This afternoon has seen the announcement that the FAWSL will transform into a winter league. After six seasons of summer football, the Football Association has decided on a move that will align the two top leagues with the FAWPL and the rest of the women’s football pyramid. This presents a massive change for the women’s game and requires proper handling for the repercussions to be minimised. While there are positives, there are also some clear questions that will need to be addressed to ensure progress continues within the sport. Here we look how it could benefit the game and what our reservations are around such a massive decision:
The main beneficiary from the move will be the National Team. With both major tournaments being played in the summer, we have had a regular conundrum every two years about how to manage scheduling. With players more involved with their clubs prior to tournaments, there is greater risk of injury (the list of injuries to the squad prior to Euro 2013 is notorious) and less time to come together as a squad. Will we see lengthy national team camps that have proven particularly beneficial to the Americans? However, it is perfectly valid to argue the opposite. Instead of coming off the back of a gruelling winter season, players in the FAWSL have plenty of match fitness under their belts to dive straight into tournament football. If you look at the last World Cup, there were incidents of injury to players of other nations who play throughout the winter, so the benefit may not be as obvious as it first seems. Another point would be that, given the relatively small number of teams in the FAWSL, many of the England players play together week in, week out anyway so that familiarity is there already.
Align the women’s football “pyramid”
Aligning the whole structure of women’s football will have had a huge part to play in this decision. With all leagues now playing at the same time, there can be a more streamlined approach to the women’s game. There have been problems in the past when the FAWPL has taken a back-seat to the top league and the division was amplified by the different playing time. It will also help the process of promotion, and hopefully eventually, relegation with the teams moving up no longer having to wait the best part of a year to play competitive football. This will only help, however, if the Football Association provide commitment (including financial support) to helping and pushing those clubs in the lower divisions get up to standard. Otherwise, there will be no difference, no matter when they play.
The Champions League has proven to be a massive problem for English clubs and their progression into the latter stages of the competition. When reaching the quarter- and semi-finals of the competition, more often than not they have come up against clubs (in particular German sides) at the peak of their abilities. With these fixtures played in March and April, English sides are effectively still in pre-season. It is a problem that has been raised every year and playing winter football will hopefully diminish some inequalities.
Stronger affiliation with men’s clubs and use of facilities
Clubs who are aligned to their men’s side could benefit from stronger affiliations between the two. A main problem with playing in the summer is that much of the men’s game has effectively shut down for the off-season break. With alignment in their playing times, they could benefit from increased branding and marketing as well as use of facilities. There is a massive caveat around this though – it is dependent on the men’s side, their sustainability and their willingness to commit to the cause. In the past, that dependency has proven flawed.
Pitches & Weather
When we first heard about this news, our initial reactions turned immediately to questioning how on earth the pitches would cope with the winter weather! Having witnessed massive problems over the last few years in the lower leagues, with a large proportion of games being postponed in January and February due to rain and snow, you cannot but worry that this will have a huge impact. At the moment, the standard of pitch in the FAWSL is not up to scratch. Unless everyone moves into a Manchester City style set-up (much like in Germany), there are going to be problems. There is an opportunity for double-headers with their respective men sides, which could work very well, but that would require an intense effort to align the fixtures of the respective leagues. It would also require a willingness on the men’s sides to make those pitches available.
Fixtures & Attendance
Another of our immediate reactions was around issues with scheduling and attendance. This will inevitably become clearer when the fixture list is released but there are some initial concerns that will need to be handled. How do you expect to draw crowds, if games are scheduled at the same time as the men’s matches? And when do you schedule games with weekends dominated by Premier League football and half the week taken up with Champions League? Is it expected that the majority will ditch Premier League football to bring their kids to the FAWSL? We are not so sure.
Another problem to add into the mix – any girl playing higher than junior football will be required to play their games on Sunday. At the moment, all the winter leagues play on Sunday at 2pm. As a result, it is easy to assume that this will be the case for the FAWSL and therefore, you would be making many fans of the game choose between playing and watching. Does that really promote development?
The women’s game has been increasing in media coverage over the past few years but it is still a struggle. You rarely see regular coverage in the back pages of the mainstream newspaper unless the national team are playing. With the shift to a winter season, the fight for column inches and TV space could be even harder when you are battling against the beast that is the Premier League. In the past, there have been incidences when BT Sport have been reluctant to cover games when men’s football is on (see the crazy decision to move forward Arsenal’s kick off against Chelsea this season). Will this mean that scheduling will get bumped to even more inconvenient times (e.g 6pm on a Sunday evening) or more weekday fixtures?
Is it an easy way out?
It has undoubtedly been a tricky year for the league. With no international tournament to provide impetus, attendances have struggled and interest has dropped off a little bit. But is that a reason to give up on summer football? Were there not other avenues to investigate before making that move? Have all the pros and cons really been weighed up for the best interests of the sport? Only time will tell but it is a big risk.
There are still lots of questions to be answered. We won’t really know until it all kicks off and we see where the chips fall. It is certainly an interesting move by the FA and we can only hope that the commitment to grow the women’s game is there. We’d love to know what you think of the new winter calendar.