The FA Gameplan for Growth - The Development and Growth of the Women's Professional Game
Throughout May and June, The FA reviewed the impact of The Gameplan for Growth strategy across six key elements of the women’s and girls’ game.
Launched in March 2017, the strategy pledged to tackle ambitious targets to double participation, double the game’s fanbase and create a high-performance system and world-class talent pipeline for England teams to achieve consistent success on the world stage.
After four seasons the strategy is now concluding, and The FA will outline its continued support for the women’s and girls’ game with the launch of the 2020-24 vision in the coming months.
In this review, we look at The Gameplan for Growth’s journey to grow and develop the women’s professional game on and off the pitch.
Please find below the achievements, first-person narratives from Kelly Simmons [The FA’s Women’s Professional Game Director] and David Faulkner [The FA’s Head of Women’s Performance].
Performance & Governance:
- The creation of a 12 team, fully professional top flight league
- The establishment of a semi-professional tier 2 FA Women’s Championship
- Restructure of the competition pyramid, moving to a winter season with improved scheduling
- A high-performance system to drive league standards and support England teams
- Enhanced licensing criteria across the Barclays FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship to improve performance on and off the pitch
- The introduction of an FA Women’s Super League & FA Women’s Championship Board, with senior club representation to drive the strategic growth and development of the leagues
- Barclays’ multi-million-pound title partnership of the FA Women’s Super League, the biggest ever investment in UK women’s sport by a brand
- A new brand identity across the Barclays FA Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship, FA Women’s National Leagues and the FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup
- Continental Tyres renewal as title partner to the FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup
- A new partnership with Mitre to become the Official Football Supplier across the Barclays FA Women’s Super League, FA Women’s Championship and Women’s FA Cup
- Disney, BT and Deliveroo securing Women’s FA Cup rights
- Introduction of a £500k prize-fund in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League
- Establishing Commercial Committees for the Barclays FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship to help achieve increased financial sustainability for the leagues and clubs
- Average attendance of 3,072 in the Barclays FA Women’s Super League in 2019-20
- 174% increase in attendance at Barclays FA Women’s Super League games from 2016 to 2019-20
- A record Barclays FA Women’s Super League crowd of 38,262 for Tottenham Hotspur vs Arsenal in November 2019
- 257% increase in the number of domestic games broadcast from 2016 to 2019-20
- Televised peak audiences for Barclays FA Women’s Super League up by 231% from 2016 to 2019-20
- A league peak television audience of 270,000 for Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur in September 2019
- Record peak television audience of 2.2m on BBC One for the 2019 Women’s FA Cup Final
- Record Women’s FA Cup Final attendance of 45,423 in May 2018
- Record FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup crowd of 6,743 in February 2020
- The creation of The FA Player with nearly 100,000 subscribers in the first season and allowing every Barclays FA Women’s Super League to be shown live
- FA Player subscribers from over 150 countries
- Four international Barclays FA Women’s Super League broadcast deals in Mexico & Central America, Scandinavia, Australia and Israel for the 2019-20 season
“I describe my journey to a career in football as a bit of an accident. I’ve always been a football obsessive, but it was never my life plan to dedicate a career to the game. To be honest, I didn’t think a career in football existed for a female. One of the big driving forces behind the career I have forged is that I wasn’t allowed to play football at school.
That’s why I’m so passionate about helping to leave a legacy for this generation to have many more opportunities than I had. Now it is a fantastic industry for a female to work in, whether you want to be a professional player, coach, referee, lawyer, marketeer; there’s plenty of different options available. The fully professional Barclays FA Women’s Super League [WSL] is a prime example of that, you have more and more women in roles on and off the pitch, and it’s absolutely brilliant to see. We need to champion and encourage that.
I’d enjoyed a variety of roles at The FA before I took my current role as Women’s Professional Game Director in September 2018. My remit is to help transform the women’s pyramid and deliver professional women’s football in England. As well as the Barclays FA WSL, the role includes the FA Women’s Championship, The FA Women’s National Leagues and the Women’s FA Cup and Continental Tyres League Cup.
My role coincided with the landmark first season of a fully professional FA WSL in 2018-19, seven years after its creation in 2011. I was in no doubt the role was a big challenge, but a very exciting one.
