Women’s football in the UK (England & Wales): untapped potential?

Women's football in the UK (England & Wales)

As the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup has now faded into the sunset, it is time to look at how women’s football came to be, in the United Kingdom (‟UK”) (England & Wales), and how it evolved, since its inception. What is it like, now? And where it is going? Does it have potential? If so, in which areas? How is UK women’s football structured, in particular to resolve disputes? Are you ready for the ride?

1. Women’s football in England: a troubled history

The story of women’s football in the UK (England & Wales) is one of frustrating steps ahead, and then backwards.

The first known example of a team game involving a ball, which was made out of a rock, occurred in old Mesoamerican cultures over 3,000 years ago. It was called ‟Tchatali” by the Aztecs. On some ritual occasions, the ball would symbolise the sun and the captain of the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods (!). A unique feature of the Mesoamerican ball game was a bouncing ball made of rubber – no other early culture had access to rubber. It is unknown whether both male and female humans used to play Tchatali together, then.

Fast-forward to the middle of the 19th century, when football (or ‟soccer” as the game is called in some parts of the world), in its current form, arose in England. An attempt to create proper rules for the game was made at a meeting in Cambridge in 1848, but no final decision regarding all questions about rules was achieved then.

Another important event in the history of football occurred on 26 October 1863, when the Football Association (the ‟FA”) was formed, in the Freemasons’ Tavern on Great Queen Street, in London, England. It is the oldest football association in the world and is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the amateur and professional game in its territory. Indeed, the FA is the governing body of association football (more commonly known as football or soccer) in England and the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

The FA is now a member of both the Union of European Football Associations (‟UEFA”) – which is one of six continental bodies of governance in association football – and the ‟Fédération Internationale de Football Association (French for ‟International Association Football Federation”) (‟FIFA”), which is the international governing body of association football.

As early as 1895, a representative football match between northern and southern women’s teams was recorded in London, in the UK.

By 1921, women’s football had become increasingly popular through the charitable games played by women’s teams during, and after, the First World War. In a move that was widely seen as caused by jealousy of the crowds’ interest in women’s games – which frequently exceeded that of the top men’s teams – in 1921, the FA banned all women’s teams from playing on grounds affiliated to the FA. The reason given for such a ban was that the FA thought football was ‟unsuitable for females” (sic) and damaged women’s bodies. Women continued to play football between the two world wars, but there was no league structure and there were few dedicated facilities for women.

The decision to exclude women from football was only reversed in 1969 when, after the increased interest in football caused by England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, the Women’s Football Association (‟WFA”) was founded to re-establish the female game. The WFA was an independent body and not part of the FA. Indeed, it took an order from UEFA to force the FA to remove its restrictions on the playing rights of women’s teams. So, in 1972, the FA – with the strong ‟encouragement” of UEFA – lifted its ban on women playing on football league grounds in England. It was not until 1983 that the WFA was able to affiliate with the FA as a ‟county association”.

The WFA made real strides in the fledgling international competitions and even took an England side to the European Championship Final in 1984. The WFA grew the women’s game throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. However, it was unable to develop the game at grassroots level, due to limited funding.

Only in 1993 did the FA set up the ‟Women’s Football Committee” to run women’s football in England. The ‟Women’s Football Conference”, as it is now known, has representation on the FA Council equivalent to a County Football Association.

So the FA assumed governance of the women’s game in 1993. The 1993/94 season saw the WFA Cup brought under the control of the FA – 137 teams entered. A year later, the WFA’s national league and league cup were also managed by the FA. This saw the birth of the Women’s Premier League.

Coming under the wing of the FA in 1993 was of tangible benefit to women’s football. It allowed women’s clubs to draw fully on the development opportunities offered by the FA. It gave clubs an incentive to improve their standards and gain the FA’s Charter Standard status, which signifies that a club has achieved a quality benchmark, and which demonstrates to the public, club members and players’ parents that the club is well-organised. It has assisted in promoting women’s football to the wider public. And it has enabled links to be built with professional men’s clubs.

