Does the controversial WSL restructure do more harm than good?

By Lewis Michie

The restructuring of the Women’s Super League has produced winners and losers but controversy is rife over the decisions made and whether the changes are really in the best interests of women’s football in England.

A total of 23 spots were open to teams who wished to apply for a position in either of the top two leagues of Women’s football – the Super League and the Championship – and outrage can certainly be felt from those associated with Sunderland Ladies.

The north east side finished seventh in the top division last season and had applied to join the Championship this term. However, they were denied a place in either of the top two divisions.

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Instead Brighton & Hove Albion Women and West Ham United Ladies have both been promoted to the WSL after Sunderland’s demotion.

Anger from Sunderland is only enhanced when you consider Yeovil were allowed to keep their place in the top league – despite finishing bottom and scoring just twice last season – and the newly created Manchester United Women were fast tracked into the Championship.

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Many of these tough decisions appeared to have been made based on both the commitment in time and passion clubs show, but also their monetary investment. As women’s football looks to grow it’s important that significant effort and funds are put into the game.

This reflects when you compare both Sunderland and Yeovil for example with the Black Cats not applying for their place in the first window to do so, a decision that may have been down to ongoing uncertainty in their ownership situation. Meanwhile, Yeovil raised £350,000 to put themselves on a firm financial footing.

Katie Brazier, the FA’s head of women’s leagues and competitions said as such in a statement to the Telegraph: “Sunderland were given the first opportunity, as an existing WSL1 club to apply for a place last year, but they were one of three clubs who declined to do so, which meant they no longer had preferred bidder status.

 

“I think that was down to the ongoing uncertainty regarding the ownership of the club. They did subsequently apply in the open bidding process, but they were up against a number of other clubs who have a firm commitment, both in terms of investment and resources, to grow the women’s game. Unfortunately, there were stronger bids.”

Of course West Ham will feel they were the real winners here, if Sunderland are to be considered the losers. The London club were previously playing in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division – which effectively acted as an equal to the Northern Division, both being recognised as the third tear of English Women’s Football.

Obviously this is a huge jump for West Ham, but managing director Jack Sullivan is confident it’s a jump they can manage, telling Sky Sports: “Obviously it is going to be very hard, it is going to be tough, but I think that is the same for anyone who jumps up even one division.

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“We’re jumping two divisions but it’s exciting, we’ve been planning for the last two months to try to make sure that everything is ready and everything is perfect.”

Again, it’s the belief within West Ham Ladies that their infrastructure and passion for women’s football is what helped them in being accepted into the new look top division.

The introduction of a Manchester United team to the system will bring plenty of interest to the league. The move was a long awaited one and, if anything, observers are likely only surprised it took such a prolonged amount of time for the club to set up a side. United have produced multiple young female talent through its ‘girl’s regional talent club’ with 15 graduates playing international football this year. The ability to drive cash into the league and a potential for one of the biggest supporter bases in the country are further reasoning to support the creation of the ladies side.

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One major concern, not just from Sunderland fans but also women’s football supporters and advocates across the north of England, is how little representation of the north that there is across the top two leagues. No side participating in the Premier Division will be located further north than Manchester, while the Championship has just two sides based further up the country – Durham Women and Doncaster Belles.

Concern is felt here because, while sides have been chosen upon their ability to invest money into women’s football as well as having a clear plan and dedication to the game, there should also be fair geographical representations. Otherwise it limits the opportunities given to young girls living in a large area north of Manchester from getting into the highest level of women’s football in the United Kingdom. It could also rule out a massive portion of young women from being able to go and watch the highest level of female football.

 

Overall the aim of the ongoing changes are simply to improve the popularity of women’s football and make forward strides with the league. When the changes were announced last year, Katie Brazier told Sky Sports: “Providing an elite performance environment will produce more and better players, increase the interest and excitement via more competitive leagues, attract a greater number of fans and, in turn, deliver improved commercial viability for clubs and the leagues.”

The introduction of Manchester United’s team will almost certainly help, with one of the most marketable clubs in the world having an incredible pulling power, and the vast finances behind United are bound to aid them in putting pressure on the duopoly of Manchester City and Chelsea – both sides have been in the top two of the WSL for the past three seasons.

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Time will tell if this restructure proves to be a success or a failure, but any kind of progression should be considered good news within women’s football and more money being heaped into the system should hopefully only help increase the popularity of the league’s.

However, there is a real risk of the women’s game continuing to be controlled by a small group of heavily funded sides – similar to the men – and the lack of representation in the north England should be a real cause for concern.

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