England’s WSL – Women’s Super League – has risen to become one of the top women’s competitions in the world. With big-name clubs, and an ever-improving roster of players, the WSL continues to evolve. The 2022/23 season has seen two English sides, Arsenal and Chelsea, reach the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

The WSL, a successor to the FA Women’s Premier League National Division, kicked off in 2011. Since then, it has grown, from the eight original clubs to twelve from 2019 onwards. From 2018, the league has been fully professional. The year 2013 saw the introduction of promotion and relegation with the WSL 2 (now known as the FA Women’s Championship). And in 2017, the league moved to the traditional Fall-Spring calendar. As the structure has shaped up and come into focus, the quality has as well.

Moving in the opposite direction?

Women’s soccer in England has made strides in working to recreate the wildly successful men’s pyramid, but is the WSL still headed on the right path moving forward? Recent reports have key league figures debating the idea of scrapping relegation. Perhaps not coincidentally, one proponent is Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy. The Spurs women’s side currently find themselves in a battle to avoid relegation. Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, who coached the Chicago Red Stars in WPS from 2008-2010, has also floated the idea. Chelsea are six-time WSL champions, have a shot at a seventh (and fourth in a row) this spring, and would seem to be unlikely candidates for relegation anytime soon.

Not everyone is pleased with the potential closing-up of the top tier, however. Maggie Murphy, chief exec of Lewes FC (who play in the Championship), is quoted as saying “We’re basically deciding [by closing off the competition] that English club football in this country is going to contract into a very small number of spaces.” Two thirds of the clubs currently in the WSL are based in either London, Manchester, or Birmingham. And most clubs in the top two women’s tiers are affiliated with a men’s Premier League or Championship side.

Levy’s theory is that clubs would invest more in their women’s sides if there was no threat of relegation. But the opposing view is that it would severely hurt investment in the women’s game overall. There would be little incentive to invest and improve clubs outside the top tier if there is no chance at promotion.

Inspiration from the US?

An impending separation between the Football Association and the WSL is on the horizon. As the league becomes an independent entity, anything is possible.

It could continue on the path it has forged so far. Building out the pyramid, and working together with the entirety of the English women’s soccer ecosystem. Or the current elite could close themselves off, becoming gatekeepers to the highest level of the sport.

There is an example of the latter on the other side of the Atlantic. The USA’s National Women’s Soccer League is arguably the strongest professional women’s league. Founded at around the same time as the WSL, the NWSL kicked off in 2013. It replaced the short-lived WUSA and WPS leagues that both floundered in the early 2000s. While it has seen one club fold and two relocate, the league has been relatively stable. Five of the NWSL’s twelve current sides are affiliated with domestic men’s clubs.

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The franchise game

The NWSL, like Major League Soccer, operates as a single-entity. The players are all technically employees of the league, not the individual clubs. New teams do not come from lower divisions. Rather owners pay an expansion fee (reportedly $53 million for the latest expansion team) to secure the rights to operate a franchise in a certain location.

The league recently shifted from its original model, where prominent national team players’ salaries were paid by their federation. It has also implemented free agency. But it has also seen serious recent controversy and scandals, with hard questions needing to be asked of both league and US Soccer officials.

Unlike England, the USA does not have a robust lower division structure on the women’s side. A patchwork of unconnected amateur and semi-pro leagues, mostly featuring short seasons and college players, are the level directly below the NWSL.

Professional second– and third– divisions are in the planning stages, but are still a few years off. Most men’s pro organizations do not have women’s programs at all. Even if it wanted to, the US system simply does not have the infrastructure at present to implement a connected women’s pyramid like England has.

This is the way. Or is it?

The American-style closed, franchise league model works wonders for club owners and increasing franchise values. But it also locks out many clubs and communities from ever having a chance at the top levels of the sport. The chosen few Super League clubs in the big towns may well see increased investment and reach higher heights faster. But it could easily come at the expense of every other women’s club in the nation.

The WSL, so far, has emulated the traditional setup of the sport, and has been able to grow and improve as a part of that ecosystem. But as owners of big-name clubs continue to pour money into the women’s game, they see the opportunity to shape the sport to their liking, in a way that would be very difficult to get away with on the men’s side.

And so a choice is on the horizon, and the future of the women’s club game in England, and perhaps the world, is at stake. If England becomes the first domino, it may not be long before the power clubs in France, Germany, Spain and other nations craft plans of their own to sequester their own top tiers.

Will the women’s game in England stay close to the roots of the sport? Will it remain driven by dreams? Or will it become the latest casualty in the ever-increasing corporatization of the beautiful game?

photo credit: Imago