Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress

In England, No One Can Stop Women’s Soccer

The official announcement came in a letter to member clubs, dated April 7, 2009 and signed by the chairman himself: budget constraints meant that the much-anticipated launch of the Football Association’s Women’s Super League, England’s most ambitious effort to promote and fund women’s soccer at the elite level, wasn’t going to happen as planned. Not the following spring. Maybe, though the letter didn’t say as much, not ever.

From the outside, perhaps, it looked like a typical process for women’s sports and, in England, women’s soccer: grand plans that turned into hollow promises.

Instead, it was but another speed bump for a sport that continues to grow no matter what challenges are put in front of it.

The FA launched the Women’s Super League in the spring of 2010; it began its first season the next year. Four years later, Lord David Triesman, who chaired the FA from 2008 to 2010 and said he felt the growth of women’s soccer at the grassroots level gave his organization no choice but to create the new league, can now say that maybe he and others who fought for the women’s game were right.

Pushing to fund the Super League, he recounted, “was maybe one of the most unpopular decisions we ever made.” He smiled. “But I believe it was the right one.”

Triesman left the FA in 2010, a month after the FA officially announced that the Super League would begin the next spring. But he remains an interested observer of both women’s and men’s soccer. Over a cup of coffee in Westminster, where Parliament has in the past taken its own interest in the growth of women’s soccer at all levels, he talks at length about the sport with a fan’s enthusiasm.

“What’s the fastest growing sport in England, or the UK, or Europe, or the world?” Triesman asked me. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Cut the cake however you like, the answer is women’s football.”

Worldwide, funding for women’s soccer has lagged, as a recent report from FIFA, the sport’s governing body, detailed. But perhaps it is more surprising that it has in the past fallen behind in England too. It is certainly not the only country that has failed to make the women’s game — and women’s sports generally — a priority. But when it comes to this sport, there is an obvious question: if the country that gave birth to soccer, spread it across the globe, and is now home to the single most popular league in the world’s most popular sport, can’t sufficiently prioritize women’s football, why and how would anyone else?

If the Super League, which began its fifth season this month, is an indication of the Football Association’s newfound commitment to growing the women’s game, the fact that it took this long to develop such a league is in part because that commitment wasn’t present in the past.

The Super League is an “entirely new way of conceptualizing elite women’s football in England,” as Dr. Carrie Dunn, a sports journalism professor at the University of East London who has researched the league’s launch and the history of the women’s game, described it. But women’s football in England is not a new concept at all.

Women were playing soccer as early as the 1890s, and two decades later, when a bulk of the country’s men left for World War I, it was women who replaced them on factory and club teams. Their matches drew the sport-thirsty crowds that had once populated men’s contests, and in 1920, a match between an English team and a French side drew 25,000 fans. Later that year, 53,000 people attended another women’s match. When the men returned, the women’s game didn’t cede its popularity.

So the Football Association killed it.

Or at least it tried. The sport’s governing body banned women from FA-sponsored grounds and funds in 1921 under the guise that it was a sport “quite unsuitable for females” (it was not alone: women were banned from the game in other European countries, including France, too). Women’s soccer spent the next five decades on life support, but still it didn’t die. Women kept playing, and in 1971, two years after the formation of the Women’s Football Association, the FA lifted the ban and women began competing in cup competitions modeled after the men’s game. For the next 22 years, the women’s version existed separately under its own governing body. Its growth continued, and the Women’s FA launched a 24-team league in 1991. Three years later, the FA took over the league and the administration of women’s soccer.

If women had essentially forced their way back into the picture, the FA’s takeover was an immediate shot in the sport’s arm, and women’s teams sprouted across the country. There were an estimated 80 women’s teams in England in 1993. By 2005, according to a Parliamentary report commissioned that year, there were more than 8,000. The sport’s future seemed inevitable: in 1997, the FA laid out plans to grow it nationwide, and as early as 1998, newspapers were crowing that the women’s game was destined for widespread popularity. They weren’t wrong. By 2002, more women played soccer than any other team sport in England.

By then, though, England was behind other soccer powers on the international stage, where success in the 1990s led to major investments at the national level and women’s professional leagues in Germany and the United States. The U.S. launched the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first fully professional women’s league in the world, in 2001, and though it would fold after just three seasons it was a sign of the type of investments others were trying to make. Like the German league, England’s top competition was entirely semi-professional, but as some clubs invested while others didn’t, the quality of competition sagged. It made it easy for top talent to head abroad, hard for England to close the gap in the international game.

The eight-team Super League was conceived to give women an elite professional league and improve the level of play from the youth levels to the national team. Competitive assistance would, in theory, be one of its chief byproducts: by keeping the best English women at home and potentially increasing investment and opportunity at all levels of the sport, it would hopefully improve the level of competition in the league itself and of the national team on the world stage.