In 1993, there were only 80 girls’ teams, no professional players, no football development and little funding. However, since 1993, the game has progressed and developed throughout the country and the England women’s senior team has participated at the highest stage.

FIFA introduced the Women’s World Cup competition in 1991 and, as the women’s game started to grow globally, the decade culminated in the finals, in the USA, in 1999, which featured sold-out stadiums and a 90,000 crowd at the final.

In the last twenty years, leagues and competitions have been formed throughout the country to form a thriving pyramid of women’s football. By 2002, it had become the top female team participation sport in England.

In 2005, England hosted the UEFA Women’s EURO. Records for crowd attendance and TV audiences were smashed. England beat Finland 2-1 in front of a then European record crowd of 29,092 at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Crucially, the talent pool was getting deeper – there were now England teams at various age groups and the senior team – the Lionesses – were beginning to show their talents on the world stage. The 2000s ended with the senior team winning the Cyprus Cup, which was their first international trophy and, later in the same year, reaching the final of UEFA Women’s EURO 2009, albeit losing out to Germany, who were the dominant force at the time. The Women’s Under-19s, however, won their UEFA Championship in Belarus, in 2009.

In 2011, further to club football reformation, the FA Women’s Super League (‟WSL”) was set up, as, initially, an eight-team summer competition. This replaced the FA Women’s Premier League National Division as the highest level of women’s football in England and ran on this basis until 2017, when it finally grew into the two-division (i.e. WSL and Women’s Championship) fully professional game we know today. The WSL takes its place alongside the traditional men’s professional season, with media interest, spectator levels and sponsorship income having established a solid commercial platform.

The top three teams each season qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The WSL has increased the visibility of women’s club football across the world, attracting star players from overseas, and broadcast partners in Australia, Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the USA. Below the two professional divisions, the game’s pyramid – the Women’s National League – has continued to develop.

It now means that there are recognised pathways into the women’s professional game, with clubs themselves operating Academy structures.

The last 10 years have seen major developments for both women and girls playing football.

In 2014, England Women played their first match at the new Wembley Stadium, attracting a then record crowd of 45,619 for their match against Germany. The senior team was by now a serious contender on both the European and world stages. They took bronze in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada and reached the semi-finals of UEFA Women’s 2017 EURO and got to the same stage again, in the FIFA Women’s World Cup two years later in France 2019. Their semi-final defeat to the USA attracted a record 11.7m viewers on BBC One. Earlier in the same year, they won the SheBelieves Cup for the first time. This success saw ever-increasing crowds at England matches, with 77,786 fans at Wembley to see the senior team face Germany in November 2019.

Double participation, double the fan base and consistent success on the world stage. Those were the three goals in the Gameplan for Growth, the FA’s first formal strategy for women’s and girls’ football in England, unveiled in March 2017. According to the FA, all three goals have been scored, with now 1 million girls (aged 5-15) and 1.9 million women (16+) who play the game in England. Numerous FA participation programmes are bringing girls to football at various age groups and the fan base continues to grow.

In October 2021, the UK, and England in particular, agreed to relocate 35 young Afghan female football players and their families, after they had to escape Afghanistan, because of the Talibans, and then Pakistan.

Following the above-mentioned first three-year strategy, a new one – Inspiring Positive Change – was launched in October 2020. Amongst its eight goals, one stands out: to give every school-going girl the same access to football as boys, whether at schools or in clubs.

A home win at Wembley in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 in front of a crowd of 87,192 has firmly established the women’s game in the national psyche.

Media coverage and general interest in the women’s game have never been higher.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 took place until 20 August 2023 in Australia and New Zealand, with Spain and England securing qualifications for the finals, and Spain ultimately winning the world cup. Football Australia lauded FIFA Women’s World Cup success and ticket sales passed 1.7 million.

