‘I just could not sleep thinking about this player stuck in hospital stressing about how to pay her rent, how to pay for her car, how to pay her phone bill,’ Reece Land says. And so began a busy two weeks of Land setting up his latest business venture: the Women’s Sports Alliance (WSA).
The player he was worrying about had torn her ACL. She worked in a coffee shop but, as she was on a zero-hour contract, she was left unable to work for two-to-three months. The only income she had was some money from football which Land says wasn’t even enough to cover her car finance, let alone her rent, car insurance, phone bill or anything else.
It’s not an uncommon story – the prevalence of ACL injuries in women’s sport is well-known. But bar the physical repercussions, the effects these injuries have on female athletes, particularly those earning little-to-nothing to play their sport, are perhaps less discussed. It was these effects that Land wanted to provide support for.
He was working with this particular player in his capacity as Managing Director of Next Gen Sport Solutions, a sports management company for female athletes.
At 2am, he called Jordan Guard, then Media Manager at Next Gen, and pitched his idea for the WSA: an organisation that offers protection, support and enhancement to any elite individual in women’s sports.
Land says: ‘She woke up straight away and we started working on the website, the infrastructure. Two weeks after that we officially launched. And within about 48 hours of us launching we got over 100 membership requests.’
Now, the organisation is now just over a month old and has had over 200 membership requests. These members hold a range of different roles; it’s not just players who’ve joined but coaches, managers, physios, sports scientists, and club directors. They’re involved in a number of different sports, though for the majority – around 60 per cent – it’s football.
They’re also across the globe – Land and Guard originally intended to roll it out just in the UK but following membership requests from the likes of America, Australia and New Zealand, they decided to open the doors worldwide.
Land puts this all down to ‘how much of a demand and how much of a need there is for an organisation like the WSA’.
We wanted to set something up that offers more protection than the PFA does. Something that’s more specific to the needs of individuals that are involved in women’s sport. Reece Land, Joint Managing Director of the Women's Sports Alliance
He’s aware of the comparisons that can be made between the WSA and the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) – the professional sportsperson’s union.
Land says: ‘I can see why people compare us to the PFA, but the PFA are a union. We’re a membership club so we’re slightly different.
‘You can only join the PFA as a female footballer if you’re in the Women’s Super League or the England squad. You can join the WSA whether you’re in the National League, the Championship, the Super League; any elite individual in any women’s sport, membership is open to you.’
‘We wanted to set something up that offers more protection than the PFA does. Something that’s more specific to the needs of individuals that are involved in women’s sport.’
So what protection does the WSA offer?
Land says: ‘With the WSA we’ve created a company where whatever we feel a female athlete would need, we can offer.’
‘For example, if you do your ACL and you’re one of our members you’re entitled to a pot of money. We’ll assess the case and give you a pot of money based on the severity of the injury.
‘You get legal assistance and financial assistance. So, for example, if one of our members is wanting a mortgage they can use our legal team or our finance team or our wealth management team at a great discount.
‘We’ve got partnerships with different brands for different products, such as football boots and sports bras, meaning our members can get big discounts.
‘We also provide full representation when needed. If you’re going to a disciplinary, for example, with a club or the FA, we’ll be sat in the meeting with you, not just on the other end of the phone.’
Mental health support is included too, all free of charge – with full mental health assistance provided and dedicated sports psychologists on hand for more underlying issues.
The WSA began with a 2am phone call between Joint Managing Directors Reece Land and Jordan Guard
Land has been involved in the women’s game for around three years now. He set up Next Gen when he was a footballer himself and, he says, ‘realised that with how much I was paying my agent I could open my own sports management company, employ an agent full time and get that sports management company to represent me.’
Next Gen was therefore initially ‘everything that I needed as a footballer’. The day before Land was due to sign a two-year professional contract, though, he tore his ACL. The club he was due to sign with informed him that the offer was off the table and he was left with his company, a full time agent to pay, and no income.
A chance meeting with Arsene Wenger gave Land the idea for his next move. He says: ‘One of my friends at the time played for Chelsea and I’d gone down to Cobham to watch him play Arsenal, either under-19s or under-21s.
‘I ended up talking to Arsene Wenger there, and literally within three minutes or five minutes of talking to him, he told me that the next big thing would be women’s football.
‘So me and the agent that worked for me spent the next six to 12 months just doing our homework on women’s football.’
‘We ended up signing our first client about 6 to 8 months after that – so almost exactly 2 years ago – and now we represent over 70 female footballers.’
So not only does Land get what it’s like to have your career derailed by injury, he’s also spent the past couple of years seeing women’s football through the eyes of the players – hence the emphasis the WSA is placing on mental health. He says: ‘We’ve seen more and more mental health cases through Next Gen because there’s more media attention.
‘The more it’s shown on, for example, BT Sport or BBC, the more criticism there is. Within one minute of a game starting there are people tweeting ‘it shouldn’t be on TV,’ or ‘get them off, get the men’s football on’. And the players are seeing that.
‘So mental health is massive in terms of what we do and protecting the players, and sort of isolating the players as well so they’re not seeing all the criticism. ‘The more and more popular women’s football becomes, you are going to get fans that are coming over from men’s football. And if they’ve got that [negative] culture within men’s football naturally it is going to come into women’s football.
‘So before it does become mainstream and it’s on TV two or three times a week we have to put protection in place.
‘Not just for the players, but for the managers as well, and the club directors, and the coaches. We just need to protect everyone, before it gets even bigger.’
I think in the next two years everyone in the top three divisions [of women's football] will be on a contract. It needs to go that way because the players need that protection. Reece Land, Joint Managing Director of the Women's Sports Alliance
Land also relies on the insight of Guard, now a Director of Next Gen, and Joint Managing Director of the WSA, given that she currently plays for Yeovil Town Women FC.
Land says: ‘Jordan’s still playing football so she sees it from a football perspective, or from an athletes perspective. I represent over 70 footballers so I know what they’re asking for, what they need.
‘So with the WSA and Next Gen we can sort of tie them both in so we can tick off and cover every single base that a female athlete needs.’
Together they realise the responsibility that comes with holding such a position in women’s football, and believe in the long term growth of the sport. Land says: ‘When Next Gen entered the women’s game two years ago I’d say there were maybe six or seven agents in women’s football. Now there’s probably 70 or 80.
‘I think that’s because a lot of people are now seeing it more on TV, there’s more media coverage. And I think the people on the outside, meaning the other agents that are coming in now, are starting to see a financial rise.
‘What I will say is the finances aren’t growing half as quickly as a lot of people think they are. They are growing, but not that quick.
‘And if we were in it purely for money we wouldn’t be in women’s football, because a lot of our players, their contracts are so low. Some of our players, for example, in the National League, aren’t even getting paid.
‘Through Next Gen we provide a service to them for free because we see the long-term growth of women’s football. I think in the next two years everyone in the top three divisions will be on a contract.
‘It needs to go that way because the players need that protection, and via the WSA this is something that we’ll be pushing for in order to protect the players lower down the leagues or the players on low income.’
In terms of other plans for the future, Land says: ‘We’ll sort of just roll with the punches. We’ve only been going for just over a month, and so we’re still in our infancy.
‘But for anyone associated with the elite level of women’s sport you’ve now got a membership club, or a union if that’s how you want to look at it, that you can go to. You’ve now got protection and a support system around you.’
To become a member of the WSA, which costs £13.99 a month, you can visit the WSA website and request membership. A member of the team will give you a call within 24 hours, and membership will be granted within 2 days.