The fact the Women’s Super League salary cap is set to be reviewed, according to the FA’s director of the professional women’s game, Kelly Simmons, is a significant step in the development of a professional women’s league. “We’re open to looking at it if the clubs think it is restrictive,” said Simmons. “We’ll have that chat with the new WSL board at some point. It’s important we’re driving on- and off-field investment as we’re building the game.”
She added: “It’s just about trying to get the right balance, the right number, to ensure that everything off the pitch enables us to deliver big attendances, big audiences, broadcast rights deals, commercial deals, all the things that are going to make it thrive and be sustainable but also making sure that clubs aren’t hamstrung from attracting world class talent.”
A hard salary cap was first introduced with the launch of the WSL in 2011 which Simmons, then head of the national game (grassroots), oversaw the development of. Then, the eight teams involved were only allowed to pay a maximum of four players over £20,000 per year. The idea was that it would help spread the top talent across the participating clubs and make for a more competitive league.
From the start of 2014 though, the cap has been softer, with player salaries being capped at 40% of a club’s turnover. The change was made, according to WSL rules, “to protect and promote the long-term health and viability of the game of women’s football by ensuring that clubs do not spend too great a percentage of their income on player salaries and seek to ensure the competitive balance of women’s football”.
Salary, signing-on fees, bonus payments, accommodation provision (or £5,000 pa, whichever is lower), payments made to players by the club for promotional work and pension contributions must all be included within the 40%. As with the hard cap though, the FA’s central contracts for England players is excluded, as are Champions League match fees and bonuses and legitimate expenses.
The switch from a hard to a soft cap and the increased investment both economically but also ideologically of clubs, into their women’s setups, though, makes the rule quite meaningless.
With parent clubs, particularly those linked with leading Premier League men’s teams, able to pour in extra to up overall investment and thus increase the percentage they can spend on wages as needed, the salary cap has become more about creative accountancy than regulating sustainable salaries and club finances.
The salary cap has long been talked about as possibly being the final barrier holding English clubs back from challenging the serial European champions Lyon with their bumper pay packets.
However, the arrival of Sam Kerr at Chelsea, the Australian having reportedly turned down the six-time Champions League winners in favour of south London, suggests that the Blues, at least, have deemed the increased investment needed to make the move possible worthwhile.
When the turnover of women’s clubs is not judged solely on income generated by themselves, but also includes philanthropic or long-term investment from the parent clubs then it is artificial to say that the cap promotes sustainability without also viewing it in the context of the club as a whole, a remit possibly far beyond the scope of the FA.
The game is flourishing. Record-breaking attendances may be grabbing the headlines but viewing figures are also on the up. BT Sport has seen a 52% increase in its coverage of the WSL, with an average peak of 85,000 viewers. The BBC Red Button has a peak average of 213,000, while the Women’s Football Show has a peak audience of over a million. There will also be a new TV rights deal negotiated at the end of the season.
Chelsea’s recruitment of Kerr followed the announcement that Optus Sport in Australia had become the third overseas rights deal the FA has made for their WSL coverage which is now broadcast in 11 territories.
Brands are paying attention. Barclays have reportedly put a further seven-figure sum into their marketing WSL campaign in addition to the £18m league sponsorship deal.
Meanwhile Simmons said sponsorship of women’s teams is increasingly included in deals. “There’s a value aligned to that and an activation programme which is really important,” she said. “Three or four years ago women’s teams weren’t included or they were bundled with no attributed value.
“What some brands are now saying, certainly in the England discussions, is that they’re only coming in if it’s men’s and women’s. I think that says a lot about where we are in society today. There are expectations on brands and they are very aware of their purpose and the perception of their brands.”
One area that continues to be a hotbed of debate, however, is the standard of refereeing in the Women’s Super League. Currently the league is officiated by a mixture of national league level referees from the men’s game and women through a separate women’s pathway, some at Fifa level. With the Professional Game Match Officials Board, the FA has introduced ‘Referee 360’ where “every event is logged, experts mark how referees have done and give feedback and coaching tips,” said Simmons. “The percentage of right decisions is really high.”
Despite this investment, the demands of a newly professional game have prompted a number of managers to raise the lack of professional referees. That, though, said Simmons, is a long way off.
“One day, I guess, down the line, when the game’s got more revenue we’ll have to have that discussion,” she said. “How quickly we have that discussion about professional referees I don’t know. Obviously it will be expensive and we’d have to commit, ourselves and clubs, to investing in it but it’s definitely a conversation to have, it will be the next big change I suppose.”
The indefinite strike of women footballers in Spain has been been called off after the postponement of eight top-tier games over the weekend. The association of women footballers (AFE) said that an agreement had been reached to re-open negotiations around the players’ minimum pay and condition demands.
Sky Blue have announced that they will play all their home matches at the New York Red Bulls’ 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena for the 2020 season. Sky Blue previously played on Rutgers University’s 5,000-seater Yurcak Field.
The success of Women’s Football Weekend will be carried into the new year with another round of top ties being selected for a further weekend with no men’s Premier League football.
A French league record of 30,661 fans watched Lyon’s victory over Paris Saint-Germain. Saki Kumagai powerfully directed Dzsenifer Marozsán’s second half corner to keep the reigning champions three points clear of their rivals at the top of Ligue 1.
More information: The Guardian.