England’s Football Association (FA) has had some awkward questions to answer in the last year or so - not least those relating to its national women’s soccer team.
The latter part of 2017 was dominated by a scandal involving the manager of the Lionesses, Mark Sampson, who was eventually sacked following allegations of inappropriate behaviour with female players in a previous role at Bristol Academy. The FA was also later forced to apologise for racially discriminatory remarks the Welshman had made towards England players Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence, with the former slamming English soccer’s governing body for behaviour “bordering on blackmail” and for adopting an agenda to protect Sampson and its own reputation.
The entire episode did little for the image of an organisation that is predominantly governed by men, and the decision to replace Sampson with Phil Neville - a former Manchester United player with no previous managerial experience - drew widespread criticism, which was further fuelled by the uncovering of disparaging tweets the 41-year-old had previously made about women.
Against this backdrop, however, the FA took a positive step last March when it appointed Marzena Bogdanowicz to the new role of head of commercial and marketing for women’s soccer. The move preceded a decision to introduce a new full-time structure for the Women’s Super League (WSL) from next season as part of a wider review of the commercial rights model within the women’s and girls’ game in England.
Within the new pyramid, the WSL will become the standalone top flight of women’s soccer in England, featuring up to 14 teams comprising full-time, professional players. Meanwhile, the second tier is being renamed the Women’s Championship League, which will be made up of ten to 12 teams consisting of part-time players. Below that, the third tier - currently the Women’s Premier League - will be split regionally into the National League North and South, with the fourth tier to be known as National League One.
In doing all of this, the aim is to tap into the added media exposure and interest in women’s soccer in the UK - the BBC’s Women’s Football Show has an average viewership of 507,000 for the 2017/18 season - in order to produce more high quality players, attract bigger crowds and tie down a fresh batch of commercial partners.
With all that in mind, SportsPro spoke with Bogdanowicz (right) to find out how the perception of women’s soccer is changing among brands, what the opportunity is for companies looking to partner with the WSL, and how the FA is planning to create a structure which can inspire the next generation of women’s players.
What was the thinking behind the FA’s decision to review the commercial rights structure in the women’s game?
We reviewed the structure of the competition pyramid, and as part of that there will obviously be a different structure on the commercial side because we’ve got a very clear tier one, two, three and four. With that new competition pyramid, it gives us the opportunity to look at commercial brands in a new way, and also we’ve got a very different and much more quality focused opportunity at that top tier.
Last year you launched the ‘Salute the Lionesses’ campaign. What do you hope to achieve with this initiative?
One of the key strands that we’re working on is to raise the profile of the Lionesses, because if we have higher profile Lionesses, we’ll have higher-profile players within the clubs and within the WSL.
We know that one of the reasons a lot of the fans come to the WSL is because they can see the Lionesses playing up close and personal, and the ‘Salute’ campaign was just one of those that was a great opportunity to engender the spirit and support from the nation.
Why do you think the WSL has struggled to secure commercial partners in the past?
I don’t think the WSL has struggled, as such. We’ve had a partnership with BT Sport, Continental Tyres have been involved with the League Cup and SSE are involved, so we’ve had plenty of partners.
For me, I think what we have to understand is that you can’t market and promote the women’s game just like you do the men’s game and, similarly, you can’t commercialise and sell it in the same way
But what we’ve done is we’ve restructured some of the rights so that the WSL will be a standalone property, and not linked to the women’s structure in terms of Lionesses or other aspects. We feel that the WSL is a standalone property that offers a great opportunity to get involved with women’s football across the nation.
What are some of the challenges of trying to commercialise women’s football?
I think the biggest challenge is time, because the women’s game is growing so rapidly and so quickly - I wish I’d been able to start a lot sooner!
For me, I think what we have to understand is that you can’t market and promote the women’s game just like you do the men’s game and, similarly, you can’t commercialise and sell it in the same way. The two games have the same rules, but it’s a different game, and it’s a different proposition because you can inspire and build a journey for young girls and players for the women’s game in a very different way to that of the men’s game.
