Women’s football needs to close gender divide

For many years women’s football has been trying to step out of the shadow of the men’s game. Too often ladies’ football gets swept under the carpet as their much more popular male counterparts rule the football world in this country. But whilst the efforts to make women’s football a fully stand-alone format are valid, to really develop the women’s football clubs will need the full support from the well funded men’s game.

Realistically women’s football will always lose out to their male rivals but when money is still a much sort after commodity in the women’s game, the financial support of being linked to the male team of their club will be invaluable. The support not only financially but also in terms of statue will be one of the keys to helping the women’s game and those team competing across all the leagues really develop.

For the eight teams in the Women’s Super League (WSL) this summer, many faced differing situations in terms of being connected to their parent clubs. Arsenal, the most famous and successful of all the ladies teams in this country, have strong links to the men’s team. Not only do they share the same club name and kit but Arsenal’s Ladies are well supported by the club in general and got to parade their trophies on the Emirates pitch during the half-time break of a Premier League game. This support not only boosts the Arsenal Ladies image but also financially gives them a fantastic advantage. Arsenal Ladies are setting the standard for how being fully integrated into clubs can be of great benefit. Whilst Arsenal Ladies don’t get to play at the Emirates Stadium (their home ground is at Borehamwood FC) they do share kits, sponsorship and the website with the men’s teams. All these aspects not only boost the club financially but also boost their image and statue within football in general. Something as simple as sharing a website with the main club can easily help generate interest in a team as fans are more likely to find out information about the ladies’ side.

Fellow WSL team Bristol Academy Ladies are not in the same position as Arsenal. They are fully independent from both the men’s teams in the city. Whilst their desire to forge a successful club of their own is admirable, it does have downsides. Bristol Academy are joining Arsenal Ladies in Europe this term and whilst Arsenal can call on the whole club’s set up for support, Bristol Academy face dire financial implications of competing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The club are forced to fund the trip themselves, with the players even chipping in and foregoing appearance money and win bonuses. With so much financial power in the male version, this should never be the case for the premier European competition in the women’s game. But there are more positive signs for a smaller WSL club like Bristol Academy. Their European home game against FC Energiya Voronezh was held at Ashton Gate (home of Bristol City) instead of the ladies’ usual smaller ground. The move drew an attendance of 1,556 spectators and is an example of how ladies’ clubs can benefit from working more closely with their male counterparts.  When the standard of pitches also suffers at the smaller venues the ladies’ game is often restricted to, having the option to play on a better quality surface can also greatly boost the quality of football.

Across the WSL there are mixed levels of participation from the men’s clubs in support of their female teams. Whilst teams like Everton Ladies, Chelsea Ladies and Birmingham City Ladies are in some way affiliated or integrated into the wider club set up, Lincoln Ladies and Doncaster Rovers Belles also benefit from being able to use the Sincil Bank and the Keepmoat Stadium respectively. Using the club’s facilities is definitely one way female clubs can benefit with the better facilities, pitches and bigger capacities just some of the key ways the ladies’ game can keep improving across the country.

Whilst the WSL clubs and their superior competition format does benefit from integrating more with the male game, lower down the leagues the cost of not having the full support of clubs can be very detrimental. Whilst Blackburn Rovers are fighting it out in the Premier League against the best teams in the country, their female side are in a different situation. After plying their trade in the Premier League for many seasons near the top of the women’s game, Blackburn Rovers Ladies didn’t bid for a place in the Super League. One of the reasons reportedly cited for missing out was the lack of financial backing from their parent club. Subsequently Blackburn Rovers lost their best players and the financial gains of playing the in the top division and so found themselves relegated to the Women’s Premier League North at the end of last season. Surely for well-funded Premier League clubs like Blackburn Rovers and others, establishing and supporting their ladies’ teams should be a priority?

Historically though the links between men’s and women’s teams have been on shaky ground. Back in 2007 Charlton Athletic disbanded all sections of their women’s set up (including the senior ladies side who were at the time near the top of the ladies’ game) to cut costs after the men’s side got relegated from the Premier League. A ladies side was later reformed independently but women’s football can suffer from the lack of security at being second best in a football club.

When trying to establish the sport in it’s own right, ladies’ football clubs should be looking to create a strong individual image. But developing and maintaining links to the bigger and more established men’s clubs can have its benefits and must be something women’s teams across all leagues should look to do to help boost women’s football in this country.

Do you think that women’s teams should be more closely linked to the men’s sides? If you want to read more of my bite size, 140 character views and thoughts follow me on Twitter @jennyk5
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