Just over a hundred years ago, women in England were effectively banned from playing football. The Football Association ruled in 1921 that clubs could not allow women to play on their grounds to ensure there could be no recognized league or organization in which female players could train and develop. The ban lasted almost 50 years.
Fortunately, things will look very different in 2022. The UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 tournament is about to kick off, with 31 matches featuring players from 16 countries and record-breaking ticket sales.
And as interest grows, so does the commercial potential of women’s football. But there’s more to the business side of a sport than just increased revenue. It’s also about how that money is spent, how the game is being developed and how the fans, players and broadcasters are treated.
And in that respect, the influence of men’s football is clear – from the pitch to the boardroom.
For example, in England at least, a women’s team is almost always linked to a well-known men’s team in order to be successful. When the current Women’s Super League (WSL) was formed in 2010, it consisted of eight teams. Of these, five were linked to professional men’s teams from the Premier League.
Last season featured 12 teams, ten of which were from Premier League teams and the other two (Birmingham City and Reading) from teams in the Championship, the second tier of English men’s club football.
And overall, football still has very little gender diversity in boardrooms. Recent research shows that two-thirds of clubs in the top four leagues of men’s professional football have all-male directors. In the WSL, seven of the 12 teams have exclusively male board members.
The proportion of women at board level is just 11% in the Premier League, 4% in the Championship and 19% in WSL. This is despite ample evidence showing that good corporate governance leads to good financial results and that diversity in the boardroom goes hand in hand with both.
Those financial results are an integral part of the future of football – for both men and women – and in many cases are far from certain. In a recent assessment of the financial sustainability of men’s football, University of Liverpool’s Kieran Maguire and I examined various financial metrics (e.g. liquidity risk and spending no more than 70% of income on wages) and found that only three of the Premier League clubs were in no danger of injuring at least one.
Due to a lack of publicly available information, we cannot perform a similar analysis for WSL sites. But we can see that five WSL sides are affiliated with men’s teams whose holding companies (the “parent company” of the entire club) show risk on most metrics. That’s bad news for the women’s teams, who are often seen as an “add-on” and therefore an easy target for cost-cutting.
equality and justice
Another way to assess financial sustainability is to look at equity, or ownership interest in the club. For businesses to be considered viable, equity should be positive, meaning a club should be worth something. But in football we often see negative equity where the owner has to keep investing money to keep the club functioning.
In WSL, only three clubs had positive equity in the 2020/21 season, meaning the remaining nine were technically insolvent. They would no longer exist in normal industries.
And while it is clear that the affiliated men’s teams continue to support their women’s teams (through grants and loans), of the nine women’s teams with negative equity, four also showed negative equity in their men’s teams, which is a worrying scenario – particularly given the financial state of men’s football.
Eight of the original 22 Premier League members have gone into administration since the Premier League began. And if the club’s holding company goes bankrupt, it’s very likely that the women’s team will too.
So it seems that being part of men’s teams brings both risks and benefits to women’s football. Women’s club teams seem less and less successful at the top level without a men’s team at their side – but they lack economic independence.
However, there are signs of progress. The UK government has announced a review of how women’s football works and there are various official codes in place that encourage greater diversity and improved governance.
But there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of funding, representation and agency. To ensure that Euro 2022 leaves a lasting legacy, it is vital that women’s teams are widely viewed as clubs in their own right – with the risks and rewards that entails.