2. Women’s football in the UK (England & Wales): corporate governance

As mentioned above, women’s football in England is now managed by the FA. So, let’s delve into the 753 pages FA handbook, in order to clarify the FA’s corporate structure and the place of women’s football within it.

The FA is structured as a private company limited by shares, called Football Association Limited, which was incorporated on 23 June 1903. It is headquartered at Wembley Stadium, in Wembley, London.

Indeed, a company limited by shares is the preferred format for sports clubs engaged in commercial enterprise, seeking to generate profit for shareholders and/or raising finance from external investors.

The FA’s main commercial asset is its ownership of the rights to the England national football team and the FA Challenge Cup. Broadcasting income remains the FA’s largest revenue stream with both domestic and international broadcasting rights for England fixtures and the FA Cup tied up. Indeed, the annual report and financial statements for the year ended 31 July 2022 of Football Association Limited (the ‟2022 annual accounts”) sets out that ‟broadcast, sponsorship and licencing revenues are a fundamental enabler to achieving our strategic goals, accounting for over 80 percent of our turnover; any risk to this revenue stream will impact the investments we can make in the game”.

The FA also makes money from winning and hosting tournaments. In its 2022 annual accounts, Football Association Limited sets out that ‟the results for the year are also materially impacted by the different financial results of the UEFA Euro Finals. (The FA) made a GBP6.8 million profit for coming runner-up in the men’s tournament, versus a loss of GBP2.0 million for winning the women’s tournament due to the significantly lower prize money on offer. Across the two financial years, we have made GBP2.7 million of profit for hosting both tournaments, although this is reflected in a profit in FY21 and a loss in FY22”.

Within the FA handbook, we find the women’s football pyramid regulations, which apply to girls’ and women’s clubs and leagues sanctioned by the FA and/or an ‟Affiliated Association” (i.e. an association which is either a ‟County Association” or an ‟Other Football Association”, as such terms are defined in the FA handbook) in membership of the Women’s football pyramid. The aims and objectives of the Women’s Football Pyramid are:

  • to provide clubs with a level of competitive football appropriate to their playing ability, stadium/ground facilities, economic means and geographical location;
  • to provide a framework for discussion on matters of policy and common interest to leagues and clubs, and
  • to allow the seasonal movement of clubs.

Today, the levels of the women’s football pyramid are:

  • the WSL, at the very top, in tier 1;
  • the Women’s Championship, which is tier 2;
  • the FA Women’s National League’s regional North and South Divisions, which are the third level of the pyramid;
  • the FA Women’s National League Division 1 North, Midlands, South East, South West, which are in tier 4;
  • the 8 regional premier divisions, which are in tier 5;
  • the 18 divisions 1, which are in tier 6, and
  • the 8 county leagues, which are the 7th and last level of the pyramid,

as set out in Appendix A of the women’s football pyramid regulations inserted in the FA handbook.

The Women’s FA Cup secured its first four-year sponsorship deal with SSE in 2015, which consequently expired in 2019. In 2020, health and life insurance provider Vitality became the new title sponsor of the Women’s FA Cup, on a three-year deal. However, despite sponsorship, entering the tournament actually costs clubs more than they get in prize money. In 2015, it was reported that even if Notts County had won the tournament outright, the GBP8,600 winnings would leave them out of pocket. The winners of the men’s FA Cup, in the same year, received GBP1.8 million, with teams not reaching the first round proper getting more than the women’s winners! In the 2022 annual accounts, the FA announced a new landmark investment into the Vitality Women’s FA Cup that will increase the prize fund to GBP3 million per year. The new agreement was introduced from the start of the 2022/2023 season and results in greater investment across the women’s professional and grassroots game.

In view of these ongoing wide economic discrepancies between female and male football teams, private equity firms and investment funds are sensing an opportunity, here, and investing more and more in women’s football teams – because they are still cheap and good value. For example, there is a new club coming to women’s professional football in the United States, called Bay FC. It is backed by institutional investors, which are majority owners of that new team.

