*Written by Kruthi Ravikumar
Historically, a substantial disparity has existed in the football industry between men's and women's competitions, noticeable in factors such as competitiveness, growth, and revenues. Nevertheless, there is a discernible shift as women's football progressively gains increased visibility and acknowledgment, not just in media coverage and stadiums but also, crucially, in economic and financial spheres. Women's football is currently at a crucial juncture, marked by significant milestones such as the historic victory of the Lionesses in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 and their impressive performance in the FIFA World Cup 2023. These achievements underscore the increasing interest and opportunities in the sport. The Football Association (FA) has been actively investing in and preparing for the growth of women's football in recent years.
Former England and Great Britain footballer turned pundit, Karen Carney MBE, has authored a significant review that lays out the roadmap for the future of domestic women's football. Some of her suggestions include transformative shift toward full professionalism in the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship. Additionally, Carney proposes the creation of a dedicated broadcast slot exclusively for women’s football, underlining the significance of heightened visibility and acknowledgment for the sport. Carney’s review and the ensuing recommendations in her report notably acknowledge the significant progress achieved to date, furnishing a strategic framework poised to drive the sport forward. This recognition of advancements, complemented by tangible suggestions for action, lays a solid foundation for ongoing progress in women's football.
Carney's comprehensive review puts forth robust recommendations to the FA, NewCo, government, and clubs with the aim of ensuring the short-term and long-term well-being and expansion of the sport. These proposals encompass a wide range of areas, including the establishment of minimum operating standards, addressing the deficiency in mental and physical health provisions, advocating for elite training facilities, implementing a salary floor in the WSL starting from the 2025-26 season, opposing closed leagues, advocating for a dedicated broadcast slot, ensuring full union representation, enhancing parental rights, tackling the lack of diversity in the game, and urging the government to fulfill its commitment to providing equal access to school sports for girls. Carney's review is forthright and calls for substantial and commendable improvements across various facets of the sport.
Recommendations Made By The Review:
The Review made ten recommendations they are as follows :
1. A newly formed standalone entity, NewCo, is suggested to be set up which is to be assigned the responsibility of overseeing the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Women’s Championship. Its mandate is to uphold world-class standards for players, fans, staff, and all stakeholders involved in women's football. This strategic approach aims to advance the professionalization of the game and establish a unique brand, thereby enhancing visibility, recognition, and engagement with fans.
2. The FA must address the talent development system to cultivate successive generations of formidable Lionesses. With the notable achievements of the Lionesses in 2022 and 2023, Carney envisions a swift ascent of women’s football in England to become the pinnacle of global women’s sports. To capitalize on the national team's triumphs, the report proposes two key recommendations: The FA should select a strategic partner committed to investing in the creation of a sustainable pipeline of domestic talent, and clubs should be granted access to an expanded pool of international talent while efforts are made to enhance the domestic development pathway.
3. The transformation of the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Women’s Championship into fully professional environments, with the aim of attracting, nurturing, and sustaining top-tier playing talent globally, necessitates comprehensive measures from the FA. This includes addressing disparities in minimum operating standards between the two leagues, with a specific focus on essential elements like minimum contact time with players and player salaries. Additionally, the FA is called upon to implement gold standard physical and mental health provisions, mandate elite training facilities, ensure a leading parental package, fund full union representation for both tiers, enhance duty of care provisions for players, and provide unmatched career transition support for those exiting the professional realm. These initiatives collectively contribute to fostering a world-class ecosystem for women's football in the UK.
4. The FA needs to promptly tackle the deficiency in diversity within the women's game, both in on-field and off-field roles.
5. The government must fulfill its recent pledges regarding ensuring equal access to school sports for girls. Creating an optimal talent pool of footballers requires presenting football as an open, secure, and inclusive space for participation for women and girls of all age groups.
6. Clubs should enhance their appreciation and support for their fan base, and the FA should elevate the minimum standards to ensure compliance with this principle. Carney has recommended the establishment of a dedicated marketing resource, the appointment of a fan liaison officer, and the development of a strategy specifically geared towards increasing matchday attendance in women's football.
7. In the midst of the crowded modern football schedule, securing a dedicated slot for women's football presents a formidable challenge. Nevertheless, attaining an exclusive broadcast slot dedicated to women's football would ensure consistent and distinct coverage, enhancing visibility and fostering increased fan engagement. To address commercial considerations, Carney proposes the allocation of a dedicated broadcasting timeframe for women's football, particularly suggesting the Saturday 3 pm slot. This would necessitate the cooperation of football authorities in granting an exception to the conventional broadcasting blackout period on Saturdays at 3 pm, designed to safeguard attendance at live games. This strategic move aims to garner the attention and acknowledgment that women's football rightfully deserves, potentially playing a pivotal role in sustaining its commercial viability. This, in turn, supports the proposed initiatives such as the minimum salary floor and enhanced healthcare offerings.
8. Collaborative efforts are essential from all stakeholders involved in financing grassroots facilities, including the Government, local authorities, the FA, and the Premier League, to amplify investments and facilitate substantial access for women and girls to engage in sports.
9. The FA, Premier League, and Football Foundation should align their efforts to ensure that the funding directed towards facilities benefits women and girls at all levels of the pyramid structure.
10. With the transition of operational responsibility for the Women’s Super League and Championship to NewCo, the FA is now urged to prioritize the development of grassroots clubs and the entirety of the women’s football pyramid.
Karen Carney's report presents a courageous, ambitious, and meticulously detailed blueprint for the future of women's football, with a crucial emphasis on prioritizing the needs of players. Karen and her team have not shied away from addressing challenging questions. Throughout this endeavour, they have consistently sought direct input from current and former players, recognizing the indispensable value of their insights in comprehending the intricacies of a career in women's football. Women's football holds immense potential to enhance the lives of women and girls and provide a unique and accessible sporting experience for fans. Stakeholders in the game should actively embrace the recommendations in this report to propel the sport to new heights.
The Review was set up in September of last year with Carney chairing it , The government is currently reviewing the report's ten key suggestions and is expected to provide a response in the near future.
After consulting with both current and former players, Carney revealed a prevalent sentiment of feeling like "second-class citizens" within the realm of women's football, often overshadowed by the prominence of the men's game. She underscored a critical question about the substantial funding gap between boys' and girls' academies, standing at £88 million for boys and a mere £3.25 million for girls, urging for a significant reduction in this disparity. The review acknowledged the existence of 'gender bias,' particularly in areas such as pay and prize money, necessitating immediate attention. Notably, the report highlighted the considerable wage discrepancy in the Women's Super League (WSL), ranging from £25,000 to £28,000, and even more pronounced in the Championship, where some players earned as little as £4,000, requiring supplementary employment. Disparities in medical care were also noted, with some players having to seek healthcare from the NHS rather than receiving it through their respective clubs. The report emphasized the term "investment" 92 times, with Carney advocating for the view that women's domestic football should be treated like a "start-up" business. The concept is to invest now with the anticipation of reaping returns later, aligning with standard business principles. The overarching goal is for women's football to evolve into a billion-pound industry
*The author is a legal scholar from India
(The image used here is for representative purposes only)
References  Raising the bar - reframing the opportunity in women's football, Department for Culture , Media and Sport, UK Government , 13th July 2023 ,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1169802/Raising_the_bar_-_reframing_the_opportunity_in_women_s_football.pdf