The Lasses’ first match of the 2023/24 Women’s Championship is today. This will follow a positive pre-season with wins in a Tyne-Wear derby and our final friendly against Blackburn Rovers.
Meanwhile, the Lionesses have concluded a sterling World Cup campaign having reached the final with the eyes of the world on our players.
The WSL has recorded ever-increasing match day attendances, and UEFA have stated they expect the women’s football industry in Europe to be worth €981 million in the next decade.
Sunderland announced at the conclusion of last season that the club would be taking a hybrid model approach for the women’s team and a reformed academy structure. It was welcome news, but it does not go nearly far enough.
Last month, the government published a report into the future of the domestic women’s game and presented recommendations on securing future success. Below, the recommendations made in the government report, published here - Raising the bar - reframing the opportunity in women’s football - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), will be judged next to the club’s current efforts.
I believe that the club has undervalued the women’s side and is not taking advantage of its considerable resources to secure success and the Lasses’ legacy as one of the preeminent forces in women’s football.
Three areas stood out in the report in relation to Sunderland’s current efforts.
· Firstly, the creation of a new FA body called NewCo to govern the WSL and Women’s Championship.
· Secondly, the lack of financial regulations covering women’s football and the opportunities this presents.
· Thirdly, the need for the club to appoint a Supporter Liaison Officer in bridging communication between the club and fans.
The FA is planning to start an independent, club owned entity, provisionally called NewCo. This sounds not dissimilar to the current governance of the Premier League. NewCo would govern the WSL and Barclays Women’s Championship (BWC) and is expected to start its tenure in August 2024 in time for the 2024/25 season.
In addition to this, the FA has also considered making the top two tiers a closed league. No relegation or promotion between tiers two and three. Be funny if Newcastle weren’t promoted, wouldn’t it?
Now, if Sunderland are to secure their future in an industry experiencing rapid financial growth whilst representing their interests in the governance of the domestic leagues, it is critical that we are members of NewCo. A club membership model in a potentially closed league is the difference between securing future success and preventing a near-catastrophic loss of our legacy.
A closed league is unlikely due to the sporting politics associated with such an idea in this country, and I seriously doubt it would go ahead. However, that it has been mentioned in a published government report, does indicate that it must have been proposed as a serious idea. Furthermore, it would greatly appeal to every WSL club and those more ambitious ones in the BWC. In the event Sunderland were relegated however, following our 11th placed finish last season, we would be without representation in the organisation dictating the future of the sport. That is an unacceptable scenario and one the club must do everything to avoid.
It is critical that this season we secure safety and I believe the club is not sufficiently investing in the women’s side for this, as outlined further below.
At present the club needs to make a clear statement that the future funding of the women’s team is secured independent of the men’s team. The relegation of the men’s team from the Premier League in 2017 led to financial consequences for the women’s team. Although the club looks far more secure now than in previous seasons, the board ought to make a statement of commitment with regards to the financing of the women’s team in the future with funding ringfenced only for the women’s first team and youth structure.
Most readers will be aware of the term Financial Fair Play (FFP) and the financial regulations in place to secure sustainable growth in men’s football. They strictly monitor the club balance sheets and ensure an acceptable level of creative accounting is recorded.
By contrast, the women’s game has little to no financial regulation. All that is covered is a salary budget which is capped at 40% of a club’s reported revenue. Now, I am no accountant and reading company accounts is no simple task so I will leave that to others. However, one entertaining loophole of this rule is that women’s teams which are linked to men’s sides, like Sunderland, and unlike independent clubs such as Durham Women FC, can claim the combined revenue stream. This means that Sunderland Women can take advantage of the whole club’s revenue, which is sizeable in terms of relative finances in the women’s game.
The record transfer in women’s football is Keira Walsh’s £400,000 transfer to Barcelona from Man City in September 2022.
This means that Sunderland’s owners could feasibly invest a considerable amount of money into professionalising the women’s side, dependent on the club’s revenue sheets. Although resources will be maximised in the men’s game for overall club success, it’s worth remembering that pennies there are many pounds over here.
I believe Sunderland could comfortably provide full professional status to its women’s team and have leftover change to turbocharge a promotion bid with sustained WSL status. I do not of course have access to the club’s finances, so this is conjecture.
Further funding would give development to Eppleton Colliery ground which, beloved though it is, is needed. The pitch is flat enough in places that on a snowy day Claudia Moan could toboggan from the goal to the corner flags. An extension of the stands, designated away section and better facilities would all serve to improve attendances and encourage growth.
A fully professional side would afford the league’s limit of 25 registered players, 15 of whom need to be homegrown in the BWC. Not a problem for a side like Sunderland with an academy that has produced players like Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Lucy Bronze and Jordan Nobbs. That record of talent production is at risk however with Newcastle United investing in their women’s side.
If the Mags offer a more attractive youth package with a route to a fully professional side, they will attract better talent than a hybrid model Sunderland. Especially if Newcastle secure a successive promotion and Sunderland flirt with relegation once more. Therefore, securing the academy’s future means on-field success.
The allocated 10 slots for internationally recruited players could be used by Sunderland to recruit top talent. The British government’s introduction of a points-based immigration system instead of the EU’s Freedom of Movement protocol (yay Brexit…) means recruitment of foreign players is more difficult.
More points are allocated for international starters, quality of the league recruited from and other factors. Therefore, if Sunderland were to recruit from foreign leagues, they would have to attract the best talent. That would only happen with a fully funded professional side and good wages. Again, I believe this is something that the club can comfortably afford as a strategy.
A final point to make on the advantage of a fully professional side is that it would improve player recovery. It is noted in the report that players, particularly those in the BWC, have less access to club medical facilities and an over-dependence on NHS services which have long wait times. It also quotes research demonstrating that players who have additional jobs take longer to recover from sports injuries. Our Lasses are grafters and work harder than most balancing careers on and off the pitch. If the club is serious about supporting its women’s side then full professional terms must be offered to players who have already given so much just to wear the shirt.
The lack of financial restriction in women’s football is a huge opportunity for the club’s investors, and to ignore that is an own goal we can’t afford to concede.
Supporter Liaison Officer
A final recommendation that Sunderland would benefit from implementing is the appointment of a dedicated Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) for the women’s team. The post would act as an effective bridge of communication between fans and the club.
Currently it is the experience of many with having to rely on the team’s dedicated Twitter account, and little else. Ticketing issues in the run up to the Newcastle match were poorly messaged to home and away fans. Similarly with the season tickets. If that match was your first experience watching the Lasses at Eppleton, how keen would you be to return following the confusion and poor organisation from the club? Women’s football deserves better than slap dash apologies and inconsistent ticketing.
A dedicated SLO would considerably benefit the club’s public profile and aid a growth strategy for home attendances and a developing fanbase.
Sunderland have little reason not to better support the women’s team and by doing so they will secure the value of their investment with the growth of the women’s football industry across the next decade.
Failure to do so could result in relegation, degradation of the club’s academy output, a lack of representation in football governance and being bypassed by our neighbours across the Tyne.
This can be best achieved by a full professional model that can attract international talent which will lead to on-field success that then attracts young talent through our academy.
The club should appoint an SLO to improve the day-to-day running of the club and have better communication channels with fans. This could improve attendances in the long run.
I believe the women’s side deserves better and Sunderland’s owners have the means to deliver it. The question we should all be asking of the club this season is, what’s stopping you?