A decision by the BBC and Sky to invest £8m a year in the Women’s Super League puts the sport on a far stronger footing
Last modified on Tue 23 Mar 2021 20.08 GMT
In one sense it’s been a long time coming. Advocates of women’s football in England spent most of the last decade pushing for broadcasters and the Football Association to take the game more seriously. Nearly £20m of sponsorship investment by Barclays was a breakthrough. But regular attendances at matches have never taken off in the way that enthusiasts hoped, and longstanding clubs including the Doncaster Belles fell by the wayside when they were relegated.
Big television audiences and unprecedented levels of interest, particularly in the winning US team, ensured that the 2019 World Cup was heralded as a turning point. But the arrival of the pandemic meant that progress was checked. This week’s announcement of a £24m investment in women’s football over three years, by the BBC and Sky Sports, is the culmination of a process that has taken years. But the sheer difficulty of current circumstances, including the unfairness of pandemic rules that have seen girls’ football stopped while boys’ has continued, means that it has also come as a shock.

Starting with the 2021-22 season, women’s football will be much more prominent, with 44 live games on Sky channels and 18 on BBC One and BBC Two. Beyond these scheduling facts, what sort of change should the money be expected to bring? Facile comparisons with the men’s game are generally unhelpful: men’s football developed into its current form over many decades, and in parallel over different continents. In England, by contrast, women’s football was hardly played at all for almost half a century after 1921, when it was banned by the FA on the spurious grounds that it was harmful to female bodies. In schools, playgrounds and attitudes, there is much catching up to be done.
But at last, the women’s game will have the chance to stand on its own feet. Under the terms of this deal, described as the biggest for any women’s football league in the world, the rights are decoupled for the first time from the rights to Premier League matches. Promises from broadcasters and officials to invest in marketing, commentary and what the FA’s Kathryn Swarbrick described as “story-telling around the WSL”, mean the clubs – and not just the top few – are guaranteed a powerful helping hand.
For the moment, any benefits for grassroots women’s and girls’ teams will be limited to improved status and visibility. With new funding flowing to the top two tiers, this is a boost from the top down. But the boldness of the deal-makers, including the FA’s Kelly Simmons and the director of BBC Sport, Barbara Slater, should not be underestimated. This is a huge decision, the aim of which is to transform women’s football and narrow the gap dividing the opportunities on offer to male and female players. In Mexico, Monday night became women’s football night. Regular TV slots for English women’s league games are still being agreed. Viewers and players have much to look forward to.


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