17 April ~ The FA Women's Super League finally got underway this week with a televised match between Arsenal Ladies and Chelsea Ladies. The eight-team league will run across the summer months with some matches covered live on ESPN along with a weekly highlights show. Regular television coverage is just one of the ways that the new league will be different from the Women's Premier League, and those differences reflect the FA's ambitions for the competition.
The FA sees the WSL as a move to "professionalise women's football and attract girls and fans to the game", adding credibility by establishing an "elite" and an opportunity for young players who want to stay in the game and earn money in a new semi-professional league. For England women's national team it is a way of keeping the top players in this country rather than having them follow the cash to America. The league has adopted a salary cap, with clubs limited to no more than four players earning in excess of £20,000 a year. However, that hasn't prevented some early fears of clubs importing foreign talent.
Few would doubt that the establishment of the WSL is a positive step for the women's game and really does represent a chance to give it the status it deserves. But just 24 hours after that inaugural fixture Rochdale Ladies and Curzon Ashton will meet in a "relegation six pointer" in the Women's Premier League Northern, and perhaps they will provide a truer guide to the women's game nationally. To gain some perspective, the two teams are among the top 36 sides outside the Super League. While teams enjoying Super League status have to provide funding of £70,000 over each of the next two seasons, clubs like Rochdale rely on subscriptions from their amateur players, small local sponsorships and donations from generous committee members.
Rochdale Ladies illustrate some of the disparities that exist in the game. They are a team with a strong record of promotions and success, but this season has been a struggle as they have competed with better resourced clubs such as Manchester City, Aston Villa and Coventry City. Support from sponsor clubs shows itself in kit and equipment, but perhaps most graphically in transport – for some it's a team coach, for Rochdale a borrowed mini-bus. A home ground at Manchester's Sport City is in stark contrast to Rochdale's use of Chadderton FC's ground (in the sixth tier of non-League) where the host club's friendship and support is crucial.
In so many ways, clubs like Rochdale, or for that matter Curzon Ashton, illustrate the need for the WSL – if it can raise the profile of the game for the good of all – but also reveal the challenges. Few would argue that the Women's Premier League was a good advert for the game. It was uncompetitive, with Arsenal, for example, winning the title in seven consecutive seasons and doing a double in five of those years, and matches were often played on poor and overused pitches. It remains difficult to see exactly how the establishment of the new elite league will benefit the rest of the women's game.
For the first two years at least, the WSL will be a closed league and with no current transfer system the prospect of financial trickle down is remote. The Super League alone will be a summer competition with the remaining leagues staying with a winter schedule. The FA can quote impressive participation rates – over one million women playing football – and yet for many in the amateur game the key to increased participation lies in the schools, where Olympic sports and the lure of 2012 are competing for attention.
The Womens' Super League is likely to succeed in its own terms, but I'll be looking out for the result of that relegation six-pointer on Thursday night. Brian Simpson