Vinai Venkatesham, the chief executive of Arsenal, takes his responsibilities around the women’s team as seriously as for the men, and as a result, has become one of the most influential figures in the Women’s Super League. Why? He believes his club have a “responsibility” to help drive women’s football forward because of their “pioneering” role in the sport’s professional development.
In the 35 years since they were founded by their former women’s team manager and men’s team kit-man Vic Akers, the north London club have been by far England’s most successful women’s outfit, with 45 major trophies.
But Venkatesham has no intention of them resting on their laurels. At the same time his hopes for the success for the sport are not focused solely on Arsenal.
Venkatesham wants financial “sustainability” for the wider game to be the next big step. One of the criticisms of women’s football is that it relies on money from men’s club owners to make it viable, but the former oil trader does not believe that needs to be the case.
Arsenal are attempting to address that partly from the stands, playing at least six women’s games at the Emirates Stadium this season. That move has been rewarded with a record WSL crowd of 47,367 when they beat Tottenham 4-0 in September and a gate of 40,604 when they faced Manchester United on Saturday.
“This isn’t just about Arsenal – we want to play our part, but I said after we broke the record for the biggest WSL attendance, ‘I hope that record doesn’t last long’”, Venkatesham says.
“Obviously I’d love it if we break it again ourselves, but we want the success that we’re having at Arsenal to be replicated at other grounds because that’s good for the game.
“Long-term, I’m really excited about the future of women’s football. I think there’s a huge opportunity ahead. The WSL is on the right journey, getting more and more competitive, but we want to get to a point where lots of teams are investing heavily in women’s football and then you’ll have a very vibrant WSL.
“The reason I’m so excited now is it feels like, for so long, we have been really trying to push women’s football and it feels like we’re reaching that tipping point where everything we’ve been hoping for, everything we’ve wanted it to be, we can start seeing it.”
Speaking at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground in Hertfordshire in an exclusive and rare interview about the women’s game, Venkatesham’s passion for it is evident, as he eulogises about the performances he has watched at Borehamwood and the Emirates.
In the first part of the conversation – published exclusively by Telegraph Sport last Friday – Venkatesham revealed that his eventual aspiration was for the Emirates to become the permanent base of the women’s side.
“The long-term vision is for Emirates Stadium to be the home of Arsenal Women and the home of Arsenal men. It’s hard to put a time-line on it and it’s hard to know for sure if and how we’ll achieve it, but that has to be the vision.”
Such a step would be unprecedented from a “top six” men’s Premier League club.
But what does the future hold for the wider sport? “Where I would like the game to go within that time period [the next 10 years] is for it to become more financially sustainable, so we need to find a way to grow revenues and get revenues closer to costs,” he says.
“What we want is more teams investing in women’s football – we don’t want a league where you have one, two or three clubs that are dominating – you want a league where every given Saturday or Sunday, it’s competitive.
“After Covid, football clubs have been put in more challenging financial situations. At the moment, women’s football is a pretty significant investment, and by that I mean people are paying much more in costs than they’re able to recoup, and that is something that will put people off.
"So we need to find a way to demonstrate that we’re on the path to sustainability, because then it will encourage more people to invest and to get involved.”
He believes the impact of England’s Euros triumph at Wembley in July is already visible. “The players are becoming household names. We’re seeing greater audiences in the stadium, we’re seeing more commercial partners – we’ve just announced our second women’s-only commercial partner – so I really think it’s on the right trajectory.
"At games there’s a fantastic atmosphere and great sport on the pitch, so now people can start seeing it with their own eyes.”
The WSL’s domestic television rights deal, shared between the BBC and Sky Sports, is understood to be worth £7-8 million per year and runs until 2025, but expectations are that the fee could be significantly higher when the next deal kicks in, following the surge in audiences since the Lionesses’ first major trophy. But Venkatesham also wants the clubs to grow match-day revenue.
“You can see already more clubs investing in their training facilities, in their squads, so I think it’s coming. You’re seeing more and more clubs taking women’s football as seriously as we think they should be.”