Three things happened in women’s football this week that provided a timely boost for the sport and could have a long-lasting impact on the game.
First, on Monday it was reported that several private equity firms had expressed an interest in buying a stake in the Women’s Super League in England, including global investors Bridgepoint.
Currently the WSL is run by the English FA and has 12 full-time professional teams. Despite lockdown which saw the league stopped in March and unable to resume because of financial constraints, private equity firms clearly still see the appeal and potential profitability of taking it over.
The game has been growing dramatically over the past decade and last year’s Women’s World Cup saw over a billion viewers globally.
The new WSL season is due to start on Sept 5 and is in the second of a three-year title sponsorship deal with Barclays worth over £10 million. But a firm like Bridgepoint taking over the league could mean a whole new ball game for women’s sport.
A spokesperson for the FA said this week: “As the WSL continues to grow and thrive there is considerable commercial interest from a variety of sectors.”
The discussions between Bridgepoint and the FA are thought to be at a preliminary stage but the idea would be for the private equity firm to take a minority stake in a newly-formed company that would hold WSL commercial rights along with the league’s 12 clubs and the FA.
The deal would also deny the Premier League who have also been in talks about taking control over WSL. It was understood that this is not a move that most of the WSL clubs would have been in favour of, for fear of being interpreted as a backward step with women’s football essentially being run by the men’s game.
Significantly over in America, another seismic moment was happening in women’s football. Hollywood actress Natalie Portman and a host of other A-list celebrities announced a majority-female founded National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) club in Los Angeles.
Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner and tennis legend Serena Williams have all backed the club financially and, as they took to social media to announce the project this week, it felt like another momentous shift for women’s sport.
They plan to bring Angel City (a working title until the club declares its official name before the end of the year) to the NWSL in Spring 2022 and they have promised to “write a new playbook” and “think differently about ownership, ticketing, partnerships and community collaboration.”
There has not been a professional women’s team in California for over a decade and the group said they reacted to supporter demand by applying to secure exclusive rights to bring a pro team to LA.
Oscar-winner Portman had met USA striker Alex Morgan to discuss the US Women’s National Team’s equal pay campaign and the similarities with Time’s Up, the entertainment industry’s campaign to stamp out sexual harassment and pay inequities.
Portman continued to meet with Time’s Up and USWNT Players’ Association together and she told The Athletic: “The more time I spent with these women, the more I learned and the bigger impact I wanted to make. It was just so obvious — we needed to see these women play in LA. We needed a team here.
“Together, we aim to build not only a winning team on the field, but also to develop a passionately loyal fan base.
“We also hope to make a substantive impact on our community, committing to extending access to sports for young people in Los Angeles.
“Sports are such a joyful way to bring people together, and this has the power to make tangible change for female athletes both in our community and in the professional sphere.”
Celebrity ownership is not new in American sport – indeed Serena even controls a share of the Miami Dolphins in NFL along with her sister Venus – but the big difference with ‘Angel City’ is that the majority of the ownership group is women.
“It’s a big moment for women’s soccer in the United States,” said Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl. “In the middle of a pandemic, when the economy is not doing well, the NWSL is getting new investment. They’re getting it from a pretty remarkable ownership group involving A-list celebrities, former US national team legends and people who are going to push this sport forward.
“The NWSL has gone from a position where we were wondering if it was going to survive things, to showing that it can not only survive but can continue to grow.”
It is a great message to send out and chimes with Sportside’s recent GenderPlayGap campaign. Lockdown has hampered women’s football more than men’s – the fact that we will see the denouement of the Premier League season this weekend while the WSL season remained unfinished is testament to that – but the women’s game promises to emerge stronger than ever.
Back in this country Sport England has also taken a big step to recognising it this week.
With England hosting the Women’s European Championship in 2022 the organisation announced that the host cities will receive £1 million of National Lottery funding to increase the number of adult women playing football.
“We know from data collected during the 2019 Women’s World Cup that there was a significant increase in the number of women playing football both during and after the tournament,” said Sport England’s director of sport Phil Smith.
“For Euro 2022, Sport England and The FA are trying to get ahead of the game. We know the tournament will excite the fans and the public, so we want to use that excitement to support even more women and girls to start playing.”
The Gender Play Gap is narrowing and Sportsiders across the globe can help close it even further.