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Super League round table: what can the women’s game learn from this mess

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Can the women’s game avoid a similar fate?

Manchester City Women v Chelsea Women - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Harriet Lander - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Welcome to our first and hopefully last Super League round table. You might not have heard any news about how the Super League was going to affect the women’s game, and that’s because no one involved had any clue, nor did they seem to have given any thought to dragging their women’s teams into this wild and wacky scheme. Now Super League has collapsed like a flan in a cupboard, there are plenty of sighs of relief, but we wanted to examine what issues this did bring to the surface for the women’s game. On today’s round table: All for XI managing editor Steph Yang, AfXI contributing writer and European expert nonpareil Sophie Lawson, and SBN California fan communities editor Alicia Rodriguez.

What were your initial reactions to Super League collapsing in a matter of days?

Alicia Rodriguez: First reaction: lol. To flesh that out a bit, it’s one of the few times I can recall in which basically the entire world was against 12 rich people/families and the little people got their way. We’re used to people claiming a “super league” of some kind of another was on the horizon, but to have the clubs involved think they could win a PR battle and get it just absolutely, completely wrong is refreshingly hilarious.

Stephanie Yang: This is just going to keep happening over and over again unless there’s some kind of stronger regulatory reorganization that disincentivizes leaving or incentivizes staying. I’ve never known a billionaire to go, you know what, I have enough money. So I’m happy that it ended up going nowhere, but I’m not ignoring the fact that the conditions that created this situation still persist.

Sophie Lawson: I’ve been flip—flopping between anger and just finding the whole thing hilariously farcical. These very smarty smart businessmen have been working on some kind of ESL plan for how many years? Should have dropped the news three days later on 4/20, considering how half-baked the whole thing was. The what, one tacked on line about some vague plan to start a women’s ESL? Almost like they were done drawing up their contacts and someone suddenly remember that women exist.

Whilst I agree with the both of you that I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll hear something like this, the sheer opposition, not just from fans but those who hold power (UEFA and club sponsors) gives me some degree of hope that such a coup would be quashed next time down the line too.

Oops we forgot about the women’s teams

SY: All of the teams in the SL have a women’s team attached but not a single one seemed to have thought about dragging them into this. What do we think might have happened to those teams - a hard question to answer given there was ZERO info released in the short time SL was a thing about how this might affect the women’s sides.

SL: Suzy Wrack was first out the gates pointing out that half of the clubs involved only have fledgling women’s teams. These, by and large, aren’t clubs that have shown they care too much about women’s football. I still feel like some only have women’s sides because they have to and/or the PR nightmare of not. Not one of them was thinking about the impact of their announcement on the players on either their men’s or women’s teams, only their own bank accounts.

SY: On the one hand, dragging all of the women’s teams into a closed system where they only play each other and there might be a fair amount of parity for the most part sounds like...NWSL. So that might have become a very attractive option at some point where you’re getting Lyon-level money or even more, but the games are competitive and you’re not blowing out teams all season long. But on the other hand, with the threat of being banned not just from UEFA competitions but national team participation as well - I do think playing for NTs matters much more to women, both in terms of the way prestige is currently balanced, and in terms of how much money one can make, depending on which country you’re from. No female player is going to walk away from the chance for a gold medal or a World Cup over a low-to-mid six fig salary, in my estimation, as opposed to being a male player who makes millions.

AR: Yeah, I think this goes to the heart of the issue in terms of the women’s game — being part of a bigger club vs. being an independent entity. This is a case in which being tied to a larger brand in the sport has helped most of these women’s teams in recent years, but it’s not guarantee of sustainability. Barcelona and Inter Milan have been revealed to be essentially insolvent this season. Will they disappear? Probably not, but the women’s team may see the axe to “save costs.”

SL: For years we’ve been tying women’s fortunes to men’s teams, willfully ignoring what’s gone before. Even what, [a few] seasons ago when Wolfsburg ended up almost going down whist the women’s team was still one of the very best in Europe. Your mind reels, wondering about the financials and whether the women have their own funds in the event of the men going down. But, we also know men’s football was nearing its hilt in terms of expansion and bringing more money in, but the clubs seemed oblivious? Sure, COVID is what it is but how do you not feel the walls getting nearer? We know women’s football is a growing industry and can really begin to bring in the big bucks but, ugh, it all feels so analogous. We’re just following a set of footprints in the sand.

The women’s game should look at the men’s game for what not to do sometimes

SY: As more and more money enters women’s football, how can we avoid making the mistakes that the men have made? Just because the men do it doesn’t mean it’s the correct or best way to do things, women’s football doesn’t have to emulate men in order to be successful.

AR: Is it possible to break out of that cycle?

SY: Right, is it even possible? Because mo’ money mo’ problems, as the popular wisdom goes. Can you possibly have billionaires investing in the women’s game and something is NOT going to end up shady and corrupt somewhere? Not to bring class analysis into it but what else do you expect, a billionaire who has earned their riches on the backs of exploiting the working class taking over a working class game - of course they won’t hesitate to continue to exploit fans and workers.

