Assessing the impact of the WSL

The grassroots of the game may have been flourishing but the top tier of women’s football in England had become stale as the Women’s Premier League fell further and further behind it’s male rivals. But this summer saw the inaugural FA Women’s Super League (WSL), a semi-professional competition whose name alone promised a more glamorous exhibition of the best female players in the country. But was the first attempt at the WSL a success?

In attempt to develop the women’s game in this country the FA developed the WSL, a league of eight teams consisting of this country’s best female football players from Liverpool Ladies, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Chelsea Ladies, Bristol Academy Ladies, Lincoln Ladies, Everton Ladies, Birmingham City Ladies and Arsenal Ladies. The inaugural league started back in April this year and as a summer long event lasted until early September (with a mid-season break for the Women’s World Cup). The FA have further pushed the format by also introducing the Continental Cup, a knock out cup competition between the eight league teams with big name sponsors in tyre manufacturers Continental. In the final on Sunday Arsenal were victorious against Birmingham, with the Gunners’ clinching the double and making sure the WSL’s first season finishes on a high.

Arsenal Ladies also continued their dominance of the women’s game in the league by clinching the first WSL title (their 8th successive league win in the top tier of women’s football). Whilst Arsenal’s success carrying over into the WSL from the Women’s Premier League could be seen as a negative in the push for more competitive action, Arsenal only won the league on the last day of the season and by three points from Birmingham City. Birmingham’s attempts to dethrone Arsenal are testament to the increasing quality across a number of the top teams in England.

Average attendances have also been up for the league compared to the Women’s Premier League. An average of close to 600 people enjoyed the WSL before the mid-season break, a significant improvement on the WPL where only 100 spectators would often turn up to see games. 2167 spectators also turned up to see Arsenal crowned winners in the cup final, a healthy showing for the final event on the WSL calendar. Coverage of a handful of games on sports channel ESPN as well as a weekly round-up programme have also helped increase interest in the sport to TV audiences. The FA’s £3million investment also indicates their interest in making the WSL a long-term success and suggests a change in approach after years of the women’s game suffering from a lack of money.

But the underlying problems in the women’s game still seem to be there. The first ever game in the league, between Chelsea and Arsenal back in April, may have attracted a healthy total of over 2,500 fans but the game was still played at Tooting and Mitcham’s Imperial Fields ground. Whilst it is Chelsea Ladies’ home ground, surely a better venue for what was supposed to be the first showpiece event of the league could have been found? There have also been problems with pitches in these lower league venues, with criticisms from both players and managers about the quality of some pitches that could detract from the potential quality of the football.

I would have also concerns over the scheduling of the tournament. A summer fixture list could be seen as a way to generate more interest in the sport in the absence of the men’s game but does it detract from the longevity of the league? The mid-season break for the successful Women’s World Cup also potentially detracted from the momentum the new league was building as attentions were drawn to the world stage and away from the domestic game. The summer scheduling may have also been down to the Women’s Premier League (WPL), the old format for the top teams that is still running throughout the usual winter period.

Whilst some increased interest was drawn to the game by the introduction of the WSL, the WPL continued with very little attention. The loss of the best teams in the country to the WSL could be seen as both good and bad for England’s now second tier in the women’s game. The loss of the likes of Arsenal, Birmingham and Everton obviously detracts from the quality of the football but at the same time gives the smaller teams and players a chance to shine against more evenly matched opponents. Sunderland were crowned the champions of the last WPL, a huge success for the club and big boost for everyone involved. But is the WSL creating a disparity amongst teams?

Despite winning the WPL, Sunderland remain in the same league, something that limits their chances for development. The money and increased attention on the WSL also damages the WPL. Last season’s loss of TV coverage of the women’s Premier League Cup final between Nottingham Forest and Barnet due to supposed low interest is proof that despite the introduction of the WSL, beyond the now more glamorous roots of the top tier the same problems still remain. The FA must ensure that whilst they try to develop the WSL, the rest of the leagues don’t get cut off as the only long-term way to develop the game will be better competition on a wider platform.

As the first WSL season has now drawn to a close and Bristol Academy and Arsenal Ladies head onto the European stage hoping for success, the FA can take many positives from their first successful WSL season. Further attention, money and exposure will need to be generated around the women’s game and across all the leagues to make sure it is a continued success but the FA now have a good platform to hopefully keep developing women’s football in this country.

Do you think the WSL was a success or are the FA risking losing quality in the lower leagues? If you want to read more of my bite size, 140 character views and thoughts follow me on Twitter @jennyk5
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