Premier League's £3 million investment to transform women's football pyramid

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Newcastle United celebrated a record-breaking crowd at St James' Park this FA WNL season (Picture: Richard Callis/SPP)
Newcastle United celebrated a record-breaking crowd at St James' Park this FA WNL season (Picture: Richard Callis/SPP)

By Rachel Steinberg

A £3 million boost from the Premier League is set to transform the women’s football pyramid.

The English men’s top-flight will allocate £1m per season to the FA Women’s National League (FA WNL), steps three and four of the women’s domestic game, to support its new strategy launched on Tuesday.

The Women’s National League has also submitted a formal request to the Women’s Football Board to add an additional promotion place, which could see two sides granted a Championship berth as early as next season if approved.

FA WNL Management Committee Chair Carol West hopes the success of Saturday's Championship play-off can at least kick-start the conversation.

“To stifle progression is contradictory to what the strategies are there to do, to try and push forward,” West said.

“Obviously that depends on whether the WSL and Championship board and clubs will go for that. So hopefully the success of the weekend[’s final] is that sort of catalyst for that launch of the strategy, to push forward with that, and obviously a catalyst for change in recognising that one down from tier two to tier three just isn’t [enough].

“It’s grossly unfair, and contradictory to the strategy and what we’re trying to achieve.

“I’ve pointed out that it’s not healthy for the game. Clubs go into a new season in tier three knowing that they’ve got a minimal chance of getting promoted, even if they finish as champions.

"I don’t think it’s healthy for the game at tier two for clubs to go into the season knowing there’s minimum jeopardy, and all they’ve got to do is be the second-worst team to avoid relegation.”

Saturday’s play-off at Stockport County's Edgeley Park was ultimately won by second tier-bound Southampton FC, coached by ex-England international Marieanne Spacey-Cale, who won 91 caps for England.

The Southern Premier Division side won 22 of 26 games this season while their opponents, Wolverhampton Wanderers, won 18 of 24 in the Northern Premier Division.

The play-off, broadcast on BBC platforms for the first time in league history, sparked impassioned calls on social media for pyramid reform at the end of a season that West agreed was unlike any other.

“It was the biggest weekend for the league in years,” she said. “Sky Sports was there. The media box was full. We got several radio stations covering it as well. There was a huge amount of media attention and rightly so.”

The Premier League investment will support every strand of the eight-pillar strategy, with proposed initiatives ranging from coach education to hiring consultants to work in specific areas, offering tailored support in a six-division league, with an additional five-division reserves section, that varies wildly.

Some sides, like Wolves and tier-four Newcastle United – who saw a season domestic women’s club league record 20,241 fans turn out to their first match at St James’ Park earlier this month – are affiliated with big-name clubs, while others operate independently.

The National League doesn’t see any of the sponsorship or broadcast deal money from what is thought to be a £24 million agreement on Sky Sports and the BBC, with WSL sponsor Barclays also coming on as the first title sponsor for the Championship next season.

It’s why West is so fond of FA Director of Women’s Football Baroness Sue Campbell’s analogy - 'making sure that the head doesn’t leave the body’ - in terms of tiers one and two and the rest of football as the women’s game continues to grow.

“It’s really important that we can make sure that our clubs are promotion-ready, that we can support them," she said.

"Once you focus on that promotion to the professional game, the club involves into an entity that has to operate on a commercial and professional footing, whereas amateur clubs don’t need to do that.

“There’s a lot of work to do around that, which is why the Premier League money is so vital.

“Without the funding, the strategy would mean nothing. We are a big league, and we’ve got to squeeze every penny out of that million pounds per year.”

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