Our ambitions are big. No women’s sport has yet broken through and competed with men’s sports and leagues. But I genuinely believe that our leagues can be the catalyst for women’s sport breaking into the mainstream, getting domestic exposure week in, week out. With that comes transformational change; new fans, increased revenue and the world’s best players. We want the Barclays FA WSL to be the world’s most successful league, on and off the pitch.
For that vision to be achieved, we needed to work more closely than ever with the clubs. In the short-term we needed to help guide the clubs from a semi-professional to professional environment.
The increased expectations, standards and criteria meant it was a big leap for many, but one that they collectively saw the importance of taking. I don’t think I am overstating it when I say that going fully professional was probably the biggest decision in the history of the domestic game and will be fundamental in shaping its future. I’m very proud on how far we’ve come in two seasons. The longterm future of the league needs to be shaped by the clubs and we are working closely to do that.
The introduction of the joint FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship Board gives the clubs greater representation and ownership of the future professional game strategy and policy decisions. Shaped by the Board’s commercial and football expertise, the professional game strategy will be launched early next season and will outline the long-term plan to grow audiences and revenue to achieve commercial sustainability for the leagues and the clubs.
One of my first objectives in the role was to secure a title partner for the league.
The word ‘gamechanger’ is probably over used, but the record multi-million-pound deal with Barclays was exactly that. The biggest ever investment in UK women’s sport by a brand was a statement of intent and demonstrated that Barclays shared our vision to transform the future of women’s football, of equal access to football for girls and the dream of being a professional footballer. I’d also like to put on record my gratitude to Continental Tyres who continued their 10-year association with women’s football, when they renewed their title partnership for The FA Women’s Continental Tyres League
We were also delighted to welcome Mitre, who joined us on the journey when they became the leagues and cups’ Official Football Supplier. Title partners for The FA Women’s Championship and the Women’s FA Cup still remain a priority.
We want to make sure professional women’s football is on solid foundations for the future, supporting the clubs to get more of their own revenue streams, being sustainable and removing the reliance on investment from men’s club grants so it can wash its own face and thrive. The introduction of Commercial Committees for each league will be key and will help us develop a bespoke commercial strategy for both the league and the participating clubs.
Last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup was a big moment in the league’s development. The Semi-Final was the second most-watched sporting fixture on TV in 2019 – that’s remarkable and shows how far we’ve come to break down the cultural barriers. Millions of people had declared their interest in women’s football and thanks to some excellent marketing and the support of our broadcast partners, for the first-time we have managed to hold onto a major event’s coattails and convert that interest into the domestic game. Games at Anfield, The Etihad Stadium, The London Stadium, Stamford Bridge and The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this season shows how far we have come in a relatively short space of time. If you told me when I took the job that within two years I’d be watching a league fixture with over 38,000 other fans at one of the best stadiums in the world – I’d have dismissed it as wishful thinking.
Although the main stadia have attracted the headlines, it’s important to note that there’s been an increase in attendances week in, week out. The use of main stadia fits in with our strategy of making big games bigger, but long-term we know many of the regular ‘home’ stadia need to represent the growth of the game. Everton’s move to Walton Hall Park, is a good example. Just a 15-minute walk from Goodison Park, it provides them with a permanent home and will enable them to capitalise on their catchment area to drive attendances and interest.
Our focus hasn’t just been on match attendance. When I speak to fans of the league, The FA Player is a reoccurring conversation. Free to download, the dedicated mobile app provides live access to over
150 domestic football fixtures. Our research showed that fans were struggling to find women’s football and there was an appetite to consume the game beyond traditional channels. Nearly 100,000 subscribers in year one demonstrates its potential and it will remain a crucial tool in building our fanbase at home and abroad.
The FA Player has given us the opportunity to shine a light on the FA Women’s Championship, with a weekly fixture. We don’t want to accidently create a closed league with too big a gap between the two divisions, so it is vital we support the second tier clubs to grow their audience, attendances and revenue. The standard of the FA Women’s Championship is higher than ever and after securing promotion it was no surprise to see Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur flourish in their first-ever top flight seasons. We are all really looking forward to welcoming Aston Villa next season.
