The government’s decision to accept all the recommendations made in the bold Karen Carney-led review into women’s football should be welcomed. Coming six days after Women’s Super League and Championship clubs agreed to proceed with an independent new company (NewCo) being launched to take over the running of the top two divisions from next season, the response comes at a critical juncture.
The government acceptance of the review serves as a timely reminder of what a holistic approach to the development of the women’s game should include at a time when vested interests, particularly of clubs with Premier League men’s teams, risk arising. Central to the disagreement which delayed Championship clubs from fully supporting the proposed launch of NewCo, with some opposing it and others only conditionally supporting it, had been over the voting power of those clubs.
The Professional Game Working Group, set up by the Football Association to establish NewCo, is putting forward a revenue split between the leagues: 75% to the WSL and 25% to the Championship, emphasising that it is a much bigger share than the one given to the English Football League by the Premier League. As a result, WSL clubs are pushing for Championship clubs not to be able to vote on commercial decisions, primarily because those in the top flight are responsible for generating most of the revenue across the leagues and the 25% share to the Championship is a statement of their commitment to not splitting off from the pyramid.
The commercial successes and viability of WSL clubs is not a historic phenomenon. It is a new one and, while the state of Championship clubs is mixed, the potential of Championship clubs to rise to what is actually quite a low level of commercial viability in the medium term is not an unrealistic prospect.
It is understood that the NewCo board will be mandated to represent the interests of both leagues, and so will have the power to give the Championship clubs votes on all the key issues that impact them. But there are a number of unknowns, such as the makeup of the board itself and how Premier League-backed WSL clubs interests and pressures will be managed against the overall good of the leagues.
Days after a number of Championship clubs rebelled against their vote on a number of things being removed, all 24 clubs across the two leagues signed up to the proposal. In some senses they were caught between a rock and a hard place, the Championship cut out of NewCo being one of the alternative options.
Interestingly, the government response to the Carney-led review sides with the Championship clubs in this discussion. It says that “the recommendation for a one-board principle between the leagues should be a priority and allow clubs to be represented in equal share” and that “independent decision-making is not only good governance, but is crucial to ensure vested interests do not drag the game to places that are not in the interest of everyone. NewCo has an opportunity to take this approach in its foundation, and we urge NewCo not to miss the opportunity.”
With the government backing the review’s proposition of no independent regulator for women’s football at this stage, and NewCo having the opportunity to embed financial regulation and planning in from the start, this reminder of the importance of democratic decision-making among clubs matters at this juncture.
There are several other notable proposals in the review, including that there should be full unionisation of WSL and Championship players by the Professional Footballers Association. This is another contentious issue, with the PFA not receiving ringfenced funding for membership of WSL players but choosing to cover players anyway while they advocate for funding for it. Meanwhile, the organisation says it is unable to do so for Championship players while it is not a fully professional league, which the FA, in its response to the government’s response, says it is. The issues highlighted in the Carney-led review show there is a desperate need for players to have proper representation and this stalemate needs to be resolved for players to feel able to speak up when new minimum standards are not being met.
Another major coup for the Carney-led review is the government’s support for the lifting of the Saturday 3pm broadcast blackout for women’s football. In a saturated football calendar, the women’s game desperately needs a slot it can own exclusively. This has proved impactful on attendances and viewing figures in a number of other leagues, including the hugely successful Mexican women’s league, which has Monday night as its own slot. The statement in the government response to the review that “there is a legitimate question about recompensing the women’s game for this missed opportunity for revenue” if a slot cannot be found is also significant recognition of the fact that women’s football has been undersupported and undervalued for too long.
NewCo has a lot of decisions to make and a lot of work to do in not a huge amount of time. Government response to the review can, hopefully, help reground the discussions.