x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The next big step for women's football

Women's football attracts fans and the best players in the United States. The sport has struggled in England but plans for a new Super League may just change that.

Kelly Smith playing for the Boston Breakers.
Kelly Smith playing for the Boston Breakers.

When Fabio Capello's England side began their World Cup campaign against the United States in South Africa on June 12, Kelly Smith and Alex Scott, two of England's finest female football exports, watched together in Boston, Massachusetts. It was an enjoyable experience, but understandably both players would have preferred to be on the field in Rustenburg dressed in pristine white, rather than being the only two women cheering on the opposition, amid an army of passionate American supporters.

Both players moved to America in February 2009 ahead of the start of the inaugural Women's Professional Soccer League (WPS), joining the Boston Breakers from English champions Arsenal Ladies. The WPS is the top tier of professional women's soccer stateside and was a direct replacement for the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which had folded in September 2003 after three seasons that saw it accumulate more than US$100 million (Dh367m) of debt.

As a professional club, the Breakers were able to offer Smith and Scott salaries unimaginable to that which was on offer in north London. But while both players have since conceded money is, naturally, a decisive factor, for the English duo the primary reason to cross the Atlantic was for a fresh challenge. Arsenal had achieved a domestic treble the previous year and for Smith at least, who was voted third at Fifa's Women's World Player of the Year awards, she felt trapped underneath English football's glass ceiling.

"The challenge wasn't there anymore," admits the 31-year-old Watford-born striker by phone from Massachusetts. "I had won everything there was to win at Arsenal, both individual awards and team collective awards, and it was a bit mundane and it probably was a bit too easy. "By moving to Boston and a league where I am up against the best players in the world, it represented a new challenge for me - and I'm the type of person who always wants to get challenged and play at the highest level."

Aside from the quadrennial Women's World Cup, the football scene in the US is undoubtedly the game's highest level for females. With some WPS matches being broadcast to more than 80 million homes courtesy of the league's sponsorship tie-up with Fox Sports' Soccer Channel, and all the sides in the seven-team championship being professional, independent entities, the interest in the ladies' football scene is of a far higher level than that of its English counterpart.

The FA Women's Premier League (WPL) averages a couple of hundred spectators each game, whereas, the weekly attendances at the Breakers' Harvard Stadium are around 5,000. Yet it is testament to the WPS organisers' vision that, according to Smith, the championship's "biggest challenge remains the spectators in the stands". "Attendances at the moment haven't been the best; I think they had hoped for a lot more. We average about 5,000, but sometimes we have managed only 3,500. Other teams maybe aren't doing so well; 2,000-2,500. I know that's a big problem," Smith said.

Before the collapse of the WUSA, Smith had played in the American championship for Philadelphia Chargers, where in 2001 she was named in the league's Global XI All-Star Team. The weekly attendances then were 7,000, similar to those of the England Ladies national team, of which Smith is captain. However, a series of serious injuries blighted her years as a professional in the US as a torn cruciate ligament in her right knee kept her out for the best part of two seasons.

Following the WUSA's disbandment, she broke her leg while playing for the New Jersey Wildcats in the W-League, the second highest division in the women's game in America. Since returning to the United States after five successful, silverware-laden years at Arsenal, Smith says the women's football scene in America has noticeably evolved and is quick to point out that even in the past 18 months she has seen developments as the WPS continues to grow.

"The game has obviously changed a lot since 2001 - it's nearly 10 years," she says, referring to her days in the WUSA with Philadelphia. "The standard has risen, the players are stronger, the [youth teams] are stronger, the game is a lot faster ... so it is just a whole level up really. Teams are more organised. Last year was obviously the first year of the new league and everything was new to everybody.

"It took us a while to adjust both on and off the field, but this year we all know how our teammates play and we have a better relationship with them, so definitely this year teams are more comfortable." Smith admits though that her Breakers commitments do not simply involve scoring goals; she is also central to helping the club grow as a franchise. Although the team were one of the eight sides in the original WUSA, having been forced to endure a six-year hiatus, the branding of the Boston outfit needed to start again from scratch, which has resulted in Smith and her teammates interacting with local residents and families as they try to build a faithful following.

