Football: the business case for the women's game
The FT visits Lewes, a small fan-owned football team in the south of England, which pays female players the same wages as the men’s team; and Arsenal, which has a long-established women's team. As English Premier League clubs start to invest in the women's game, we examine whether women's football should replicate the structure and feel of the men's game or establish an identity of its own
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Graphics by Russell Birkett. Produced, directed and edited by Daniel Garrahan
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
This is a story of opportunity.
Women's football depends on men's football because it was never allowed to develop on its own.
Our foundations are fragile, all women's sport.
It would be lovely to get the big figures and to get just enough money to live off at times.
The world is designed by men for men. The top players don't have access to basic and fundamental equipment.
The battles that we fought to get onto the field are now being fought to get into the boardroom and into the management team.
You can't say you value something and then give it away for free.
If we can continue to give the opportunities to improve the product, that will awaken companies to want a piece of the sport.
Over the next few years we're going to really see whether or not the women's game can capture that opportunity. The history of the women's game in England goes back over a century.
It was particularly popular towards the late 19th century.
They were getting crowd numbers that were in the tens of thousands. Fifty-three thousand was the famous record from Liverpool in 1920.
But then in 1921, the English Football Association, the national governing body, banned women's football, saying it wasn't suitable for females.
When I began playing for the national team, there was no Fifa tournament. There was no Olympic tournament. We weren't paid. We once had to sew our own national crest onto our tracksuits. We once trained in the car park.
And whether it was the kits that looked amateur to the times of training, which were 8am to 10pm twice a week, you're just trying to manage your working life with your passion, which is your footballing life.
Took until the 1960s for that ban to be lifted, for the women's game to be more organised.
Two or three years ago you see players who are playing the game but who are also paramedics or teachers or nurses and who are having to hold down two or three jobs just to play. Some of the players I've spoken to who were at the Olympics and at the World Cup were homeless at points and living out of their cars, because they're just not making enough money.
Women's footballers had no choice but to grow up within the structures and the institutions that were created by men to service the men's game. They didn't have access to fields, or referees, or coaching courses, broadcast revenues.
It's taken a long time for governing bodies to really understand that there's an opportunity here.
The FA founded the Women's Super League and now big broadcasters and sponsors are coming on board.
Now you give the opportunity for players to play professionally. The standards obviously have improved. And that's very much what's happened in this country with the WSL.
There has been football played here at The Dripping Pan since 1885. The club was the beating heart of the community. It's a small town. Lewes is just 17,000 people.
10, 12 years ago the club nearly went bust. It was felt from a small group of people that came together that it was too important to fail. They took the club into community ownership. In 2017 the club took the decision to split revenue equally between the men's side and the women's side. The first club in the world to do it and in fact, still the only club to do it in the world.
And it isn't just about pay parity, it's about equal decision-making across the club. The women's team and the men's team are level pegging and considered the same.
We have the same marketing budget. We play in the same ground.
The women's team, with that additional support and investment and backing, now sits in the second tier in England. We play in the same league as Liverpool and Crystal Palace, punching above our weight. We are a club now that has two revenue generating teams.
On the women's side alone our attendance has quadrupled within three seasons. We charge the same amount of money to come to a men's game and a women's game, one of the most expensive women's teams to watch in the country.
We had to put the prices up. We had to go out and tell people: this is important. You can't do that if you're giving tickets away for free. And you can't do that if you're giving them away for just £3.
Rhian Cleverly, centre back, number three, and Lewes women's team club captain. So had a really good year in the Hack in La Havre, France, unfortunately got released, a low point in my career. You can get released from your contract. And it can mean obviously your job's gone.
At that point my house was gone. I was in France so I didn't really know where to live. In the men's game if you're the equivalent and you get released there's probably another opportunity with the same sort of money. And from there, that that's not always the case in women's football. You can get released and then you need to find a full time job.
Next pass, what's your next pass?
If you speak to anyone in the women's game they've been through something like that or unfortunately, they will at some point. We play more for the love of the game.
Guys, this right here is our captain...
As women, we kind of just get used to it being rubbish, which sounds awful. And then you come to a place like Lewis and they do things a little bit differently. They treat you a little bit differently. And you're like, actually no, we should be treated a little bit better.
Maggie, one of our friends, has a women's football boot. They designed boots specifically for women, giving us free boots. And they've tried it out. They're great.
Women tend to have narrower heels so we've narrowed the heel cup. Women tend to have a different toe box, so different width here. So we've changed the shape of that, so you don't get black toes when you're playing.
Women tend to have hips that are set slightly further apart. So where we pressure load is different. And so we're really focused on designing a boot that really works for the different surfaces and specifically for female biomechanics. I find it incredibly frustrating that the top players don't have access to basic and fundamental equipment for the game. That we're still seeing a range of injuries in the game that potentially are preventable.
There's a long way to go when people are running off to work straight from training. And are they eating right? Are they recovering right? But I think that's where we can progress in the women's game. And there's not enough research on women yet.
The world is designed by men for men. The drugs that we receive in hospital, if we've a heart attack, they've been tested on men. There's very little medical research that's done on women. Car design and crash-test dummies and seat belts, none of that is tested on women. With the ban and 50 years behind, there's a long way to go that we need to catch up on to be even close to equal to the men's game.
We don't have a big men's club backing us. So every pound we make we have to make ourselves somehow. So we have to do that through sponsorship or through match-day attendances or other things.
We have a licence. If we don't adhere to the licence requirements we won't be able to play in the league, regardless of how good our results are. That can be a challenge in terms of we look good and that we're attracting sponsors. It's very hard for some of the small clubs to keep up.
