Coronavirus: Women’s football ‘at a crossroads’ as it emerges from lockdown

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The first women’s Community Shield since 2008 will be played on 29 August, between Manchester City and Chelsea

Women’s football is at a crossroads after lockdown and needs investment but the sport can emerge stronger despite the coronavirus, according to two leading sports lawyers.

No elite women’s football has been played in England since March’s suspension of sport.

The new Women’s Super League season will begin on 5-6 September.

But how long will it take the women’s game to rebuild the momentum it had gathered prior to the pandemic?

Crowds, participation and commercial interest in women’s football all rose sharply after the 2019 World Cup in France, during which a peak of 11.7m watched the England Women’s team on BBC television, but there are concerns the sport has not been visible this summer.

“There are opportunities here as well as the downsides of Covid,” Darren Bailey, a consultant at Charles Russell Speechlys, told BBC Sport. “There will be much more flexibility now for the women’s game than the men’s.

“One of the things people used to say was women’s sport wasn’t worth watching because ‘nobody was in the ground’. Well, there’s nobody is in any ground at the moment, so it comes down to essentially what you are watching.

“If you can introduce innovative broadcasting ideas, with more access and more backstories, it may be a way of distinguishing the women’s game and making it more investible, attracting different brands who might not find the men’s game a particularly attractive place to be.

“For an innovative commercial programme, there is a real opportunity. The game needs to remain visible and the media coverage does need to improve.”

Is private investment the answer?

The majority of WSL clubs have published financial losses in their accounts for the 2018-19 season – the first year in which the WSL was fully professional, prior to Barclays’ title sponsorship deal which began in 2019.

However, BBC Sport understands several private equity firms have expressed interest in buying a stake in the WSL, including global investors Bridgepoint, who own the rights to Moto GP and have made an approach for a large minority share.

There are other options on the table too, with the men’s Premier League still in talks over a potential takeover of the WSL, which is run by the Football Association, who said in June they were planning for a potential financial loss of about £300m as a result of the pandemic.

Sports governance and integrity legal expert Danielle Sharkey added: “There is a lot of value in women’s sport that has not been fully utilised.

“What is lacking and what is not being explored far enough is this private equity investment in to the women’s game.

“The men’s game now is so established, there’s not much room for creativity. It’s very saturated from a sponsorship point of view.

“In women’s sport, that hasn’t happened yet. The campaign leading up to the World Cup with the Lionesses just shows what can be done.”

It is not yet clear whether the FA would accept any approach from a private equity firm, but the governing body have repeatedly made it known they would be open to a different party running the WSL, in the same way the men’s Premier League, English Football League and National League are organised by separate organisations, rather than being run by the FA.

“If a move is to be made with the Premier League taking over the WSL, the structure of the agreement and the terms with which that takes place will be absolutely pivotal to the success not only of the England teams but also of the club teams,” added Bailey, who was formerly director of football governance and regulation at the FA.

“It would need to embrace commercial revenue sharing and typically issues like player release, potentially restrictions on the number of overseas players and potentially trying to incentivise more playing time for England players.

“The women’s game is at a bit of a crossroads. It’s a really interesting question as to whether or not you take investment from private equity now at this point, and use it as a relaunch.

“Could you use that money that is directly invested into the women’s game now in order to create an infrastructure that makes you absolutely future-proof?

“The difficult legal issue is to try and get a balance between taking the private investors’ money, that you need and want, and maintaining an appropriate level of autonomy over fixtures, where games are played, broadcasts, social media and over the calendar.

“So if you are going along that route, you do not want to lose control over your development and your participation objectives, the number of teams in the league.

“You need a really blended approach, to take the money, expertise and commercial acumen and nous, but at the same time you need an enlightened regulatory and structural framework around the arrangements, so you don’t suddenly lose control of your arrangements.

“If you get that right, the relationship and partnership can thrive.”

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