28 March ~ It’s been a bad week for good news at FA headquarters. With the noise created by waving goodbye to yet another chief executive, it would be easy to miss that the Women’s Super League took another step forward with the announcement of the eight teams that will compete when the league kicks off in March 2011. The founder clubs are mainly drawn from the Premier League: Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers and Everton.
But the carefully organised selection process threw up two unexpected names in Liverpool Ladies and Lincoln Imps, currently standing first and second in the Northern Division. Premier League clubs from among the eight rejected applications have been vocal in their disappointment.
It’s easy to find some sympathy for Sunderland who have argued their case on sporting grounds, currently first in the PL and FA Cup finalists last year. It’s less easy in Nottingham Forest’s case as their chief executive felt there was a missed opportunity by not including one of the “biggest brands”. Each selected club has been granted a two-year licence and the league will operate initially on a closed basis. The FA's intention is to look at ways to integrate it into the pyramid after the settling in period.
A key argument advanced by the FA for establishing the league was the need to encourage the best home talent to play in this country. The relaunch of women’s football in the US, with Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), has attracted top players and of the England squad announced for the World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Spain, six currently play in the States. Establishing a competitive elite league in this country is a key part of raising standards to support the England senior team and as England Coach Hope Powell says: “It’s about professionalisation.”
A tricky balance has had to be struck between making the league attractive to top players and at the same time making it competitive and sustainable. From the outset the FA has been keen to maintain competitive balance with the idea that “top players should play for different clubs across the country”. They rejected parts of the WPS model of a draft (up to three current US internationals were allocated to each club) and limits on other senior international players (no more than four at any club). However, a salary cap – designed to “stop top clubs stockpiling the best players” – has been adopted. Within that cap and a limit of 20 registered players at any time, clubs can employ no more than four players earning more than £20,000 per year. Players’ earnings from central contracts, worth £16,000, introduced last year are excluded.
There’s no doubt that the league will face challenges. Its launch, delayed by a year, will benefit from the publicity attracted by the World Cup in 2011, particularly if England do well. But, in its second year it will have to compete for media time with the London Olympics. A major plus for the WSL was its inclusion in the deal struck last year by ESPN to secure rights to the FA Cup. Alongside the financial benefit is the regular exposure that both players and coaches will gain, perhaps increasing the career opportunities for the growing number of qualified women coaches.
Crucial in the selection process was the development case advanced by the clubs. Although the FA will provide development funding of up to £70,000 for each club each year, clubs are expected to at least match that sum. A summer season – from March to October – will avoid a clash with the men’s game and the idea of combining some fixtures into a bank holiday Football Festival is innovative. Nevertheless, success will depend on the league attracting both fans and sponsors in sufficient numbers by producing competitive football. That said, in a bleak week for football’s governing body it was one piece of potentially good news. Brian Simpson