SL: What worries me is just how fast the sport is growing. Yes, it’s playing catch up but the feeling that someone is pumping it full of steroids to accelerate the natural evolution is one I can’t shake. (And it makes me feel even worse because then it feels like I’m trying to keep the sport down) As soon as you bring the women’s teams under the umbrellas of these clubs, you’re surely beyond the point of no return. Want to train with the men’s team? Want to share our cafeteria? Well this is the price you have to pay.

A different ownership model?

AR: Is there any possibility there would be people interested in investing in a women’s soccer structure outside of the current club model? Or are those days not feasible right now? Like, could someone (rich) in Blackburn be like “I’m just going to start an indie team!”

SY: We’re kind of seeing something with Angel City, followed by the Spirit and Red Stars. I think ownership groups being diversified and not having power or shares or whatever focused primarily with one mega rich owner possibly might help, but again, that can bring its own problems, if you have 30 owners tugging you in different directions it’s going to get messy trying to grow things

SL: So we have some Indy teams around in Europe, functioning to different degrees. Madrid CFF for example - set up by a rich Real fan before they had a team because he didn’t want his daughter playing for Atleti. They are killing it this season. 50+1 in Germany [in which football clubs are not allowed to play in the Bundesliga if commercial investors have more than a 49% stake] feels like the right thing for football (not that it’s a perfect system) but how do you implement that in counties with pre-existing capitalist ideals in the sport?

AR: What I kept thinking of with all of this going down was pretty complex, but essentially, “The women’s game may need to prepare a breakaway plan behind the scenes as a contingency.” I realize it would be replicating to an extent what the Super League buffoons were doing, but something akin to the WTA — if that sport wasn’t going to support women properly, women in tennis needed to create their own entity to build their sport properly. Do either of you think a breakaway might end up being the future for the women’s game or am I just daydreaming?

SL: FIFA and UEFA would surely put the kibosh on such ideas - if you wanted a WFIFA for example. Issue you’re running into with that would be how much money FIFA does give to grassroots, you can’t take that away. So you need Scrooge McDuck riches to fund an alternative. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be well in favour of a WUEFA, WCAF, WCONMEBOL ect, because, oh the corruption. But, the logistics are mind boggling.

SY: If you have a breakaway league but they’re anathema, where do they get their development from? They’d all have to have their own internal academy systems if players are verboten from crossing over, or if you cross over you can never go back. For ultra rich Barca that’s fine, they have the infrastructure for youth to pro already, but for a women’s club, particularly an indie, where do you get your development pathway? And players would essentially have to choose to gamble their whole careers if they went into the super league system, under the assumption that if you go to SL you’re not allowed to come back

So what can we do under the existing infrastructure?

SL: More frequent Copa Americas!

AR: I think it would be great if clubs had to commit a percentage of their spend to the women’s side. Just across the board, X% must be earmarked for women’s teams.

SY: I want much, much stronger oversight from all the confederations on how budgets are allocated. Literally I want FIFA to say “you must spend this % on your women’s team or no World Cup, no CL, no confederation level cups for you.”

AR: Yeah, we’ve seen CONMEBOL mandate Copa Libertadores entrants must have women’s clubs active, that’s the kind of rules they can easily make.

SL: I can’t remember the ins and outs, but FIFA do distribute money to confederations for their women’s programs which gets filtered through by country and such, but there’s a great tradition of that money just not reaching who it’s intended for. It almost makes me ill to say I think FIFA should have more influence but...

SY: I mean the “spend % of money on women or no World Cup” is the stick, are there carrots they can offer too? Increasing prize money for example. Or doing a better job seeking broadcast deals, the broadcast deal money discussions around SL listed astounding sums in play.

SL: On the level, first thing you do is clone [FIFA Chief Women’s Football Officer] Sarai Bareman a few times, that’s going to make implementing anything much easier.

AR: Right, the people in the women’s governance area are usually fantastic! They’re just drops in the ocean.

SL: Before you can even offer more money for wining shit or whatever, you have to have the systems in place for accountability, it can’t be the other way around or the cracks will be exploited as they always are.

AR: Yep. I can’t believe we’re saying make FIFA and the confederations stronger, but here we are.

SL: My issue with more money for those who are successful - sure it’s good for Argentina etc. - but what about men’s teams who aren’t that good whose women’s projects are equally lacking, how do you boost up teams like Malawi or Honduras. Not to go open up the misogyny book but, we know there are so many diehards who range from apathetic to opposed to women’s football or just women in general. Which also feels like an issue you’re facing in confederations, some men won’t like being told they have to spend money on woso.

SY: A tier structure feels more adaptable here, calculated by federation budget. Is your budget in this range, then this is the plan.

AR: That is definitely a fair point. But as we’ve seen with the United States, there is not necessarily a correlation between the men’s quality and women’s. But I think the solution in that case is to mandate investment and create real sanctions if they don’t. There is no one size fits all approach, definitely.