Arsenal and Chelsea success points to uncomfortable truth after WSL relegation confirmed

Chelsea could win a fifth consecutive WSL title this term

It had looked inevitable for some time and yet it was hard not to feel despondent when Bristol City's relegation from the Women's Super League (WSL) was finally confirmed on Sunday evening.

The Robins' fate was sealed with a 4-0 defeat to title-chasing Manchester City but, while the result was no surprise, the hosts' spirited showing at Ashton Gate showed precisely why so many avid watchers of the WSL will be sad to see them return to the second tier next season. "It has always been a mountain to climb," manager Lauren Smith told Sky Sports after the game.

"Some of the performances we have been very proud of but haven't got the results." That, in a nutshell, has been Bristol City's problem this term.

They have often been adept at staying in games - they managed to shut out the league leaders for the best part of an hour at the weekend - but have often lacked the nous and quality to get over the line. They have won just one game all season, losing all 10 of their home fixtures, and are on course to record the lowest points tally from a 22-game campaign.

They have undeniably struggled to build on the promising performances that helped propel them back to the big time last term. But it seems that, in many ways, Smith's side are a casualty of the game's growing success.

Their relegation, coupled with Crystal Palace's promotion from the Championship, means next season will be the first time all 12 teams competing in the WSL are backed by Premier League clubs. The spending power of behemoths like Arsenal and Chelsea is starting to tell, leaving less well-heeled sides facing an uphill battle to succeed in the top flight.

READ MORE: Emma Hayes denied fairytale ending but Champions League sell-out points to lasting legacy

READ MORE: Emma Hayes says Chelsea were 'robbed' by 'worst decision in Champions League history' against Barcelona

Next season will be the start of a brave new dawn for women's football in England, with NewCo - a newly-devised company headed by former Nike executive Nikki Doucet - set to take over from the Football Association (FA) as governor of the top two divisions.

The independent club-led body is designed to catapult the profile of the WSL and Women's Championship into another stratosphere. And yet, with a reported 75%‑25% revenue split having been agreed between the two leagues, it feels more improbable than ever that clubs outside of Europe's elite will get their moment in the sun.

Bristol City - one of the WSL's founding members under the guise of Bristol Academy - have earned plenty of plaudits for the way they have operated in recent years. A crowd of 8,749 watched Sunday's defeat to Manchester City, with the Robins currently boasting the fifth highest average home attendance in WSL (7,260).

Considering they are only one of two teams team in the league without the support of a flush Premier League sibling, that is a mightily impressive feat and one that owes a lot to the club's commitment to playing every home game at Ashton Gate, home of the men's team for more than a century.

"I think it's unbelievable the numbers that are coming out," Smith told BBC Sport. "They've been brilliant, the numbers that have got behind us. We're just incredibly proud of those things."

Bristol City were relegated from the WSL on Sunday
Bristol City were relegated from the WSL on Sunday -Credit:Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images

But doing things the 'right' way does not always produce the desired outcome. The Robins more than doubled their revenue from £368k to £796k last season and yet they are still in a different financial realm to the WSL's big-hitters.

Arsenal, for example, reported €5.3m in revenue for the 2022/23 campaign while Chelsea, who won a fourth consecutive league title last term, generated revenues of €4.1m. Even Tottenham Hotspur, who spent much of last season attempting to avoid relegation, brought in an approximate €2.6m.

All three of those outfits have shown a willingness to spend big in the transfer market over the past few seasons - a luxury clubs like Bristol City or Reading, who were relegated last season after eight consecutive campaigns in the WSL, simply cannot afford.

As the game's juggernauts wake up to the potential profitability of the women's game, the arms race to the top is becoming increasingly ferocious. With the exception of Aston Villa, who are flying high under Unai Emery, all of the Premier League's top six find their corresponding women's team currently residing in the top half of the WSL table. It is a reality that is likely to become increasingly common in the years ahead.

And the financial revolution at the top of the tree also has reverberations further down the pyramid. Newcastle United, for example, have just won their second-consecutive promotion and will compete in the Women's Championship next season.

Becky Langley's side were officially brought under the club's umbrella in 2022 and, with the backing of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), were able to turn fully professional in the summer of 2023.

It is refreshing to see a club invest in its women's team so aggressively and yet Newcastle's rise also poses the game with a moral dilemma. Putting to the side allegations of Saudi sportswashing, the Magpies' financial might has made it impossible for clubs in the third and fourth tier to compete.

You wouldn't bet against them romping to the second-tier title next season and, with no financial fair play or meaningful spending caps in the women's game, it surely won't be long before they are competing for a seat at Europe's top table. For clubs like West Ham United and Leicester City, who have spent the past two seasons in dangerous proximity to the relegation zone, there is a danger that doing just enough will no longer be enough to ensure survival.

For Bristol City, WSL relegation is nothing new. Sunday marked the third time they have been exiled to the second tier since 2011 and, with manager Smith staying on board, they will back themselves to be battling for promotion again next term.

There is, of course, every chance they will be successful. But, with next season marking the start of a significant new chapter in WSL history, it is hard to escape the feeling that realising that dream is about to get an awful lot harder.