A quarter of a century ago, the Premier League broke away from the Football League to change the sport as we knew it. Or at least as we consumed it.
Commercial interests have never been far away from the game, but in a world where English football clubs routinely now pay over the odds for players that don’t seem to make Premier League sides any better than their European rivals in the Champions League, it starts to look like top flight clubs in England pay a premium because of their league’s name.
Whether it was entirely the Premier League’s doing or whether those changes would have taken place eventually anyway, the last 25 years have changed the face of football in England.
But as the wealth of the men’s game grows exponentially, that just makes the gap between the Premier League and the rest even bigger.
1992 was a seminal year for football in England with the arrival of the new men’s league structure, but it was also the year in which the Women’s Premier League was founded. Yet it wasn’t until 2011, when the Women’s Super League changed the structure of the women’s game, that things started to take off to a new level.
If the riches of the Premier League were supposed to trickle down and raise the level of all beneath it, that’s not really how things have worked out. In fact, you learn quickly that different sports require different approaches.
“It will be the WSL’s sixth year, as of September, but as far as how it’s changed, the last two years has been the biggest ramp-up,” said former Everton and England goalkeeper Rachel Brown-Finnis, now a pundit on BT Sport, where both the Premier League and the WSL will be shown this season.
“Over the last two years, virtually all the teams are now fully professional. Before that, it was kind of a hobby, to put it bluntly. When I was playing five years ago, I had a job alongside playing and that was the same for all of the girls. At Everton, we got paid the tiniest amount that it was basically insignificant, so that’s the biggest thing that’s changed, and it’s great to see some of the men’s Premier League teams have women’s teams and really integrate them into the clubs.”
Integration is perhaps the biggest step. When Manchester City announced new Chinese investment in 2015, they showed Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi around their Etihad Campus. There, the dignitaries were shown the club’s facilities where City’s men’s, women’s and academy teams are all housed together in the same complex. The famous Sergio Aguero and David Cameron selfie is perhaps the most famous moment of that day, but the fact that City’s set-up was so integrated is probably the most important.
“It’s literally the ultimate, but it’s also now the benchmark. It was the ultimate as in, all the players are full-time, they go to the City training ground just like the men do, they use the facilities there, they have their own changing rooms, they have their own ground. So they are fully integrated and they are used within the club as the male players would be as assets commercially and from a marketing perspective – that is the dream.”
“But now, that is the benchmark, that’s what other clubs should be doing. City have done it properly, they’ve not thrown loads of money at it because they’re using the resources that are already there. They have a cap on what they will spend for contracts, and they’re by far not the biggest spenders across the WSL, they just doing it in the most integrated way and that seems to make sense.”
“I think other clubs are following suit. Chelsea are following suit, Arsenal are too. But I think where every club wants to be at is just to be fully embraced as part of the club, male or female, you’re a footballer and to want to give back as much as you get from that, too.”
In a way, this is one of the Premier League’s success stories. Without the worldwide acclaim around English football, Manchester City and Chelsea would have been unlikely to have come under new ownership, and such sensible investment in all areas of their club may not have happened in the same way. It’s noticeable that most of the top teams in the women’s game belong to some of the top clubs in the men’s game, too.
But even if greater integration between Premier League clubs and their WSL counterparts is to be the catalyst for success in the women’s game, simply aping the Premier League is not necessarily the right way to go about things. In some ways, the biggest positive of the WSL has is what is often considered biggest weakness: its status compared to the men’s game.
For the last few years, innovation has been important to try to take advantage of the wave of interest around the women’s game generated by the Olympic Games in 2012 and carried on throughout World Cups and European Championships where the England national team performed admirably. And when you start from a smaller platform, it’s easier to try new things.
The WSL had switched to a summer league in an attempt to avoid competing with men’s games before moving back to traditional autumn to spring season this year. And some clubs have even taken to streaming some games on Facebook Live to try and promote their product to a wider audience, giving them a taste of women’s football on social media for free.
“It’s been a stroke of genius,” says Brown-Finnis, “and while there are no rights to doing that, it’s really a positive thing about women’s football. There are a lot of blueprints that don’t exist for women’s football [compared with the men’s game]. It’s still fresh as far as the access to players you can get, the commercial market for women’s players. There are a lot of ideas you can look at, say, what’s happened in America and bring those over here, but it’s open to fresh new approaches like Facebook Live.”
That soap opera which seems to follow the Premier League around is perhaps the most important thing to cultivate in the women’s game. It currently has two main issues. One is participation, and the fact that generations of girls who have grown up wanting to play football never had role models at the highest level. That’s something which can be fixed by the growth of the sport and the fact that it’s watched by a bigger audience. The second problem stems from the same root: because the sport isn’t watched as often, it’s hard for women’s football to create the narratives that the Premier League can.
People tune into men’s football every weekend partly because of the drama that goes with it, because of Jose Mourinho’s latest comments or the fact that a player has fallen out with his teammates. And the fact that the transfer window is one of the busiest times for those covering the Premier League shows just how wedded the soap opera is to the sport.
Women’s football doesn’t have that pulling power, that level of mass emotional connection between the public and the sport. But that’s not to say there’s no emotional connection at all, nor to say that it can’t grow bigger among a wider audience. Growing it is the next step. And the organic nature of fans finding the sport through live-streaming and broadcasting on a major sports channel like BT makes it even more likely that viewers will actually become fans, rather than spectators for a game or two.
That’s something which can only be created over time, and could create a different rapport between fans and the sport than what you get in the men’s game.
“The emotional connection is the strongest connection you can have,” says Brown-Finnis. “How you can also get that more with the female players – simply because they’re less guarded – is that you get to know them as personalities on and off the pitch, you get to know what they’re into, what they like and what they don’t like, what their interests are, where they’re from, what their upbringing was like. You can find out everything and ask them questions, they’re accessible and so you can build a relationship with these players and so when there is an emotional moment, you feel that emotion.”
Rachel Brown-Finnis was speaking at BT Sport’s Premier League launch, where both the Premier League and the WSL will be shown this season.