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Women’s soccer can be “billion-pound industry”, says chair of independent review

Review panel calls for wide-ranging reform at elite and grassroots level of English soccer.

13 July 2023 PA

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Women’s soccer could be a billion-pound industry within ten years if it gets the right investment now, according to the chair of a new independent review.

Former England international Karen Carney’s review panel has called for wide-ranging reform at the elite and grassroots level of domestic soccer to fully capitalise on the Lionesses’ Euros success last summer.

Among the key calls in the review to grow the women’s game published a week before the start of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup are:

  • The creation of a fully professional environment in the top two tiers, with a minimum ‘salary floor’ in the Women’s Super League (WSL) from 2025/26, gold standard physical and mental healthcare provision, a world-leading parental leave package and full union representation.
  • A redirecting of some funding from the men’s FA Cup prize pot to support the women’s game.
  • Identification of a new strategic partner to invest in improving the talent pathway and academy structure.
  • A dedicated broadcast slot – possibly Saturday 3pm, if women’s soccer can be exempted from the blackout period with the support of the soccer authorities.

Carney recognises many of the measures outlined in the review will require significant investment but said: “Women’s football is a start-up business.

“If you’re starting something you have to have an influx of money. In ten years’ time I really do believe this sport could be a billion-pound industry.

“But these standards and these requirements for investment are the foundation that will lead us to that point.

“I really do think we can make that (investment) back.”

Carney said the review’s aim was to introduce minimum standards across all areas of the game, and insisted that even though there were significant cost implications for clubs and the Football Association (FA) in particular, this was not something anyone in the game could afford to ignore.

“I have to have every confidence that these recommendations will be implemented and with urgency,” she said.

“This should never, ever sit on the shelf, it’s got to stand for something.

“Do I want players going on the NHS (to get treatment for injuries)? No. Do I want players to be using bin bags for curtains? No I don’t.

“I understand there is going to be a lot of pushback, people saying that it’s a big investment piece, but that’s what is needed now.

“In 2011 when the WSL was launched, I bet the same conversations happened then (with people saying) ‘it’s a lot of money we’ve got to find’.

“Even I thought that at the time. But that has led us to this point, now we’re further along we need to get to the next point.”

An independent women’s soccer review was recommended in the 2021 fan-led review of soccer governance, and was commissioned by the UK government in September last year.

In all the 128-page report, formally titled ‘Raising The Bar: Reframing the opportunity in women’s football’, has produced ten recommendations, primarily focused on ensuring minimum standards are met on a range of areas.

There are some interesting details within it. For example, it calls for a new unit, funded by the FA, to research issues affecting female soccer players such as the greater prevalence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries among women compared to men.

It calls for a fully professionalised environment in the top two tiers of the women’s game, including the introduction of a minimum salary in the WSL by 2025/26 and an increase in contact time between clubs and players in the second-tier Championship from eight hours a week to 20 by 2027/28.

It also says there should be full union representation for all players in the top two divisions.

However, it rejected the idea of a US-style closed format for the top two tiers, something it said was being considered by an FA working group handling the transition of the WSL and Championship to ownership by a new company.

The review calls for a redirection of some of the men’s FA Cup prize pot of UK£20 million (US$26.1 million) as a solidarity contribution, in particular to help Women’s Championship clubs meet some of the minimum standards the review sets out.

It highlights a lack of investment in the talent pathways, with Carney pointing out the need to “kickstart” progress with a strategic partner.

Asked if that could include an organisation such as the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), she said that would be a decision for the new company which takes over ownership of the WSL and the Championship from 2024/25.

Carney accepted there were “pros and cons” of trying to seek an exemption for women’s soccer from the Saturday afternoon blackout period but added: “We need stakeholders to have an adult conversation and say ‘how can we help women’s football?’

“At the moment it’s really saturated, the time slots are not really working. I have to say the Premier League have been brilliant, and the EFL, everyone wants to help.”

The review also called on the FA to address a lack of diversity in the game, first by auditing the existing workforce and then by creating a workforce strategy.

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