The English Football Association (FA) today released an ambitious three-year Women’s Professional Game Strategy with a variety of targets aimed at turning their two women’s soccer leagues, the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship into the best women’s sports leagues in the world by 2024.
Focusing on three key strategic goals, the FA is aiming to both produce and attract world-class talent to the leagues, maximize and and engage audiences and grow commercial revenue and create financial sustainability.
Central to that aim, The FA is hoping by 2024, the Women’s Super League will be generating average attendances of 6,000 (currently 2,282), with an average of 1,000 in the second tier, the FA Women’s Championship (currently 544). A secondary target is to sell-out the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium for the Women’s FA Cup Final, the highest attendance to date is the 45,423 crowd which watched the 2018 Final. Currently three of the Women’s Super League sides – champions Chelsea, league leaders Arsenal and Everton – play in stadiums with a capacity below that 6,000 mark.
Speaking to me earlier today at a media briefing, The FA Director of the Women’s Professional Game, Kelly Simmons told me that “the priority by 2024 is to sell-out the grounds we are in. Pre-Covid, we obviously had some really big attendances in the main stadia and then we were starting to sell-out some of the big games in the women’-specific grounds. Very much we want to continue on that growth. We’re on just over 2,000 at the moment as we come back from having over a year of no fans.”
“They’ll be a blend of having big games in the big stadia which will obviously boost those overall average numbers and then a lot of the games in the women’s stadia. When we start to get to that point where we’re selling-out regularly that gives us a really nice problem to have, whereby we would be looking to either move more games into the main stadia or seek alternative options. I think that would be different across every club. If you’re Chelsea, you’ve bought your own ground, you’ve got the ability to expand if you need to, or you might be restricted because you’re into third party agreements. In terms of that, you’d have to look at every club differently.”
“In terms of this (strategy), we want to grow attendances. Big games in main stadia, I think that’s really important in terms of taking the game to the big fan-bases of the men’s game which we know increasingly are coming over and following the women.”
Worryingly for The FA, unlike in the men’s Premier League where this season’s average attendance has bounced back to higher levels than in the last pre-Covid campaign, women’s attendance figures for this season have fallen almost 50% from the aborted 2019/20 campaign when they were swelled by a number of record-breaking attendances at the club’s main stadiums, including a figure of 38,262 to watch Tottenham Hotspur take on Arsenal. This weekend, the same North London derby will not take place at the 62,850 capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but at the 6,500-capacity Hive Stadium where Spurs are averaging a gate of 2,995 so far this season.
Simmons does not believe this fall in crowds has been caused by this season’s new television deal with Sky and the BBC which mean more games than ever are broadcast live. Television viewing figures have indeed reached record levels with matches shown on Sky reaching a peak average of 318,400 and those shown on the terrestrial broadcaster, the BBC hitting 668,000. Recent research by Nielsen now claims that’s the Women’s Super League is the fourth most-watched sports league in England behind only the men’s Premier League, second tier Championship and the new cricket tournament, The Hundred.
Despite this new demand for women’s soccer, Simmons feels match-day attendances have been temporarily affected by confidence following the Covid-19 pandemic. “Research we did around the Lionesses (England National Team) when we were selling tickets for Wembley revealed that there are still concerns among fans in terms of coming back to big live events and using public transport. We know we have some of those challenges. Fans have not been able to come to games for some time so we have to re-create that habit. We have a fantastic opportunity with Sky and BBC to build that awareness and sign-post fans back. I’m sure there probably is an element for those who are nervous that they now have access to watch it on TV through Sky, BBC and the FA Player but I think it’s more about re-creating those habits and building the profile back up.”
According to The FA, the Women’s Super League is currently the second most-followed women’s soccer league in the world. It is hoping to take that number one place by 2024 by broadening the reach, quality and engagement of its mainstream and social media coverage. Another aim is that in three years, 50% of all head coaches in the league will be female. The close season appointment of four male head coaches means that currently only five of the twelve managers in the Women’s Super League are female.
Often criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity compared to the men’s game, The FA is also stipulating that all clubs sign up to the Football Leadership Diversity Code and establish targets for female and Black, Asian and minority ethnic coaches as well as ensuring the player pathway is diverse. Simmons admitted that more needs to be done to promote accessibility to regional training centers. “What’s happened, I think, is that because of budgets, we tend to sort of put the academies, the talent centers, in the training grounds, in the leafy suburbs and it’s not the most accessible for inner cities and for making sure that we are accessible for all talent”.
“We’re out to consultation that’s coming back to our board before the end of the year and I think early in the New Year we’ll be making some announcements. It’s ultimately about making sure we’ve got a really wide base for girls to come in and access a quality program and we can identify more talent and then you know the role of the clubs around developing their academies.” To prevent the new found wealth of the league encouraging clubs to recruit talent from abroad at the expense of English players, The FA is also looking to introduce homegrown rules, player protection and compensation to incentivize youth investment as well as promoting and supporting players who wish to work alongside their soccer careers.
Currently, there are twelve teams in both the fully professional Women’s Super League and the semi-professional FA Women’s Championship. The FA is hoping that by 2030, it will have two leagues of 24-28 professional clubs which will compete in the first sustainable women’s soccer leagues in the world. To do that, it will focus on building a strong commercial platform while managing its cost base to drive long-term sustainability.
In 2019, the Women’s Super League announced Barclays as the competition’s title sponsor for three seasons, a deal which will expire before the end of The FA’s three-year strategy in 2024. Another key aim is to have also secured a title sponsor for the Women’s Championship by that date. “We set ourselves a target of getting a sponsor for the Championship and all I can say is ‘watch this space’, we are hoping to make an announcement in that area pretty soon” revealed Simmons.