Now entering its fifth season, it is too soon to offer anything resembling a final judgment. But it has already grown — in 2014, a 10-team second division was added below it — and observers say the Super League is off to a good, if modest, start.

“We could probably say for the top clubs…it’s been a success,” Dunn said. “They’re playing much more competitive matches, and you’ve got the talent pool coming back into England.”

This offseason alone, Lianne Sanderson, a former Arsenal star who spent four years playing in the United States and Spain, returned to the club of her youth. Former Stanford University forward Chioma Ubogagu, who was born in England but grew up in the States, chose to play for Arsenal over an American club. Demi Stokes, who returned this year to play for Manchester City after attending the University of South Florida, recently told The Guardian that she “couldn’t get over how much the game had changed” in her four years abroad. “There’s been a bit of a revolution.”

As competition improves, attendance, while still low, is growing, and veteran English players have noted the success.

“The standard of the women’s game is the best it’s ever been,” Casey Stoney, an Arsenal defender who has spent her entire career in England and played more than 100 times for the national team, said in an email. “When I first started playing, we had to pay to play! We also had to wear the men’s kit, but now we’re professionals, we get paid, have our own women’s kit and train every day.”

The most obvious challenge to building the Super League is fostering consistent popularity. There are positive signs. English women and girls are playing soccer in record numbers and the national team has drawn huge crowds — more than 45,000 people watched a friendly match against Germany at London’s Wembley Stadium in November — in the run-up to this summer’s World Cup.

But as American fans can attest, growth at lower levels and immense support for the national team does not translate into automatic success for a domestic league. The U.S. Women’s National Team has drawn huge crowds and TV audiences for nearly two decades, often outpacing their male counterparts. And yet, the U.S. has already watched two women’s leagues fail amid financial concerns; the latest edition, the National Women’s Soccer League, has more modest financial aims and the partial backing of the American, Canadian, and Mexican federations and begins its third season Friday.

The challenges facing the Super League and how the FA has worked to address them will look familiar to American fans. Like the NWSL, it has to compete for attention, both in attendance and on television (it has a national TV deal with BT Sport), in a packed marketplace that is growing even more crowded as new sports continue to break in. The leagues must foster long-term fans. The Super League sought to address both by following a summer schedule — opposite the men’s leagues — and by marketing itself, in part through cheap ticket prices, as a family-friendly option, specifically targeting teenage and young adult girls.

In 2012, the FA launched a comprehensive five-year plan to grow the game at every level, with specific talent development program and plans to market the game separately from the men, both through commercial means and broadcast rights for the league and the women’s national team, which would for the first time sell TV rights separately from the men. With a $5 million investment, the FA set a goal of making women’s soccer the nation’s second-most popular sport by 2018.

“Women’s football is the area with the most potential for growth in the nation’s favourite game,” then-FA chairman David Bernstein said at the time. “We are determined to lead that development at every level and have created a robust plan for doing so using all our resources and knowledge.”

Another key component of the Super League strategy should also look familiar to fans of the men’s game: the names. In choosing which existing teams to integrate into the new competition, the FA put an emphasis on those that had the solid support of men’s clubs. As a result, the Super League is full of names that are familiar worldwide: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City.

This is somewhat of a break from NWSL, where only two teams are directly linked to Major League Soccer clubs. But for the FA it was an important and deliberate branding decision. “The team colors are very important,” Triesman said. “Everyone knows the Arsenal colors, the Chelsea colors.”

That also comes with other benefits. Top clubs like Arsenal, a two-time title winner that Triesman called “a pioneer” in the women’s game, can offer direct financial support and stability, the use of facilities, and promotion. The Arsenal Ladies are routinely mentioned in programs for men’s matches, and the club brought out one of its biggest stars, Rachel Yankey, for an on-pitch interview during halftime of an early-March Premier League match against Everton.

The FA looked at other leagues for examples, and linking with men’s clubs follows successful strategies abroad. Former U.S. captain Julie Foudy, now a soccer analyst for ESPN, recalled a story she heard from a top official in France about the benefits of tying women’s teams to men’s clubs. The official, Foudy said, told her that “the reason we need these men’s teams having women’s programs is because when you say to a dad whose daughter is really good, ‘I want her to play women’s soccer,’ he says, ‘No, that’s not a sport for girls.'”

“But if she says she wants to play for PSG,” Foudy said, referencing Paris Saint-Germain, one of France’s biggest clubs, “he’s interested. We don’t have that cultural barrier here in the United States, but they do in other places.”