The women's game is completely unrecognisable to what it was 20 years ago. In fact, it's unrecognisable to what it was even five years ago.
And also have been pioneers in the game. It wasn't tokenism. It was something that they genuinely believed was right to give opportunities.
Clubs like Arsenal have been relatively early in investing in their teams. And when you speak to their executives, I think they're pretty up front with the idea that the women's teams that they run are essentially unprofitable.
I do think we're some way off, just because of the rate of increase of the salaries. The intention, yes, is to be much more sustainable than what we are being at the moment. Some of the top players could probably earn in excess of £150,000 a year.
We could see salaries hitting half a million within the next couple of years, which is quite frightening because the issue is at the moment where are those revenues coming from to offset the extra costs, the growing costs? We don't want to stop the spend if we can help it. We want to bring the revenues up to offset that spend.
If you invest now from a low base into the women's game, as it builds, as it grows over time, they will get to reap the rewards. They will have profitable women's teams. And they will be amongst the biggest teams both in England and in Europe. And that is the opportunity for them.
The traditionally strong men's clubs, especially in traditionally strong football markets, have enormous clout and enormous ability to leverage those synergies into the women's game. You can get off a plane anywhere in the world.
And people have heard of Chelsea. They've heard of Arsenal. So a bit like Hollywood takes Ghostbusters and takes out the male characters and puts in female characters, and creates a spin-off that's worth a lot.
What we could find is that a successful women's game with more and more money flowing to the top of the game could actually be bad for small clubs like Lewes
The danger is that it ironically becomes necessary to be attached to a men's club for women's football to succeed.
We've got our own personal sponsor for Arsenal women in Mastercard. So that was a first three years ago. The recent broadcast cycle by BBC and Sky Sports has brought some revenue into the league.
This deal with Sky and BBC worth about £24m for the Women's Super League, compare that to just the Premier League, the top tier of men's football. That's worth over £9bn. And that's not even taking into account the fact that most of these clubs have full, big stadiums, massive sponsorship deals as well.
The case for the women's game really is it worth investing in, so that over years and decades it can grow to similar levels?
If we can continue to give the opportunities to improve the product, then I think that will awaken companies to want a piece of the sport. We're not about to become sustainable any time soon, I don't think. We just need more commercial partners.
What we've seen with sport and the interest in sport around the world, that if you really do power up that interest you make the game exciting, you improve standards. People will watch that. You can have good businesses behind that.
If you look at tennis or if you look at golf, the top top earners in those sports, they are millionaires. They do earn wages akin to the best male players in their sports. So that is where football will want to go into the future.
This is a chance to invest in something akin to a start-up. It's something that if you get in on the ground level now, you can reap the rewards later.
We're in a world and a society that understands professional football as men's football.
Men's stadiums are quite forbidding experiences to go through. You go through tight turnstiles, very tribal.
There's a debate at the moment about whether women's football teams should have a home and an away section.
There's a different vibe at women's games. We don't need segregation in crowds so far.
It's not the kind of same aggression or swearing or violence. I don't think women's football wants to lose that, because that is such a key part of the match-day experience and being part of this community that is supportive and allows especially little girls to dream bigger.
Football in this country has changed at the top level. So it used to be small community clubs representing their local areas. And these developed into massive global businesses owned by billionaires. There's been a disconnection from the community.
There is a different journey that the women's game is on compared to the men's. And I think that that can be maximised through the engagement with the players as well.
You can get really close to the women's players. They spend a lot of time with the fans. They kind of get to know each other.
Young girls can relate to them.
The question for the women's game going forward is whether or not it has to be incubated into the structures that the men's game have already produced.
What we've seen in the women's game with the clubs is quite two different models emerging, one in the UK where the women's clubs are tied to the men's clubs, and one in the US, where the women's clubs are more standalone.
Quite a number of them are women-only clubs. They don't have a men's team of any sort. LA City Angels is owned by Serena Williams, Natalie Portman. Washington Spirit has Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush as investors.
There are a lot of challenges at the FA with the entire governance structure and whether it's fit for purpose for women's football. You see that in decisions that are made around allocation of FA prize money.
When we went out in the fourth round to Arsenal a couple of years back, Arsenal won £3,000. But if we were men we'd have won I can do a lot with £360,000. But I can't do that much with £3,000.
Equal up the FA Cup prize money, allow us to fight for it, and allow us to win the money, so that we can invest it back in.
It's the barriers that are put in place that are kind of holding the game back at the moment. So invest, put the money in, equal prize money, pay the players as much as they should earn, and then you'll see the results.
The bet that broadcasters like Sky and BBC are making is that if fans are much more able to just watch these games maybe they'll get hooked, maybe they'll get a team. This is a process that will take years and decades.
In 10 years' time, I would like to think that we are turning away commercial partners, because there's too many.
And if you're a corporate and you have a sports sponsorship budget and you're spending nearly all of it on men's sport, you're going to have shareholders show up at your annual general meeting wanting to know whether giving 90 per cent of your sports sponsorship to male players is in line with the corporate values.
In recent years there's been such a push to have a really glossy, finished product that looks good on TV and is ready to sell, because our foundations are fragile, all women's sport. It's really difficult to keep up with the pace of change that sometimes feels angled into short-term glossiness to sell, as opposed to longer-term investment into growing attendances, into medical support for players, into professionalisation, into staff, into coaching staff. There's so many foundations that are just not there. We haven't had the 100-plus years that men's sport has had.
Just imagine how much easier it's going to get once commercialism and better governance structures take over.
But we're trying to leap and jump very fast. And a club like ours can get swallowed up.
You take the most popular game in the world. You take the half of the population that's had so little access to it over the years. You put some good focused management with expertise in the women's game over the top of it. And you see it thrive.