Gamechanger can be a little overused, but in the case of Barclays’ eight-figure sponsorship deal over three years of the FA Women’s Super League that is literally what it is.
At Bacon’s College, where the announcement was made with the glistening towers of Canary Wharf in the background, there was a buzz on the artificial turf. The Arsenal and England legend Kelly Smith was posing for photographs and training with a group of girls in freshly branded bibs. The college is one of 6,000 schools that will benefit from a Barclays deal that includes lead sponsorship of the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships programme.
After a week of big commercial announcements in the women’s game this one trumps the lot. The deal, understood to be worth more than £10m, has broken through the staid line that sponsorship of women’s sport is the cheap option that makes your brand look good. Now women’s football is a big-bucks business.
“We always compare it to men’s football and it’s a tough comparison,” the FA’s director of participation, Kelly Simmons, said. “But if you compare it to other women’s sports and leagues it’s a deal which stands out.”
Many still think of the Premier League as the Barclays Premier League or, as Simmons points out, will refer to the Vauxhall Conference, which is no longer sponsored by Vauxhall or called the Conference.
Branding can stick. From the FA’s perspective Barclays has the credibility to help boost gates. “It’s not just about the cash,” Simmons said, “though the cash is great – we’ve gone from no prize fund to half a million. But it’s about their investment and their reach in terms of raising the profile of the WSL.
“We’ve got to get more fans and grow revenue because that is what will protect the Women’s Super League as a professional league. The power, credibility and reach of their brand will really help to build our fan base.”
Behind the glamour and obvious benefits of this deal, though, there are risks. The league will likely be lifted even further ahead of the semi-professional Championship, financially and in terms of on-pitch development, making it crucial to secure sponsorship for the leagues below.
“It’s a big priority now, finding investment in the Championship,” Simmons said. “It’s really important that clubs are able to come up.”
There is an argument that a fraction of the new £500,000 prize fund per season be used for parachute payments to ease the transition down.
There will be casualties. Yeovil, who get some of the best attendances in the WSL, could – as revealed by the BBC – collapse because of financial concerns.
If they continue it would likely be with part-time status. Off-field staff have been cut and it is understood the FA has brought forward a payment to help them reach the end of the season.
They could join a long list of teams – Notts County, Sunderland, Oxford United, Doncaster Rovers Belles, to name a few – that have fallen by the wayside, either unable or unwilling to meet the ambitious criteria required as the FA’s drive to professionalism has steamed ahead.
Losing clubs is not ideal, and whether more could have been done to prevent the demotions or liquidations is a difficult question to answer.
What this deal does, though, as well as provide more financial stability to clubs and the grassroots, is take the top WSL sides closer to the levels of investment afforded to the very best big European sides by their parent clubs. It gives WSL teams the capital and profile to recruit top European talent and retain it, and hopefully we will start to see the remaining gap between clubs such as Lyon and Wolfsburg and WSL sides close.
The next big step will be securing fresh TV rights. The FA is tied into a low deal with BT Sport until 2020, yet this is the area where the men’s clubs and Premier League reap their biggest rewards.
For the women’s game broadcast deals are about more than the money; there is a real desire, from clubs and players, to get matches on free-to-air TV to help boost the game’s profile.
After Smith’s kickaround with the students she said she did not resent the progress being made now she has retired. “Pretty much my whole career, definitely in the latter part of it, you want a big sponsor to come on board,” Smith said. “It’s happened now. It didn’t happen in my time but I’m not bitter or jealous about it.
“The game is in such a good, healthy place. They want to grow the women’s game, they want to grow grassroots and get girls interested, and getting girls those opportunities is what matters to me.”