Women’s Football: The Next Big Thing
As is the case in many sports, the women’s game is on the rise. Since the establishment of fully professional leagues across the world, including the Women’s Super League in the UK in 2010 and the increasing popularity of the US national team, the game has changed dramatically.
These changes have created an exciting opportunity for football agents to venture into a different world that demands a slightly different approach to men’s football. Some agencies have established themselves with the sole focus of embracing the women’s game and a handful of women have entered the currently male-dominated field of football agency.
In this blog I will firstly detail the extent of the expansion that the women’s game has endured before exploring the attractiveness of the industry to football agents. I will finish the blog by outlining the continuing disparity with the men’s game and the issues this might cause for agencies, particularly those that only work in women’s football.
One of the key drivers for the rise in popularity and financial growth in women’s football is the improvement in governing body recognition. This has enabled the establishment of properly managed and marketable leagues that began to attract a wider fanbase as well as appealing to sponsors and broadcasting services.
An example that demonstrates how far women’s football has come is the Women’s Super League (WSL) in England which, since its establishment in 2010, has been fully professional and now includes 12 teams. The WSL now offer player salaries between £20,000-200,000 per year. Having an entirely professional league consequently improves the overall standard of football and improves the game in its entirety. Even the league below, the Women’s Championship, is mostly professional with only a handful of players at the lower end needing supplementary jobs for income.
Part of the professionalism of the women’s game extends to the football clubs as well as the players. Teams now employ full-time and several coaching staff, medical teams and background staff as well as investing in better infrastructure and facilities. The improvement in the standard of women’s football is reflected by the increasing attendances at games and the growing number of sponsors investing into the sport.
In 2019, the WSL signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the British bank Barclays that has been valued at around £10million, including a £500,000 prize money pool for the league champions. BT Sport and the BBC have also taken on broadcasting duties and have played a role in extending the reach of women’s football to wider, global audiences. Selected games are now shown in over 12 countries and BT Sport pledged to show games in over 1000 pubs in England. Wider external investment has boomed. Companies can see the growing popularity in women’s football and see an opportunity to boost their visibility to the market whilst identify a chance to improve the company’s claim of inclusivity, diversity and equality. Women’s football has become very appealing to the innovative brand marketing strategies used by big sports sponsors.
The external and internal investment in marketing, sponsorship, commercialisation and promoting the women’s game has paid dividends. Since 2017, the average attendance of top-level women’s football games have tripled to around 3000 with the big names attracting far more. Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona attracted a crowd of 60,000 to set a new attendance record for the women’s game. The impact has also been seen on a global level with the 2019 Women’s world cup final recording global viewing figures of 11.7million – this is a monumental increase from the 1.7million who watched the 2011 version! FIFA also doubled the prize money for the competition to $60million in recognition of the increased financial viability of the game.
Viewing and attendance figures are also an interesting reflection on how the women’s game has improved. The UK is different in that 60% of crowds are men at women’s game whilst in the US the gender split is even and in Europe it is mostly female. The growth of women’s football and the status and popularity of the players has had a profound ‘role-model’ impact on young girls and women globally. This can only benefit the sport in years to come as more and more females become involved in football and help grow the game further.
What All of This Means for Agents
In 2020, the Danish forward, Pernille Harder, broke the world transfer record for a woman with her £200,000 transfer to Chelsea. Salaries are also ever-increasing and provides an exciting prospect for agents. Women’s football is still viewed as a growing and developing entity. It’s an industry that could offer lucrative rewards for football agents as it continues to expand. Beyond the money, it is also providing an exhilarating challenge to agents. The role of an agent in women’s football requires a slightly different skillset and application to the men’s game.
Agents venturing into women’s football must provide a full 360°, holistic service to their clients. Their responsibilities go far beyond just negotiating a football contract. The branding and marketing of a client is absolutely imperative. The agent must be able to utilize their client’s commercial potential and help them create a marketable ‘identity’. This varies from finding a suitable sponsorship path such as with clothing brands or big boot deals. Most importantly, the agent needs to make their clients self-aware about their status as role models for young girls and women.
The current generation of women’s footballers and the ones to come are technically and media-savvy. Social media has enabled them to directly access fans and brands to leverage themselves above purely being just a footballer. Agents have an important role to play in guiding their commercial success and properly utilizing the digital age. Any agents venturing into the women’s football market should have an effective understanding of the power of social media and how to grow the presence of their client to generate sponsorships, media publicity, revenue and to create a personal, globally-appealing identity.
An example of how a female footballer can do this is epitomized by the US forward Alex Morgan. Alongside her agent, she has established partnerships and contracts with more than a dozen corporate business partners and sponsors including global industry powerhouses Coca-Cola, Nike and Volkswagen and amassing an annual income of several million dollars. It is important to note that her salary from football alone is a fraction of her overall income at $460,000. Agents must understand that their clients, whilst it is important that they are successful on the pitch, utilize this position to generate additional income streams as there is greater opportunity and money beyond just the football.
I have explained that the women’s game has experienced significant growth in popularity which is coupled with a rise in external investment, player wages, sponsorships and broadcasting. However, there is still an enormous gulf and disparity between women’s and men’s football. WSL players earning an average of £30,000 per year is an encouraging rise and now fully professional but is completely overawed by the £3million average wages for a Premier League footballer. Other statistics such as attendances and record transfer fees are also belittled by the men’s game. There is a long way to go in the women’s market being as attractive of an option to agents as the men’s game.
Better player care, increased publicity, improved infrastructure and pioneering marketing will all help women’s football grow but a key aspect that agents might be able to influence is the contract system that is in place. Currently, one-year contracts are a popular approach amongst professional women’s squads. This is because there is a lot of, and regular, change in personnel at clubs and players are often moved season by season. This poses a problem. If a player is only contracted for a year, then there is no reason for a club to pay a large transfer fee to bring her to their club. Instead, they can wait until they are out of contract at the end of the season and sign them on a free.
If this does not change then it is less likely that agents will be needed as much as they are in men’s football. It should be an aim to change this standard of contracts and make longer-term contracts more regularly used. This will mean there is greater financial security in women’s football and agents have a role to play in this. Once the football side of things is improved there will also be a greater scope to utilize the off-pitch business which offers such an attractive supplementary income for female footballers.
In conclusion, women’s football is rapidly growing. It is a market that will continue to increase in popularity and attractiveness to football fans, sponsors, broadcasters, investors, media and on a global scale. For agents it’s an exciting industry for them to challenge themselves and their skillsets and apply them in a slightly different way to optimize the on and off-field potential of their clients.
However, in the near future its seems that there will remain huge disparities in the financial positioning of the women’s and men’s game. This means that it will be a secondary option for agents that are already established in men’s football. For those agencies who venture into the market with the sole focus on women’s football, they may be challenged in generating enough revenue to make it a viable option.