As set out in the 2022 annual accounts, the Women’s Football Board manages all strategic and operational matters relating to women’s and girls’ football within the policy framework and budget set by the FA’s board. This, however, excludes the management of the FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championships, which have their own board. Indeed, the Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship Board was established in 2019 and has specific responsibility for managing FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship competitions.

The current sponsor of the Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship is the financial institution Barclays. In its 2022 annual accounts, the FA announced that Barclays will invest more than GBP30 million in women’s and girls’ football over the period from 2022-2025, doubling the initial commitment Barclays took when it became the title sponsor of the WSL in 2019, and setting a new record for investment in UK women’s sport. This will continue to build the Barclays Girls’ Football School Partnerships, which has already reached 55 percent of schools. In 2022, the FA also teamed up with Barclays to deliver the inaugural ‟biggest ever football session”, with over 90,000 girls from schools across England playing football as part of the ‟Let Girls Play” campaign. Also, notes the FA in its 2022 annual accounts, the BBC and Sky Sports broadcast deals for the Barclays Women Super League started with a peak of 2.7 million viewers across the first six matches and 1.2 million viewers for Manchester United vs Manchester City, the FA’s highest ever live broadcast figures.

In the 2022 annual accounts, it is telling to read the results of the 2021/22 season, for England Women’s Senior team: they won ALL their matches (FIFA World Cup qualifications, Arnold Clark Cup, International friendly, UEFA Women’s Euro 2022), except for one game against Spain, at the Arnold Clark Cup, where the game ended up in a deadlock (0-0). So, while the FA’s formula to bring women’s football in England to the top, seems to be working, the Women’s Senior team has yet to defeat the Spanish women’s team, who ultimately beat England in the final of, and won, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in August this year.

3. Women’s football in the UK (England & Wales): resolving football disputes

When players play, there may be some issues during games, which may be sanctioned by red cards received by players found faulty. For example, English forward, Lauren James, was banned for two games after a red card against Nigeria, and had to miss England’s quarter-final against Colombia as well as the semi-final against Australia, in the FIFA World Cup 2023.

Several mechanisms exist to resolve football-related disputes in England.

For men’s professional football, the relevant dispute resolution procedures can be found in the English Football League (‟EFL”) regulations (the ‟EFL regulations”), the rules of the association (the ‟FA rules”), which are found in the above-mentioned FA handbook, and the standard EFL contract (the ‟EFL contract”) since, pursuant to Regulation 64.2 of the EFL Regulations, all contracts entered into between EFL clubs and players must be in the form of the EFL contract (available at Form 20 of the Premier League Rules).

However, for women’s football in the UK (England & Wales), I was told by the EFL that they do not get involved in resolving disputes relating to female footballers. Therefore, I can only assume (since the FA’s legal team repeatedly refused to confirm as much, by either email or phone call) that the relevant dispute resolution procedures, for women’s football in the UK (England & Wales), can be found in the FA rules, in the FA handbook.

Players may be involved in various types of disputes, and each will be resolved in a different way. Broadly, there are three types of disputes:

  • employment-related disputes;
  • disciplinary disputes, and
  • other disputes.

Generally, football-related disputes are dealt with by way of arbitration or specialist tribunals and will rarely end up before national courts.

Employment-related disputes are those which arise between players and their clubs (i.e. their employers). These might include, for example, disagreements over the club’s treatment of the player, payment or termination.

If a player is unhappy with their club, they can follow the grievance procedure set out in their employment contract, which is usually the ‟Standard Playing Contract”, under which a player is entitled to have ‟any grievance in connection with their employment” heard. So the dissatisfied player should bring their concerns to the attention of their manager, informally, who will make enquiries and reach a decision. If the player is not satisfied with the outcome, they may serve a formal notice of grievance to the club secretary, and it will then be determined by the club’s chairman or board.

