Women's football's 'existential crisis' isn't now – it's when the season resumes

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Since football in England was suspended in mid-March, there have been countless questions and concerns around the women's game.

In April, FIFPro released a report addressing the implications that women's football would face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Existential threat’ were the two words that jumped off the page immediately.

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Can clubs survive the indefinite suspension? Will those affiliated with their men’s teams see funding cut? How will clubs deal with the fact that most players’ contracts expire at the end of May? How will such a lengthy break disrupt the growing interest in the game?

AFC Fylde, whose men’s team play in the fifth tier, recently announced the disbandment of their women’s team, who have played under the club’s name in the third tier since 2016.

The news came just one month after the club had released a statement saying: “Please be in no doubt that AFC Fylde is wholeheartedly committed to its women’s team and will ensure it remains a part of the club.”

The fear is that many will follow.

However, while clubs like Liverpool were heavily criticised for initially planning to go through the government’s furlough scheme, smaller women’s clubs can justify their use of the system.

Reading recently became the first team in the professional Women's Super League to furlough their women’s team. The majority of clubs in the semi-professional Championship have also gone down the same route – with many topping up the wages too.

Further help can be sought from business grant schemes and, with matchday related costs such as hotels, minibuses, petrol, catering and more put on hold, it leaves some clubs in much better positions than one might initially assume – especially with many women’s clubs run very carefully as it is.

The issue will be when football resumes.

While the return of the men’s Premier League will likely be the start of a broadcast bonanza, the Women’s Super League and Championship will not.

However, players will be back on their full-time salaries, furloughing will cease and those matchday costs will return.

“When football gets to restart, this is a fork in the road,” Charlie Dobres tells Goal.

Dobres is a director at Lewes FC, who have a women’s team in the Championship and a men’s team in the National League.

They are the only club in the world who pay their two teams the same.

Lewes Equality FC

“I think that one route is an existential crisis for women’s football,” he says.

“One possible reaction is, for teams funded by a larger men’s club, will that funding remain?

“Because I’ve seen situations in the past where men’s teams had a bad patch and the women’s team had their funding cut.

“The existential crisis is because if that happens on a massive scale, women’s teams losing support either from their club and/or from sponsors, then many won’t be able to operate.

“When you have an awful lot of clubs not being able to operate, then do you have a viable league?”

Manchester United boss Casey Stoney recently raised similar concerns from her own experiences as a player.

"When I was at Charlton, when times got hard financially, when the club got relegated, the first thing to go was the women’s team,” she told Goal.

“So of course, the pandemic could have an impact. I pray it doesn’t but, unfortunately I think it could have a huge impact on the women’s game.”

Things are much different at Charlton today, who now run independently from the men’s team. Like many, it’s an approach that has proven especially beneficial for them during the current crisis.

Finances aside, there are logically concerns for resuming too, of course.

“The difficulty would be if it got stopped again, then it continued and stopped again, and I think that is a high possibility if we try to resume the league too early,” Steve Adamson, Charlton Women’s General Manager, tells Goal.

“Our policy – and it was the same when the pandemic started, before the lockdown – is that if anyone is uncomfortable in a vulnerable way, then just don’t turn up.

“That doesn’t necessarily have to be that the player is vulnerable, we’ve got players who live with their grandparents or people with health problems.

“It would be irresponsible for us to say, you have to come and play a game.”

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However, while there are many concerns for the women's game when football does resume, it could yet be flipped into a positive.

“At the same time as being an existential crisis, it’s an existential opportunity as well,” Dobres explains.

“If, for example, when the men’s Premier League and Championship restart behind closed doors with their television deals, why not, in that situation, do a back-to-back with the women’s teams? Either the one that is your name or the one that is near to you.

“Because all of the practical problems in the past about that go away.

“Play two matches, put them both on television, one after the other with the same coverage and that way you suddenly level the playing field.

“The opportunity here is that women’s football gets massive exposure that it wouldn’t otherwise have had.

“I think what we’re looking for is really big, imaginative solutions to what is therefore an entirely avoidable moment for women’s football.

“The moment isn’t now, I don’t think. Although some will struggle, it isn’t predominantly now during the lockdown, when you can get grants and stuff.

“The moment is when we come out of it and then how do you support women’s football?

“That’s the big question.”