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“You’ve come a long way….”

AFTER a landmark year for women’s football in the UK, the FA Super League kicks-off in under two weeks and expectation has never been higher.  In 2015, Women’s Super League attendances averaged over 1,000 (up from 700 in 2014) as public interest grew significantly following the England team’s success in the World Cup.

Historically, public response to a successful World Cup campaign has delivered benefits for the domestic game – in 1966, when England’s men won the Jules Rimet Trophy, top division gates improved by more than 14% and in 1990, when the semi-final stage was reached, there was a 9% increase. Gates in 2015 for the women went up by 43%, so it will be interesting to see if the momentum continues and the “feel good factor” remains.

The global reach of the game is extending all the time, with the World Cup final between the USA and Japan breaking TV records for a football match screened in the US  – some 25 million viewers. There’s also good news for the women’s game coming from FIFA. Executive committee member Moya Dodd, speaking at a conference in Switzerland on women’s football and leadership, told newly-elected president, Gianni Infantino: “FIFA has a brand problem and women are part of the solution.”

Revenues are still heavily reliant on association support and government funding

Europe’s top clubs are also recognizing the benefits from embracing this segment of the game. Football Benchmark highlights, in its latest report – “Which revenue courses will drive the professionalisation of women’s football?” – that the number of women’s teams fielded by professional clubs with an equivalent top-tier men’s squad has risen from 35% to 49%. This has paid dividends to the clubs that have embarked on the women’s football journey – Chelsea (England), Barcelona (Spain), Bayern Munich (Germany) and Lyon (France) all won their domestic championships.

The FA Women’s Super League Division One in England includes clubs from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Sunderland in Division One and Aston Villa, Everton and Watford in the second tier. Likewise, in Germany, as well as Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and Cologne all have women’s teams. The story is similar in other top leagues, although the exception to this rule is Italy, which has just one similarly affiliated club, Fiorentina. Undoubtedly, the clubs that are affiliated have an advantage as women’s football does not yet have critical mass, commercially, to run as a professional sport.

Without such “parent” support, it is questionable if women’s football can reach a higher plane on a professional basis. Football Benchmark points to FIFA’s latest survey on women’s football and some telling statistics – that national league clubs revenues rely heavily on association support (55%) and government funding (12%). The road to sustainability depends on “traditional” revenue streams such as attendances and sponsorship, along with TV broadcasting fees. Football Benchmark says: “The often-heard statement that all these areas are strongly dependant on each other has created a vicious cycle that gives no clear answer to the key question – which of them will lead the way in the development of the sport in the coming years?”.

At the root of this is the audience, or lack of it. As mentioned attendances in England rose to 1,000 – boosted by the World Cup. But these may not be enough to support professional football, certainly not without subsidization. At best, semi-professionalism could be sustained. If you compare these gates to the men’s game, it equates to a good level of non-league. What is encouraging is that the last women’s FA Cup final drew 30,000 to Wembley.

Although there are hopes that this season’s gates in England may continue their positive trajectory, Football Benchmark suggests that sponsorship, which currently accounts for 24% of revenues, offers the best chance for the overall growth of the women’s game. The German Women’s Bundesliga and the FA Women’s FA Cup have both secured significant sponsorship deals with Allianz and SSE respectively. “Commercial and matchday income seem to be the key income sources in the short-term and the ability of rights holders to exploit them will determine the future of the game in the coming years,” says Football Benchmark.

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