We need a firm plan to protect women’s football, says the WSA

Crawley Wasps of the FA Women's National League South huddle after a game. Photo: James Boyes

‘I’m not going to speak on behalf of Chelsea or Arsenal or Manchester City, because they’ve got multi-billionaires from the men’s side backing them, but if you look at a lot of other clubs, they’ve got no one to help them and they’re at a real risk of going bust.’ Reece Land is speaking frankly about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on women’s football.

The Women’s Sports Alliance (WSA), of which is Co-Founder and Managing Director, has spent the last month talking to players and clubs about how they’ve been affected by the current situation and working out what can be done to secure the future of women’s football.

Land says: ‘There are so many moving parts to this. On an individual level, players are struggling a lot more than people know.

As well as the financial and contractual uncertainty, they’re struggling for motivation beyond belief because they’re having to keep themselves ticking over, but they don’t know how long they’re going to have to keep themselves ticking over for.

‘At my other company, Next Gen Sports Solutions, we’ve seen a huge increase in psychological effects on players and are now offering players one-to-one psychology sessions with our dedicated Performance Psychologist.

‘I can’t tell you how many players have come to us saying they’re struggling, or crying down the phone. They’re living alone, hours away from home and their families, stuck inside four walls with no one to talk to.

‘The last thing they’re going to want to do is go to training the day after lockdown is lifted, knowing they’re not in condition because they had no motivation and struggled to keep fit, they’re going to want to go and see their families if they’ve been in isolation for three months.

‘And on top of this you’ve got worries about losing money on holidays that have been booked, being out of contract in July, wondering whether there’s going to be a transfer window.’

Players are struggling a lot more than people know. I can’t tell you how many players have come to us saying they’re struggling, or crying down the phone. Reece Land, Joint Managing Director of the Women's Sports Alliance

These bigger picture questions about the future of the women’s game – and indeed some parts of the men’s game – are ones that we’re struggling to get answers for, even from the relevant governing bodies. Land says: ‘I know no one can obviously plan for an event like this, but surely you’ve got a contingency plan for a worst case scenario? What is that plan? Why is it not being communicated to the clubs?’

‘Just about every club is telling us that they were never told about the leagues being expunged. They didn’t get an email, they didn’t get a text, or a message from the league representative or whoever it is that they report into. There was no communication. ‘Every club that we’ve represented we’ve asked the same questions: do you know who’s representing you in these meetings? Do you know who’s coming up with these strategies to help secure your football club? 95 per cent of the clubs have said they’ve got no idea.’

In fact, the WSA was initially set up to represent players, offering them a support system and exclusive membership club, but in the space of two months it has grown to represent clubs too, often out of necessity. Land said: ‘Clubs started coming to us as soon as the decision to expunge the leagues was made, because who else can they go to? They’re not elite at the elite level so can’t go to some of the associations or federations.’

The WSA spent the days immediately following the FA’s decision to expunge all female leagues below Championship level on Thursday 26 March on conference calls with clubs about how the WSA can represent and protect them.

The following Monday the WSA reached out to the FA, a conference call was held on the Wednesday and a meeting ‘to protect women’s football’ has been scheduled for May.

That meeting will see the discussion of a strategy the WSA have developed and presented to the FA which they believe is ‘bulletproof enough to protect the clubs financially moving forward so they’re not going to go into liquidation or administration’.

According to Land, it’s action like this that the industry needs, in contrast to the somewhat delayed response from some important voices.

The WSA have developed and presented a strategy to the FA which they believe is ‘bulletproof enough to protect the clubs financially moving forward so they’re not going to go into liquidation or administration’.

One such response is FIFPRO’s COVID-19: Implications for Professional Women’s Football paper which ‘warns that the growth of professional women’s football and evolution into a strong and viable industry is threatened by the implications of COVID-19’.

The paper is a summary of how the impact of the pandemic is affecting the women’s game, what players are saying about it, and damage limitation measures.

Of the report, Land says: ‘I don’t think it really summarises what’s going on – there are a lot of moving parts missing. I think overall it’s a common sense statement. There’s nothing in there about what they’re going to do. It’s all ‘we’re going to do something’, but there’s nothing in that report about how they’re going to do it.

‘One of the points in the report is about ensuring pre-crisis investments are secured and not withdrawn. I would ask why the pre-crisis investments are not already secure?

‘Considering, for example, the money Barclays have put into the WSL, then surely four weeks ago the priority should have been maintaining that relationship with Barclays and making sure they’re not going to pull the money next year.

‘It’s frustrating because the WSA spoke about the situation four weeks ago. We received a lot of messages saying we were exaggerating things, or just doing it for attention, but now FIFPRO come out with this report and everyone’s panicking.

‘Why has it taken them four weeks to release this paper? That four weeks is four weeks of revenue for a football club that could have been used to prolong that club’s existence.

‘Is it because they wanted to sort men’s football out before they sorted women’s football out? Is it because they didn’t have an understanding of women’s football so they had to do their homework on it before they released a statement?

‘It took the WSA six days to get a grasp of what’s going on, come up with a strategy and present it to the FA. Straight away we were proactive, our first job was to protect women’s football because we knew, as soon as the announcement about expunging the leagues was made, that the knock-on effects would be serious.’

Land’s belief is that decisions about and support for women’s football need to be faster and higher up the agenda.

He says: ‘In the UK, the first priority in football is always going to be protecting where the money is, and the money’s in the men’s Premier League.

‘The approach is always let’s protect the Premier League, then let’s look at the EFL, then let’s look at the WSL, then let’s look at things like the non-leagues and the rest of women’s football.

‘It seems to be that everything’s done in a hierarchy, which is understandable, but why can everything not be done at the same time?

‘Why can it not be one big meeting between all the key bodies: the Premier League, the EFL, the FA, UEFA, the PFA, the WSL, get us in there as the WSA representing the lower league women’s teams.

‘Get all key decision makers in one room and give us contingency plans, give us scenarios, give us something to plan for.'

Get all key decision makers in one room and give us contingency plans, give us scenarios, give us something to plan for. Reece Land, Joint Managing Director of the Women's Sports Alliance

There is current talk of FA are telling clubs to prepare for games – both men’s and women’s – to be played behind closed doors for the rest of 2020.

Whatever the route forward, Land insists: ‘We must maintain corporate relationships that are pumping money into the sector.

'If we’re trying to make women’s football self-sustainable and viable then this revenue is critical, not only for the financial incentives but women’s football needs those big brands to stay within our sector.’

Land is hopeful yet measured in his response to what the future of the women’s game looks like: ‘Some people are saying we’re in a better position now than we were three years ago when we might not have survived.

‘We might not survive this now. Things have changed in three years, but they haven’t been that massive.’

‘There are things we can do to give ourselves the best chance though. Through all of this, we can’t guarantee that clubs are going to survive, but we can protect the sector.’

FROM THE OFF has reached out to FIFPRO for comment.