Where is potential growth to be found in the football industry? Revenues have collapsed during the pandemic, the next Premier League TV deal is probably going to be less generous than the last, and we’ve seen the Chinese rights to show English football in dispute. Even when crowds are allowed back into stadiums, there are still only so many games in a season and so many tickets you can sell. The answer, for many analysts of the business of the game, is to be found in women’s football.
Sunderland AFC Ladies’ pedigree in the game is undeniable, many column inches have been dedicated to listing the players who’ve been through our ranks over the last 15 years or so. But what’s also undeniable is that the club have been neglecting the potential of the team, superbly managed by Mel Reay, for far too long. She’s worked wonders with experienced heads like Grace McCatty and Keira Ramshaw, alongside promising youngsters like Maria Farrugia and Neve Herron, bringing fantastic results on the pitch in recent times.
Yet the devastating impact of Ellis Short’s failure to commit to fund the Lasses back in 2017, prompting the FA’s decision to deny us licence to play in either the Women’s Super League or the Women's Championship and demote us to the Women’s National League, is still to be addressed by Sunderland AFC overall.
Women’s football is integral to the future business models of the biggest clubs in European football, and investment in fully professionalising their women’s teams has been a feature of Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Man City and now Man United’s commercial strategies in recent years. They have absorbed the losses that have been inherent to WSL, as they see it as integral to their efforts to appeal to a wider market than the traditionally male-dominated football fanbase, not just in the UK but globally too.
Over the last couple of days, a total of £34m over three years in sponsorship and TV deals have been announced, 75% of which will go to the top flight and 25% to the Championship, and the WSL winners will bag £500,00 in prize money. The influx of external money into the WSL makes it an even more attractive prospect, and with the authorities apparently now set on growing match-day crowds and TV audiences, and we can only expect more and bigger sums in future.
As a club with big ambitions, Sunderland simply cannot afford wait around to see if the FA get themselves together to open up the pyramid to proper competition. Fans should expect that, if we are serious about being a truly all-encompassing football powerhouse once again, bringing through the best players of their generations in both the men’s and women’s games, the club has submitted an application for inclusion in the second tier for the 2021-22 season.
Nothing at this stage will filter down to the part-time and amateur sides outside of the top two divisions, and to make this a truly transformational change for the sport, the pyramid needs sorting out desperately. Progression from the FA Women’s National League (WNL), which covers tiers three to six, is extraordinarily hard, with only one automatic promotion place to the Championship generally on offer. There isn’t currently guaranteed promotion and relegation between the WSL and the Championship, which itself is oddly constructed with 11 sides.
If they have indeed met the January deadline, Sunderland will be in pole position to claim a vacant spot in the elite tiers of the Women’s game on performances alone. If we look at the last two cancelled seasons, no other WNL Northern Premier team’s record comes close to that of the Lasses.
PPG | #FAWNL Northern Premier Division 19/20 - 20/21— Talking WoSo (@TalkingWoSo) March 17, 2021
1️⃣ @SAFCLadies: 2.391
2️⃣ @HTAFCWomen: 1.955
3️⃣ @NFFCWomen: 1.909
4️⃣ @DCFCWomen: 1.875
5️⃣ @BurnleyFCWomen: 1.778
6️⃣ @WBAWomen: 1.65
Calculated using unweighted points per game.
Division in full ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/UvkdHYy37Y
As the WNL season has been declared null-and-void for the second season running, teams will have to apply to join the Championship to make up the numbers in tier two. Huddersfield Town, who were top of our Northern Premier division before it was cancelled this season, will not be making a bid to go up by election. Watford from the Southern Premier division, a progressive football club that takes equalities and inclusion seriously from top to bottom, have a good case for promotion, and it may well come down to the financial commitment shown by the respective applicants as to who does ultimately get the nod.
We shouldn’t forget that we’re a club who have been up there at the top of WSL within the last six years, winning WSL 2 (now the Women’s Championship) in 2014 and then, with Beth Mead spearheading the attack, taking fourth place in the WSL the following season. If restoring our club to its former status and beyond, and setting us up for the rest of the 21st century, is the ultimate mission of the new ownership, then they simply must invest now and invest well in the salaries, facilities, recruitment, coverage and coaching, to make the Lasses fit to compete at the very top of the game and soon.
To employ a senior squad of 16 players on a modest £30,000 a year, which would be top end in terms of Championship sides’ budgets, would perhaps cost around £500,000 with add-ons. I know that these things are not directly comparable and, when it comes to investment, but the club has just paid that amount for a new pitch-lighting rig at the Stadium of Light.
The opportunity is massive and the cost relatively small. It’s one the fastest-growing sports on the planet, and one that Sunderland’s ambitious new set up surely cannot afford to miss out on. It should not be a matter of seeing the up-front costs and long-term investments required for us to take women's football seriously as taking funds away from improvements to facilities at the club overall or the playing budget of the men’s side. It’s not a zero-sum game.
There’s a big north-eastern shaped piece missing in the upper echelons of the English game, and we need a coherent and well-funded plan if Sunderland are going to fit it. Kyril-Louis Dreyfus is a bright young man and you might expect him to see the potential benefits, he has grown up around French football where the women’s game has flourished, most notably at Lyon where ex-Sunderland star Lucy Bronze won the Champions League.
It is expected that he’ll be asked about his plans for Sunderland AFC Ladies by the fan groups at the Structured Dialogue meeting on Wednesday, and supporters will be hoping for more than nice words from the club’s new owner. He should be able to say for certain if they’ve applied for tier two status at the very least, but a clear commitment and vision for the future is also required from the owner and his Sporting Director, Kristjaan Speakman, at this stage.
As part of that, I’m sure all Lasses fans would like to see Mel Reay, Keira Ramshaw and our talented and committed squad given the chance of realising their childhood dreams and playing the game they love professionally. And what a strong message it would send to the girls in our region who strive to become the next Steph Houghton – that they can aim for the same goal as the boys and forge a career in the game wearing the famous Red and White stripes.