When defender Casey Stoney joined the Arsenal women’s soccer team from Chelsea in 2000, she had to take a part-time job to support herself. Working in the club’s laundry, she washed the uniforms of the men’s team, whose players included Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp.
“Thankfully, now I don’t have to do anything like that,” says Stoney, 31, who captained the unified Great Britain women’s team in the London Olympics last year and now plays for the semipro Lincoln squad. “Things have moved on.”
Things will move even further if the Football Association has its way, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its August issue. The governing body for soccer in England has begun a push to make the women’s game the country’s second-biggest team sport in the next five years. Some 253,000 girls and women now play soccer every month, making it the third-most-popular sport in terms of participation, behind men’s and boys’ soccer and men’s and boys’ cricket, and surpassing rugby, according to Sport England, a government agency.
Eventually, the FA aims to bring in enough revenue from sponsorships and television rights to make the semiprofessional Women’s Super League (WSL) self-supporting, says Kelly Simmons, who’s leading the push for the group.
The catalyst for the FA plan was last summer’s Olympic Games, where the Great Britain women’s team scored a 1-0 upset against the 2008 silver medalists, Brazil, to move to the quarterfinals. Defender Steph Houghton, who plays for Arsenal, scored the winning goal in the second minute of the game, bypassing goalkeeper Andreia Suntaque from a tight angle on the right wing while the crowd of 70,000 watching at London’s Wembley Stadium roared.
“The Olympics really took the sport to a whole new audience,” says Simmons, the FA’s head of national game, as she gazes out from a wood-paneled skybox at the pitch where Houghton made the winning goal. “There were so many fans, it looked like the England men’s team was playing.” (Great Britain lost to Canada in the quarterfinals, and the U.S. team won the gold.)
The London Olympics were the first modern games in which every country sent female athletes and in which every sport had female representation. Women outnumbered men on the American squad by 269 to 261 and won 29 of Team USA’s 46 gold medals. British women won 11 golds -- as many as the entire Olympic squads of Germany and France.
The medals haven’t translated into money for female athletes. Although women made up 44 percent of all Olympic competitors in 2012, they’re still largely ignored by sponsors and the media. In the U.K., women’s sports typically receive about 0.5 percent of all sports sponsorship money -- estimated at 1.59 billion pounds ($2.48 billion) by World Sponsorship Monitor -- and 5 percent of all sports media coverage, according to the London-based Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation.
“Enough is enough,” says Sue Tibballs, chief executive officer of the WSFF. “British sport has got to be finally a place that is as encouraging and supportive of women’s sports as it is of men’s.”
For potential sponsors, the lack of resources for women’s sports creates an opportunity, says Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management. “Women’s sports is a buy,” says Morrissey, who has led a campaign for gender equality in British boardrooms. “If you put in a bit to start with, it might make a very valuable property.”
Newton is putting money behind a bid to bring equality to the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, which takes place each spring. In 2015, both the men’s and women’s squads will compete on the same day and over the same distance, in front of 250,000 spectators, and the race will be broadcast to 200 countries. Currently, the women’s race is shorter and is held a week before the men’s event.
The FA, too, is hoping to make a little go a long way. The association is investing 3.5 million pounds in its five-year plan, which will expand semipro women’s soccer -- where players are paid but where soccer isn’t their full-time occupation -- into an 18-team league with a top and a second division starting next year. There are no pro women’s soccer players.
The association’s choices of teams for each division stirred controversy in April. The FA demoted the Doncaster Rovers Belles -- which had been in the top division of women’s soccer since a national league was formed in 1999 -- to the second tier. The women’s squad of Manchester City, a team that was bought by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008, took its place.
The decision, made after their first league game this season, was “the most farcical thing I’ve ever heard,” Doncaster manager John Buckley told the British Broadcasting Corp. The team is appealing the decision. FA spokesman Johann Alexander says all clubs were judged on their strengths off the field -- in marketing, facilities and management, for instance - - as well as their abilities on the pitch.
Broadcasting women’s soccer will increase interest in the sport, says Arsenal striker Rachel Yankey, 33, one of the game’s most recognizable faces and the women’s player who’s appeared in the most games for the national team. “When I started, there were no female role models,” she says. “Once you get the public knowing about the different players, half the job is done.”
The women’s season runs from April to October, giving fans a chance to watch the matches while the men’s league is on summer break. The BBC will show all of the England national team’s international games live, culminating in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2013 championships in Sweden in July. (England made it to the last finals in 2009, before losing to Germany 6-2.) In the fall, the BBC will show England’s World Cup qualifying matches ahead of the 2015 championship, and next year, the network will air highlights of WSL games, the first time women’s soccer has been shown on nonsatellite television in the U.K.
BT Sport, a new pay-TV sports channel owned by BT Group Plc, has bought the rights to show WSL, England and FA Women’s Cup competition matches from 2014 to 2018.
Companies such as Nike Inc., General Motors Co.’s England-based Vauxhall cars and German auto-parts maker Continental AG have signed on to sponsor women’s soccer, hoping to ride its growing popularity. “We can grow with the sport,” says Laura Hardy, manager of sponsorship for Continental in the U.K. Hardy says a bonus was the women’s teams’ social media presence: Players mention Continental’s U.K. Twitter handle whenever they talk on social media about a competition that’s being sponsored by the tiremaker.
Developing talent is another goal of the FA project. Many female players disappear from the sport in their midteens, so the FA is trying to create a support system that identifies and nurtures the best players. Starting this year, the FA’s 330-acre (130-hectare) St. George’s Park won’t just be aimed at producing the next David Beckham; it will also have an elite performance unit for England’s top young women that will scout out and train the best players, from the grass-roots level to the international arena.
Simmons, a 5-foot-4-inch (1.63 meter) former midfielder, recalls how she was allowed to play only field hockey, tennis and netball -- a sport similar to basketball -- at school, and had to practice soccer with her brother. “Football was just not deemed a girls’ sport,” says Simmons, 44. She got the chance to play competitively only when she went to university.
Women’s team manager Hope Powell, 46, remembers having to wear men’s uniforms in the 1970s, when her London team played on the worst pitches; women were banned from playing on FA regulation fields until 1971. “There is better support now,” Powell says. “The girls are fitter, stronger and faster.”
On a windswept April day at St. George’s National Football Centre, Powell puts the national team through its paces while three analysts toting iPads monitor each player’s statistics, including shots at the goal, heart rate and sprint speeds.
Though the training is improving, women’s pay is not. Salaries in the WSL are capped at 20,000 pounds a year -- small change compared with the average annual paycheck of 1.9 million pounds for Premier League men.
Stoney, now captain of the England team, still holds down several part-time jobs, though none of them involves doing laundry. Instead, she’s paving the way for the next generation of players by working in a youth program and coaching Lincoln’s under-17 team. “I am hoping that one day, women will get to a stage where they can make a full-time living from football,” she says.