• Reece Land

Reece Land: Women’s football is built on sand

About two months ago the Women’s Sports Alliance (WSA) spoke about how worried we were about the future of women’s football in England. We feared teams going bust and players, coaches, and other staff losing their livelihoods as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We got a lot of backlash for this, with people saying we were making these claims for publicity for us, or to draw attention to the women’s game. We knew we were just speaking truthfully about the reality of the situation.

Unfortunately last week the reality of the situation became clear when AFC Fylde Women of the FA Women’s National League was disbanded. They’re the first but they likely won’t be last; I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s disappointing and worrying for the future of the women’s game.

AFC Fylde Women are the first women's football team to disband during the COVID-19 pandemic

If you look at it from a business perspective, at the end of the day football clubs are businesses. They’re run by business people, and not every chairman or chief executive is going to be a women’s football fan; often they’re not even football fans at all. They’re looking at the gross and net profit bottom line from a business perspective. So it won’t be surprising if a lot of clubs use this pandemic as a reason to get rid of what they view as their weakest departments. That’s likely the younger academies and then the women’s team – the parts of the business you’re not seeing any return of investment on. While it may seem as if it makes business sense, I think it’s incredibly short sighted when you consider the potential future of the women’s game.

Fylde are the first to disband but likely won't be the last; I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Reading FC have taken a different approach and have chosen to furlough their female players. I know there’s been a lot of discussion about this, but I see it as sensible. Reading are paying 20 per cent of the players’ wages – topping them up to 100 per cent so they’re not losing out financially. In my eyes, they’re protecting the women’s team; ensuring there’s something for the players to go back to. Making a decision like that is far preferable to having to disband the women’s team somewhere later down the line.

Following the Fylde decision the WSA decided to offer free May membership to all first team players and coaching staff in order to give them some support. One of the main issues we anticipate for the Fylde players is the fact that there aren’t many other teams in the area. The closest team is probably Burnley, which is a good 45 minute drive away. If you’re a school teacher and you finish work at 5, could getting to Burnley for training in the evening work logistically?

Other teams around the area are Sheffield United and Blackburn and then Liverpool and Everton – all of these teams are a step up so it becomes about whether a player is good enough or ready to make that step. There’s a real danger that the Fylde players may lose the opportunity to play at the appropriate level because of their location.

Reading FC are the first FA Women's Super League team to furlough their players

We’ve had a number of Fylde players reach out for support following our offer. At Next Gen Sport Solutions, we also spoke to 64 players from various teams and across the leagues as part of a free consultation offer with our senior management team. While positive for us, this also shows the lack of support system in the women’s game, and, like so much else, a lot of that comes down to finances. A lot of agents and sports management companies will only work with players in the WSL because they simply can’t justify the lack of return they get from those in the lower leagues.

Most of the players we spoke to had similar questions: they wanted to know what their options were for next season and if the transfer window will go ahead. Many are struggling to know what comes next due to a lack of communication from official bodies, leagues and clubs.

Of course we can’t give definitive answers about the future right now, but we can make judgements and predictions based on what’s currently happening. In the National League, transfer conversations are ongoing. In the Super League and the Championship, the clubs are having conversations about player recruitment but they’re slower because there are still games left to play.

I think this summer we’ll see one of two things: either a lot of player movement, or very little. It won’t be a normal transfer window where we see 50 or 60 per cent of players moving. I think we’ll either see 80 per cent or 10-20 per cent. It depends on the player’s perspective and mindset and on what’s happening with the football season, because there might not be much of an off season.

In terms of budgets, I’m not sure they’ll be massively affected. Negotiations, though, will likely become harder, requiring agents to incorporate contracts differently by, for example, looking at a more bonus-driven contract rather than a higher base salary. This will show the difference between agents genuinely negotiating contracts for the benefit of their client’s development, as we will be doing, and agents that are just chasing money.

Contract negotiations will likely become harder, requiring agents to incorporate contracts differently by, for example, looking at a more bonus-driven contract rather than a higher base salary.

Some may question whether an incentivised contract leaves players with less security, but the truth is there isn’t much security involved in women’s football contracts anyway due to the financial landscape of the industry. Football contracts have always been lightyears behind the growth of the women’s game, and this pandemic is just going to delay that process even more. This is another thing the WSA is keen to work with governing bodies on, we believe our strategy for enhancing the sustainability of contracts will bring more security for players and clubs.

What’s happened at Fylde, the decision taken at Reading, the number of players and coaches reaching out to us for advice, the lack of contract security: they all show one thing. Women’s football is built on sand. It is not sustainable, let alone self sustainable. If a team like Fylde can’t be sustained when attached to a men’s club – what chance do independent teams have?

Many believe the COVID-19 pandemic is causing problems for the women’s game. In truth, what it’s doing is exposing and enhancing the already existing cracks. Women’s football needs a war cry, and it needs it now.

Please do share your comments on this column or let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like me to cover in future ones by tweeting either @FROMTHEOFFvlog or @ReeceLand__.