A landmark review of women’s football in England has called for wholesale change across the game; from enhancing minimum standards for professionals to “rapid growth” in the development of young talent.
The review, chaired by the former England international Karen Carney, argues that to finance necessary adaptations, new solutions must also be considered, including allowing women’s football to be broadcast at 3pm on a Saturday and raising prize money in the women’s FA Cup to match the men’s competition.
“It’s about minimum standards, it’s about what needs to be done if we’re going to move this sport forward,” Carney said. “I’m really proud of the review sparking conversations and bringing more people to the table. I’ve never seen that level of interest before and I’ve been involved in the game long enough. But these recommendations have to be taken seriously, they have to be acted upon and they have to be acted upon with urgency. We’ve had such an amazing 18 months, but we need to keep it pushing.”
The review was commissioned last September by the government and Carney led an expert panel that consulted with voices across the game, as well as taking in a number of case studies from other sports. The conclusion is a set of 10 recommendations, starting with fully professionalising the Women’s Super League and Championship, and ending on the right for girls to play football in schools. The consistent theme, however, is that of “raising minimum standards”.
According to the review, some of the most “compelling” evidence it obtained was from professional players describing a working environment that struggles to “fully protect and support those working in it”. In response, the review suggests the implementation of new criteria that would stipulate minimum salaries and contact time for players, improve training facilities, apply “gold standard” physical and mental health care, as well as “world leading” parental leave packages and full union representation.
Those working on the review were aware that any demands would immediately be met by questions as to how they would be paid for. Much of the future structure of the professional women’s game is uncertain, with the FA looking to spin off its role as competition organiser for the WSL and Championship. The future controller of the league game is referred to as “NewCo” in the report and a number of costs will have to be met by this body.
The review also stresses a need for external investment, suggesting that NewCo should find a “strategic partner” to help fund the development of young talent. As a sign of the sums of money involved, the review cites a submission from the FA observing: “Central investment from the Premier League into men’s academies is £88m per annum compared to the overall FA budget for women’s academies of £3.25m per annum”.
Similar scrutiny will be paid to the suggestion of innovations around broadcasting and prize money. Any change of the rules on the Saturday broadcasting blackout – known as Article 48 regulations – would affect the men’s game as well as the women’s and would require agreement on all sides. Meanwhile the review acknowledges an equalisation of FA Cup prize money would be “problematic” due to the differing costs and size of each competition.
“Everybody involved has the responsibility to invest in the game and move it to the next level,” Carney said on the question of funding. “What I would say is that women’s football is a start-up business. If you’re starting something you need an influx of money. But I really do believe in 10 years’ time this sport could be a billion-pound industry. These requirements, these investments, are the foundations that will lead us to this point.”
The potential impact of the review is unclear as, unlike the “fan-led review” into the men’s game there is no prospect of legislation to back it up. The Professional Footballers’ Association considers it a useful document and one that shows the need for union representation in the women’s game.
Maheta Molango, the PFA chief executive, said: “We’ve always said that ‘professional’ needs to mean more than just a word on a contract. It needs to be reflected in the way players are treated and supported by their clubs and leagues. There are a range of recommendations [in the report] that will be excellent news for players.”
A spokeswoman for the FA said: “These are exciting times for the development of the women’s game and we share Karen’s vision of creating world-leading standards for players, fans, and everyone involved in women’s football.
“We look forward to working with all stakeholders to address the challenges and opportunities outlined in the report, and to deliver the changes needed to take the women’s professional game to the next level.”