Conversely, a club may be able to take disciplinary action against a player under the disciplinary procedure set out in the employment contract, when they consider them to have breached the employment contract or any applicable rules. A player may appeal any internal disciplinary sanction to the club’s board of directors and, if dissatisfied, any sanction in excess of an oral warning can be appealed to the player-related dispute commission. Both clubs and players then have a final right of appeal to the league appeals committee, whose decision is final.

Where the disagreement between a player and their club is more serious, or where the grievance/disciplinary procedure has not been effective, terminating the employment contract may become possible.

A clause in their employment contract gives a player the right to terminate their contract where the club has (i) seriously or persistently breached the terms of the contract, and/or (ii) failed to pay the player the remuneration due under the contract.

A clause of the employment contract gives clubs a similar right to terminate where the player (i) is found to have committed gross misconduct; (ii) fails to comply with a final warning under the club’s internal disciplinary procedure, or (iii) is found to have committed a criminal offence where the punishment consists of an immediate prison sentence of three months or more.

Both the club and player have a right of appeal against such a termination to the league appeals committee. There is also a final right of appeal to the league appeals committee.

For other employment-related disputes which fall outside the grievance, disciplinary and termination procedures, the employment contract provides that any dispute between the club and player will be settled by way of arbitration.

The club and the player can, by mutual agreement, opt for their dispute to be referred to arbitration under rule K (Arbitration) of the FA rules, which follows a well-defined procedure.

Indeed, section K of the FA rules (more commonly referred to as ‟Rule K”) provides that any dispute between two or more ‟Participants” shall automatically be referred to and resolved by arbitration under the FA rules. ‟Participants” is widely defined, in the FA Rules, and includes, amongst others:

  • authorised agents/licenced agents (who are now also covered by the defined term ‟Intermediaries” under the current FA rules);
  • managers;
  • competitions;
  • clubs;
  • players, and
  • all such persons who are, from time to time, participating in any activity sanctioned either directly, or indirectly, by the FA.

3.2. Disciplinary disputes

A player may be subject to disciplinary proceedings initiated by the FA.

The FA is the principal body responsible for dealing with disciplinary matters in English football, including for women’s football.

Pursuant to Rule G3.1 of the FA Rules, facts which give rise to an alleged breach of the FA Rules will be dealt with by the FA under the FA Rules.

The FA thus has authority to initiate disciplinary proceedings against players in respect of any misconduct, including breaches of the Laws of the Game and the FA’s rules and regulations.

At first instance, a disciplinary matter which falls under the FA’s jurisdiction will be decided by a Regulatory Commission which has the power to sanction a player with, for example, a reprimand, a warning, a fine, or a suspension from football activity for a specified period or number of matches.

Both players and the FA have the right to appeal a decision of a Regulatory Commission to an Appeal Board. In general, an Appeal Board’s decision is considered to be final and binding. However, in exceptionally rare cases, it may be possible to challenge the validity of an Appeal Board decision by way of FA Rule K arbitration.

3.3. Other disputes

For disputes falling outside the employment or disciplinary categories (such as a dispute between a player and their agent, or a dispute between a player and their former club over a mutual termination agreement), players can file a FA Rule K arbitration.

Rule K provides that save for those which have their own dispute resolution mechanism, ‟any dispute or difference between any two or more Participants (…) shall be referred to and finally resolved by arbitration under these Rules.” As the term ‟Participant” is widely defined, as mentioned above, the scope of disputes covered by Rule K is thus extremely wide.

Rule K arbitration tribunal have broad powers to resolve disputes, and their decisions are final and binding.

To conclude, women’s football in the UK (England & Wales) is now extremely well-equipped and structured, via the FA, to take over the world of women’s professional football and expand its reach, in the media and on broadcasting channels, during international tournaments and in the public eye. The sky is the limit, for women’s professional football, and England & Wales are very well-placed in exploiting such a burgeoning opportunity.

Crefovi’s live webinar: Women’s football in the UK (England & Wales) – untapped potential? – 26 October 2023

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