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European Super League failure was a lucky swerve for women’s football

Women footballers chase after ball.
A Women’s Super League fixture between Tottenham Hotspur and Bristol City. Federico Guerra Moran/Shutterstock

Within 72 hours of announcement, the European Super League (ESL) was killed. It was a testament to the power of fans and a reminder that football isn’t just about the interest of owners but a game for all.

While much talk has centred on the men’s game, in the breakaway league’s initial statement it was announced: “As soon as practicable after the start of the men’s competition, a corresponding women’s league will also be launched, helping to advance and develop the women’s game.”

The failure of the ESL and its women’s game is a lucky swerve. If it had gone ahead, women’s football would have been being caught up in global football politics and ultimately being held back in its development, contrary to the ESL’s statement.

A damaging impact?

The most obvious issue was how much of an afterthought a women’s league was in the ESL announcement. With just a single sentence within the initial statement, there was no reassurance for women’s football managers, players or fans that the game was a strategic priority.

Often seen as the “little sister” to men’s football, the presumption that the women’s game would simply follow suit is further evidence of the increasing swallowing up of women’s football by the men’s game.

In 2011, the FA encouraged independent women’s teams to strategically align to men’s professional clubs to support the development of the women’s game. Fast forward ten years and how integrated those women’s teams are within the men’s setup is different across the leagues. For instance, players from Birmingham City Women, for example, recently wrote to the board criticising their lack of basic working conditions in comparison to the men’s team.

One of the biggest problems with the proposed women’s ESL was how many of the top women’s teams would have missed out because their men’s teams were not as successful. Notable exclusions would be France’s Lyon (seven times winners of the Women’s Champions League) and Germany’s Wolfsburg (twice winners).

Of those clubs guaranteed participation, the proposal assumed that the women’s team within each club were equally “a top club” within their league, which is not always the case. For example, Tottenham Women are only in their second year as a professional team and currently only six points off relegation from the Women’s Super League.

Women footballers congratulate each other.
Chelsea women’s team celebrate a goal. Federico Guerra Morán/Alamy

The whole fiasco also overshadowed the reforms to the Women’s Uefa Champions League for the 2021-22 season. This would see an expansion of the competition with a 16 team group stage and increased revenue from a new model of centralised marketing and TV coverage.

In stark contrast to the ESL, there was heavy consultation for this change with member associations and clubs. The European Club Association also released their women’s football strategy this month with a commitment to driving a sustainable future for the game through new research insights that inform strategic directions. These considered measures should accelerate European women’s football.

Measures must address inequalities

Women’s football has taken great strides in recent years, with high viewing figures at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. More recently in England, a £7 million landmark broadcasting deal for the FA Women’s Super League has been announced to regularly connect women’s football to mainstream audiences. This move is predicted on a forecasted 350% viewership spike. The deal also involves investment into the lower tiers of women’s football, to start bridging the increasing gaps between elite clubs.

The notion of visibility has been at the forefront of discussions of women’s sport in the UK recently, following the Women’s Sport Trust’s impactful study. However, we must not presume that visibility is the solution to all problems. Broadcasters have a responsibility to not only make these women visible but also demonstrate that they’re valued and valuable. This would involve primetime scheduling and high production value, which have been inconsistent to date.

Let’s not gloss over persistent and perpetual inequalities that plague the women’s game beyond visibility. Research published last year found that the pandemic has impacted women’s football differently to men’s football and is facing serious economic threats.

Before the pandemic, the elite game in England already had to deal with poor pitches, facilities and working conditions for players. Women’s football is in the very early stages of professionalisation in the UK, and while progress is evident, it is crucial investment continues into professional structures, so more players can benefit.

Seizing the moment

There are lessons to be learned from the ESL debacle and real political, economic and cultural change which has gender equality at heart that can be enacted as a result. Here are some of our suggestions:

1) Capitalising on growth. If clubs do not consider women’s football as core business, governance structures need to make them.

2) Consultation. The ESL clubs did not consult their women’s teams on the strategy. This resulted in top teams missing and mismatched because they copied the men’s game. Clearly, “one size does not fit all”.

3) Strategy development. The Champions League reforms will help international football, but we worry this will also exacerbate the difference in financial capabilities between the top and bottom clubs. Fair distribution of wealth needs to be considered.

4) Collective action. Beyond sexism, Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford, stated it is a shame that football does not react as strongly to racism as it did to the ESL. We could implore a similar demand for issues related to homophobia, transphobia and beyond.

5) Fan advocacy – Women’s football fans need to remain ardent in their support of women’s football as separate but related to men’s football.

Football is often slow to resolve issues that have plagued the game. However, the reaction to the ESL can and should provide hope in what can be achieved in unity, highlighting the social and political significance of football as a space for change.

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