We remain indebted to our broadcast partners BT Sport and the BBC for their continued commitment to grow the game. More domestic games are now being broadcast than ever and TV audiences continue to rise. We’re also starting to produce revenue from global TV rights and we’ve secured four international Barclays FA WSL broadcast deals in Mexico & Central America, Scandinavia, Australia and Israel for the 2019-20 season, with a plan in place to increase this further.Recent months have been a challenging time for football and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions, decisions that would have been completely unforeseen at the start of the season. Despite the curtailment, it is important to remember we’re on a journey and we are going from strength to strength both on and off the pitch. The circumstances don’t alter our total commitment to growing the game and the leagues. The early curtailment allows us more time to plan to come back bigger and better in 2020/21 and we will ensure this momentum continues. We’re planning to start the new season on the weekend of 5/6 September and we’ll be back with leagues that you can be proud of.”
“My arrival at The FA coincided with the launch of The Gameplan for Growth. I joined from Millfield where I was Director of Sport and before that I was Performance Director for England and Great Britain Hockey from 2005 to 2012 attending multiple Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
My role focuses on supporting the performance and workforce development of the Barclays FA WSL and FA Women’s Championship clubs, aspiring to create the best league in the world and supporting England players to achieve their full potential. An international player spends approximately 75% of their time with their club, so creating the right environment for both club and country is paramount for their continued development. We work closely with the clubs, providing strategic leadership to enhance the professionalism of their performance services and day-to-day environments.
As Kelly alluded to, the move to a fully professional Barclays FA WSL and the increased licensing criteria for both leagues saw the clubs commit to increasing standards in every area of performance.
From a performance perspective, there needed to be enhanced medical, physical, welfare, education, psychology and social support and a multi-disciplinary [MDT] approach to player and team development at each club. That involves a lot of people and a lot of hard work and the clubs have been hugely impressive in the way they’ve risen to the challenge and progressed season on season. This is a collective journey.
The first key task was to use an evaluation tool from the English Institute of Sport to independently assess all aspects of every Barclays FA WSL club’s performance and their sports medicine services.
This gave us a benchmark against other performance sports, as well as across the league and allowed us to create bespoke individual support and review programmes for each club. From day one we encouraged MDT practice and delivery in clubs, mirroring international performance sport best practice. This has ensured that key performance personnel within the club – Head Coach, doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists, strength & conditioning coaches, nutritionists and others – are collaborating and working to one strategy and common objectives in support of the club’s philosophy and approach.
We are fully committed to the continuous personal development of the Barclays FA WSL and FA Women’s Championship workforce and are regularly connected to the MDTs at all clubs. We host conferences at least three times a year with FA and external speakers and regular webinars and seminars are tailored to individual areas such as MDT development and support of a head coach’s philosophy, physical movement and the physical development of a young female footballer.
Relationships between the England teams and the clubs remain paramount to supporting all potential international players and achieving the common goal of aiding their individual development. Establishing the Women’s Performance System [WPS] confidential medical note system was key here. This links England performance teams from Seniors to Development, with tier 1 and 2 clubs and ensures regular two-way conversations about the progress and development of players, both when they are in camp and with their clubs. The WPS provides live medical tracking of every player, which has been key to better manage injuries and aid rehabilitation.
Key to the long-term reduction of injury is in-depth research into the physical demands of the women’s game. We need to understand the trends and the prevalence of particular injuries compared to others. We have commissioned PHD research projects including:
- How does growth, maturation and athletic ability affect injury prevalence and incidents prevalence?
- How athletically prepared are female footballers to cope with the demands of Barclays FAWSL football?
Alongside the research, we have and are continuing to conduct injury surveillance to better inform our findings in this area. Most recently we have formed The FA women’s football scientific advisory group to look at the depth and breadth of research carried out on the women’s game, to better inform player support and development.
Better support for our next generation of players is assured in collaboration with Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme [TASS]. This provides support services to WSL academies, covering performance, lifestyle, physiotherapy, physical preparation and medical insurance. For players not at WSL academies, physical preparation and physiotherapy is provided at their nearest TASS delivery centre.
This also aligns with our dual career strategy with Barclays FA WSL and FA Women’s Championship clubs working collaboratively with their nearest Higher Education establishment and has already shown benefits in supporting their education in parallel with their football aspirations.
This vision to make the Barclays FA WSL the best league in the world is very real and I genuinely believe from a performance perspective, we are on track together with the clubs. We’ve made huge strides, particularly in the last two seasons, but there’s no time for complacency – the game continues to evolve and the standards are higher than they have ever been. We cannot sit still, we need to be nimble and adapt our processes. Two-way collaboration and conversation between club and country is vital and we continue to listen and learn from their experiences. If we get this right, we’ll be reaping the rewards in domestic and international football for many years to come.”