"We get out into the community and try to let it be known that we have a team, a youth level and cups and try to improve the support," she explains. "In England, it's different because the main team is Arsenal [the men's side who compete in the English Premier League] and everybody knows about Arsenal, so all the attention goes there. For a new league being launched, a lot of people probably don't know it's there and so we do a lot of grassroots marketing."

It would appear then that by way of being an independent entity the Breakers can benefit from not being affiliated to any other side. Perhaps, if England's WPL wants to eventually challenge the United States for a share of the market, they could do worse than create individual and impartial sides not connected to men's teams? Smith, however, is unconvinced and instead gives her full backing to the English Football Association's decision to instead introduce a new Women's Super League.

Next summer, the FA will launch a top-tier semi-professional division separate from the WPL. Following a prolonged bidding process, the eight teams to compete - chosen from 16 applicants - are Arsenal Ladies, Everton, Liverpool LFC, Chelsea LFC, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Bristol Academy WFC, Birmingham City LFC and Lincoln Ladies. The FA dictates all Super League teams must have at least four professional, paid players in their squad earning a minimum of £20,000 (Dh116,000) and that each club must allocate £70,000 per year towards its upkeep: players' salaries, transport, accommodation, staff and developing the brand. The FA will, in turn, match each club's investment.

The league, unlike the WPL, which runs for nine months through winter, will run for six months through the summer. The theory is that, during June, July and August when there is less football to follow, fans may be more inclined to go watch the women's league. "I think that's the way forward for the women's game and the FA are addressing it by moving the league," says Smith. "It's a positive step."

Ian Watmore, the former FA Chief Executive, who resigned in March, came in for criticism last year after delaying the launch of the Super League, which was originally due to start this summer. An FA spokesman said at the time that the decision was a "prudent measure in the current global financial downturn", but many involved in the women's game viewed it as a direct insult. "If anybody wanted a clear indication of the FA's regard for women's football, this is it," Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation told The Guardian last April.

"They were looking at their budgets to see what they could cut and women's football was an easy option." Prior to his departure Watmore though was confident of the new league's potential. "[There] is a very strong indication that the vision we have of creating an elite League that will take our domestic game to a higher level is shared by many people within women's football," he said in a statement posted on the FA's website. "Our ambition is for The FA Women's Super League to be an exciting, competitive and commercially attractive product."

The FA was given a massive boost when ESPN, the American-owned global broadcaster, purchased the rights to televise the first four seasons of the Super League for an undisclosed fee, yet some clubs remained wary of the risk involved and opted not to apply for inclusion. Chris Crickitt, chairman of Watford Ladies - who play in the WPL - claimed his side could not justify the danger involved in guaranteeing £70,000 per season. Crickett estimated his club's current annual expense at "around £35,000".

"Hopefully the Super League captures the imaginations of the public, but all the teams involved are going to be working at a loss initially," he says. "Watford is a fairly sensible club with a little bit of debt, but nothing too serious long term and we have to ensure we continue to balance the books. We wouldn't want to give our men's club a bit of a hefty bill." Crickitt maintains his club will be watching eagerly to see how the Super League copes and remains adamant that Watford Ladies would be willing to make the move in two seasons time, if the possibility were to arise.

"I know the Super League wasn't the favoured option for many of the clubs, but if it is successful - and we truly hope it is - then teams can try and secure sponsorships and that will help balance the books. For us though, we are playing the waiting game. A lot of things will come out in the wash and a lot of it is just a case of 'wait and see'. That is what we are doing." The Super League, however, does not just face a fight to get men watching women's football though, says Crickitt.

Many women too need to develop a passion for watching the beautiful game. "Girls are sports players, but they are not sports watchers and that is a major problem," he says. "They love to play football, but when they go home they prefer to watch Eastenders or Coronation Street (English TV soap operas)." Smith, the England captain who was forced to watch her country flounder from a fan park in Boston, would beg to differ.

But then again, the forward who scored a stunning hat-trick against Holland in a World Cup qualifier and was afterwards labelled "the best player in the world," always has been a little different from the rest of England's women. @Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae