In 2020, the world has witnessed the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) to nearly every country in the world. Having emerged in China at the end of 2019, its global impact led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) (WHO). This resulted in substantial restrictions on lives across the world, travel bans and the cancellation of mass gatherings and events. Many major sports events around the world have either been cancelled or postponed. The English Football Association’s (FA) suspension of competitive fixtures of elite men’s and women’s football has been consistent, however, the pressures placed on them by the pandemic are different. The financial consequences of postponed games and reductions in broadcasting revenue will be significant in men’s football however, questions are raised around the extent to which this will be passed on to elite women’s clubs, many of which are already economically fragile. For the majority of these, the biggest losses will be felt through organisational and economic repercussions (e.g. maintaining personnel costs, loss of commercial sponsors), contracts, migration and investment, and player wellbeing.Embed from Getty Images
The relationship between women and football is complex, highlighted by a controversial FA ban on women’s matches being played on the grounds of FA affiliated clubs between the years 1921–1971. Since the reintroduction of organised women’s football in 1971, the game has experienced a significant image problem in English football culture with players facing stereotypical attitudes and gender discrimination, as well as perceived associations with lesbianism. The FA Women’s Super League (WSL), was formed in 2011 and initially operated over the summer period in a bid to create its own identity, and attract fans, sponsorship and media interest. The FA announced in July 2016 that the league would move from summer to winter, in line with the traditional football calendar in England and other women’s leagues around Europe, with an aim to improve the performances of the English national side at major tournaments. Record attendances have been observed at the Women’s FA Cup Final for the last five years, currently standing at 43,264 in 2019.Embed from Getty Images
The financial viability of clubs significantly increased revenues from TV coverage and sponsors have started to gain traction. For example, the FA recently signed a three-year, six-figure deal with Sky Mexico and Scandinavian broadcaster NENT to broadcast the WSL matches overseas for the first time in its history. However, revenues are still behind the record attendances and growth in popularity of the game. One way that Covid-19 threatens elite women’s football is in a diminishment of expected income from gate receipts, sponsorship, and merchandising, likely caused by drops in global economies. For example, Manchester City Women FC recently detailed their turnover activity in their 2019 financial report as comprising: commercial activity (79.7%), WSL central development fund (10.2%), matchday (6.0%), and broadcasting (4%). This shows that Covid-19 threatens the future of elite women’s football. In the face of such adversity, marketing departments must look to innovative funding solutions away from traditional (men’s) football sponsorship.
While it is difficult to accurately predict what the future of elite women’s football in England will look like in a post-Covid-19 world, this commentary intended to reflect upon some of the immediate threats and uncertainties for the governing body, leagues, and clubs. We also urge that the community of women’s football supporters remain ardent in their support of the game, as having visible advocates will show the governing body and parent clubs that there is a sustained demand for women’s football. The threat and uncertainty facing the future of elite women’s football are significant. Therefore, all those within women’s football must urgently rethink their approach to growth in the face of organisational and economic repercussions, reduced player contracts, migration and investment, and player wellbeing. These significant challenges require swift and decisive action to mitigate their potential effects.
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