For the men’s game, you will open your door and you will find football for boys and for men, but we have to work that much harder to do it for the women’s game, and that’s what’s changing. We are now signposting and providing opportunities such as the SSE Wildcats programme, which is growing at an exponential rate, and that will drive new opportunities, and we have to show the power of football to bring in a new generation of girls and make them more active.
The WSL is set to become the standalone top flight of women’s soccer in England, featuring up to 14 teams comprising full-time, professional players
Has the general understanding of how to commercialise women’s sport improved?
I think there is a huge step-change across women’s sport in terms of the profile it is achieving, and the fact that brands are taking it seriously is very important. It’s great to see that in many cases it’s not an add-on opportunity - brands want to get involved and want to do it for the right reasons and for the opportunities that it provides.
Where is it appropriate to pursue commercial and development opportunities across the whole of the English game, and where do you need to focus on the women’s game alone?
I think the women’s game has the opportunity to really change the way girls have their own belief in themselves, and there’s research out there that shows it. The FA has a business objective to grow the sport but there is a moral purpose to build confidence, leadership and belief in young girls to allow them to aspire to lead better lives, whether it’s through careers or through playing football and being healthy, and that’s the opportunity I think that football has.
What is the opportunity for brands looking to partner with the restructured WSL? What kind of companies are you looking for?
There’s huge interest in the women’s game, and football opens doors that if I was in my old shoes within the Olympic sports, I look at it and think, what an amazing opportunity, and in the same way football has the power to really change the way we view girls’ and women’s sport.
It’s great to see that in many cases it’s not an add-on opportunity - brands want to get involved and want to do it for the right reasons and for the opportunities that it provides
We can make a step change going forward in terms of where we take the women’s game, and we want brands to come with us. There is a lot more interest now, in terms of it not just being about men’s football, because brands want to get involved with the women’s game as well because they see the opportunity.
What role will the WSL clubs play?
We are working collaboratively with all the clubs, and we have meetings with them because we feel that they have as much of a role to play in the regions, cities and towns where they are. Because they, too, can actually change the perceptions of women’s football. So working jointly with the clubs is absolutely one of the things that we're doing, because it is about how you can affect a community and work with that community in terms of developing young girls and changing their lives.
Is your search for new commercial partners likely to include a title sponsor for the WSL?
We’d certainly be looking for a league partner, yes. How that looks and feels will depend on who the brand is and how we work together.
How significant is the England women’s national team for the growth of the WSL and its clubs?
I think one of the reasons for the restructure of the domestic pyramid is to have a very clear talent pathway for the game, and that - in terms of the Lionesses and the England team - will allow us to have a wider base and a higher quality of player going up through those tiers. And it will strengthen us longer-term, which is what you need to have; you need to have a very clear talent pathway with all the support and necessary back up that they will get across all the competitions.
The recent success of the Lionesses has led to added media exposure and, more importantly, encouraged more young women to play soccer
What effect has last year’s Mark Sampson saga had on your commercial drive? Was it damaging, or has the opportunity to move the conversation forward in the women’s game created more interest among potential sponsors?
Right now, the media interest in the women’s game as a whole is incredible, and that’s what we’re focusing on. Five years ago, nobody really looked at the game in the way we are now. The media interest in the SheBelieves Cup and the Lionesses has been incredible, and it’s going to keep growing, and that is a testament to the positive media that we’ve got now and will continue to have.
Similarly, has the added exposure brought about by the appointment of Phil Neville brought more brands to the table?
To be honest, we’ve got an incredible opportunity. The Lionesses are very successful right now, the BBC committed to show the games from the SheBelieves Cup, which is all about the heightened profile. The role of the performance team is critical in that, and for us it’s just a great opportunity for the Lionesses.
How transformative would backing from new commercial partners be for the WSL? What opportunities would the added revenue afford?
As much as the added revenue is really important, the other opportunity that a brand will benefit from is in terms of the marketing opportunities, and opening doors that we might not necessarily be able to.
For example, the Disney relationship that we have is talking to an audience that we couldn’t talk to, and that’s where I find it really exciting in terms of the opportunity to work with brands in a very different way going forward to help make a generation of girls active and make football their sport of choice.