The rapid growth of the Women’s Super League has sparked fears that boom could turn to bust.
As the sixth and most keenly anticipated season of England’s flagship women’s competition prepares for launch on Wednesday, March 23, concern stems from seeing the professional club game in the United States twice collapse since the turn of the century.
The Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer leagues in the US drew star players from across the globe, achieved substantially higher attendances for club games than England is yet seeing, and paid good wages.
The brakes came off each time, though, and both leagues crashed and burned as crippling debts piled up.
In the past two years alone, England’s WSL has seen overwhelming growth, with the nine teams in its top flight now stacked with full-time professionals.
Attendances last year climbed to a four-figure average for the first time, rising from 728 in 2014 to 1,076 for the 2015 campaign, helped by England’s third-place finish at the World Cup which caused a spike in numbers through the gates.
Natasha Dowie, who left Liverpool Ladies for Doncaster Rovers Belles during the winter, scored five goals in England’s World Cup qualifying campaign before narrowly missing out on the tournament squad.
Two years ago, with a title-winning Liverpool side, she was propping up semi-professional wages by coaching children. Now with a newly promoted side her deal is full-time, as it is for many of her team-mates.
“Pretty much everyone is a full-time professional now here at Donny,” Dowie, niece of former Northern Ireland striker Iain Dowie, told Press Association Sport.
“We do weights three times a week, we have technical sessions during the day and then training at night. Still now I pinch myself when I think I’m a professional football player, and this is my job.
“It’s gone crazy and I can just see it getting bigger and bigger. You want it to be self-sustainable, though, you don’t want it to get silly like in America where there was too much money that the league ended up folding.
“You need to be sensible with that side of things, but if we can bring in more crowds, and big names coming into the league, I definitely feel there’s more to come.”
The league is run by the Football Association, whose director Kelly Simmons has been a driving force behind development of the women’s game, and is determined to avoid repeating the American mistakes.
“They’re on their third go. We’ve had a good look at it,” Simmons said.
“We share a lot of information with other leagues because we share the same challenges. We’ve got a salary cap of 40 per cent because we want to make sure clubs aren’t just investing in player salaries but they’re investing in the infrastructure to help build the game. It’s important we build a sustainable league.”
But growing the league at a fast rate remains the goal for Simmons, the FA and the ambitious WSL clubs, most of whom are supported by partnerships with men’s professional teams.
Asked to consider how the league might look in five years, Simmons said: “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to aim to have gates of three to five thousand at games, to have significant numbers watching regularly on television.
“There will be more revenues in the game, there will be more men’s football clubs embedding women’s football properly in their club rather than seeing it as a sort of CSR (corporate social responsibility) or community programme.
“The top league will be fully professional.”
Implemented with the best of intentions, the salary cap is inadvertently allowing the well-funded champions Chelsea, along with Manchester City and Arsenal, to apparently pull away from the rest.
But Leicester’s trailblazing example in the Premier League has offered hope to the smaller clubs, such as Sunderland and Doncaster.
And Dowie scoffs at the suggestion of it being a three-team title race.
“A lot of people look at it like that and I have to laugh,” she said. “How can people say that when the likes of Leicester are top of the Premier League, and Sunderland finished fourth in the WSL last season after getting promoted?
“Just because a team’s been promoted, why does that make them automatically someone to be relegated?
“Happy days if people underestimate us, because I definitely haven’t signed for a team that’s going to be relegated. I want to be winning things, and just because we’re not a big brand why can’t we go on to make some magic this season?
“I think we can. Leicester’s story makes us believe, it really does.”