Tying women’s teams to stable and rich clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, or City can have an obvious payoff. But that doesn’t mean it is a foolproof strategy. Dunn pointed to Charlton Athletic, which, facing a financial crunch after its men’s team was relegated from the Premier League, axed its women’s team in 2007. It has since returned to play in the Women’s Premier League, which sits below the two Super League divisions, but “there’s always that danger in relying on the men’s team” that come hard times, women’s teams will be “the first easy saving they could make,” Dunn said.

The biggest problem facing women’s soccer, though, might be a usual culprit threatening women’s sports: sexism.

There is still a persistent notion that football is a man’s game, and it is reflected at nearly every level of the English game. Though women serve in prominent roles as assistant referees, trainers, development officers, club chairs and executives, and journalists who chronicle the sport, they remain rare and underrepresented. That women fans belong at the grounds on matchday is still a relatively new idea in soccer’s history; owing to this, outward displays of sexism at men’s matches are not uncommon, as the organization Women In Football highlighted when it launched the She Belongs campaign against sexism on International Women’s Day in March.

“For 20 years, no one had done anything about sexism,” Anna Kessel, a Guardian sportswriter who chairs Women In Football, told me. “It was almost nonsensical. There were campaigns against racism and homophobia. (Sexism) was the elephant in the room.

“We started the campaign just to put it on the map.”

At the league level, these sexist displays are open and direct: they take the form of catcalls toward visible women in the game, like Chelsea trainer Eva Carneiro, or popular chants from club supporters.

At lower levels, the sexism shows up most notably in the wide disparities facing women and girls. The 2006 Parliamentary report, for instance, found that funding and facilities weren’t keeping up with the growth of the women’s game. In 2003, 94 percent of England’s soccer facilities had no changing rooms for women. The FA estimated that merely bringing facilities up to an equitable level for girls would require £2 billion.

Aside from that, girls at the grassroots level can simply see fewer opportunities to play the game or access development opportunities that can turn them into elite players.

The FA has moved to address many of these problems. It now fights sexism as part of its broader inclusivity agenda, which has made bigger headlines for targeting racism and homophobia. It has expanded investments into girls’ and women’s soccer at the county and local levels. This year, it backed the #ThisGirlCan campaign to promote the simple fact that girls and women can play soccer just like the boys. The FA and its clubs have also set up academies to develop young players in the same way they foster boys’ growth in the sport.

Though much of this is more visible away from the Super League — one fan said that open displays of discrimination, including sexism, are non-existent at the women’s matches she has attended — the disparities are evident there too. Professional men’s players earn tens of thousands of pounds per week in wages. But in an effort to foster financial health and balance, the FA capped Super League salaries, initially allowing clubs to pay more than £21,000 (about $31,000) per season to no more than four players. The FA further subsidizes salaries for women who play for England’s national team, but those still pale in comparison to what men make even well below the Premier League. Figuring out a financial model that allows women to make fully professional salaries remains one of the league’s biggest challenges, Dunn, the University of East London professor, said (this, too, remains a challenge in the NWSL, which caps team salaries at $200,000 or about $15,000 per player, and the American, Canadian, and Mexican federations subsidize salaries for national team players).

Women In Football started with a pub discussion in 2006; it now boasts over 1,200 members nationwide. Its campaign largely focuses on men’s soccer, but the efforts to change an atmosphere that isn’t fully accepting of women should help those playing the game too.

“It’s all connected,” Kessel said. “The game is male-dominated even in the women’s game. So trying to change the culture of the men’s game and professional football, it should have a positive effect on the women’s game too.”

It is too early to judge the ultimate success of the Super League itself, much less whether it can be a vehicle to building a stronger game both above it at the international level and below it at the grassroots. This summer’s World Cup will offer the first, if imperfect, test of the former. It will be years before the latter can be properly assessed, and there are still concerns: about the finances, about the model, about how best to link the league itself to every level of the game below it. But optimism reigns, especially entering a two-year period that will feature a World Cup and Olympic competition.

“We’re still quite early in the journey,” said Triesman. “I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t become a much more recognizable piece of the business.”

In the birthplace of football, the women’s game is trudging forward as it has for decades, even in spite of every possible obstacle placed in front of it. It survived an official ban and years of neglect to get to this point. There’s no reason it can’t continue growing with the proper attention and care. And if anything is clear, it is that the women and girls playing the game will continue to leave the FA and other official bodies little choice but to pay attention, just as they continue to do in the United States and across the world.

“There’s an underlying resilience to this game,” Triesman said. “It all goes back to the people who play it. It has erupted from the grassroots, and no one can stop it.”

(Pictured above: A display board at Wembley Stadium, England’s national soccer stadium and home of the Football Association, promotes the FA’s #ThisGirlCan campaign.)

« »