has been broken thrice, average viewership is up and there appears to be a genuine, growing interest in what has turned into a tight three-way title race.

Much to celebrate, then. It just depends where your loyalties lie.

As close as the battle is between the top three, the drop off after them is quite astounding. Even more so the further down you go.

From seven games each, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have only lost to each other, with a solitary draw to an outsider shared among them. No one expects this to change. On their day an Everton or Manchester United might represent a banana peel, but fixtures involving the top three and anyone else are turning into forgone conclusions.

This is hardly their fault, or even the league’s. In any case, blaming anyone is a pointless exercise. Rather, this should be taken as a warning that the success of any particular club does not mean the rest will be dragged up by default — an idea that has dangerous potential.

Australian superstar Sam Kerr’s move to Chelsea this month was widely celebrated as a win for not only the league but women’s football as a whole. A prolific superstar, who scored five goals at the Women’s World Cup this year, it’s undeniable that her acquisition means a spike in interest, translating to new eyeballs. More eyeballs means more TV and ticket money for everybody.

Fantastic. Except that’s hardly enough.

The Blues currently top the league table — and were able to attract a player like Kerr — because the club made the informed decision, from the very top boardroom level, to invest the sums needed to turn most of the squad professional. Now, in the nascent stages of the whole league turning professional, they have a clear head start.

For a reverse example of this logic, take Liverpool. The Reds sit stone last on the log. One draw is all that prevents them from sitting there with zero points on the board. This team is in serious trouble and will in all likelihood be relegated at the end of the season.

This is the club that were the trailblazers into this new era. An injection of investment captured the league in 2013, breaking the nine-year hold the Gunners had on the trophy. Defending the title the following year proved it wasn’t a fluke. They also became the only side to train full-time, setting a new precedent. And then … it just stopped.

Without notice the club seemingly just stopped caring. There was no formal announcement or decreed strategy. Instead, just a rapid decline that was met with no resistance. The official silence was deafening, with only the obligatory good luck wishes accompanying the departure of an endless stream of players and members of the coaching team. English fullback Lucy Bronze was one of the first to hint that something wasn’t quite right at Liverpool when she moved to Manchester in 2014.

“The way City are growing, the ambitions they have and what they want to do with the team is unbelievable. In the women’s game, it’s unheard of really,” she said in her arrival interview.

The obvious juxtaposition with Liverpool’s men’s side hardly needs to be pointed out. From 2015, when the slump was in full effect, the club provided Jürgen Klopp with the means he needed to become a European champion four years later. Today, he sits atop the Premier League, eight points clear of the closest competitor.

Why did a clearly ambitious Liverpool management discard their interest in a facet of their club?

The truth is that most WSL clubs run at a deficit. In the last financial figures released in April, Chelsea recorded a £776 775 operating loss. Manchester City’s was £1.106-million. Next year’s numbers should reflect the new commercial deals in place but until now pushing for success in the women’s game was not strictly a good business decision.

But, without the knowledge of Liverpool’s books, what really was the cost? In a world where Naby Keïta costs £48-million, was it too much to ask to incur a loss in the above region?

Whatever their reasoning, the Reds and the rest of the women’s game in England have been left stranded behind the big three. Kerr arriving to strengthen the Blues is most certainly not going to change that. The time to reinvest is now. Dawdling until profits come into view will only widen the gap until it’s irreversible.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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