Sliding Doors: England v Spain, advancing women’s football from different planets

We woke up yesterday morning to the fantastic outcome of what was building up to be an incredible weekend for women’s football: the English FA announced weeks ago that this weekend would #WomensFootballWeekend, and it lived up to the expectation. The opening of big stadiums, the hope of riding on the 77,000+ strong crowd at Wembley last week, the scheduling of big games and derbies, the use of a weekend with no EPL games on. Everything on point, a marketing masterpiece.

We also woke up to the news that, just a few miles down the road, in Spain, no agreement had been reached between the players’ association, the Spanish FA, the clubs, and the broadcasters to stop players from striking. It seemed that all involved parties were closer to an agreement earlier this week, with broadcasting money being offered to unblock the situation, but the conditions of this offer did not convince the players or the Spanish FA, and the strike went ahead as expected.

Two contrasting approaches to advancing women’s football. But how did they unfold?

#WomensFootballWeekend: Top down leadership

The strategy for women’s football in England seems clear: more exposure, more fans, more investment, better players, better game = a future for the sport. It is a no brainer. The Lionesses performed well in the Women’s World Cup and captured the attention of the public: building on that momentum, the FA has invested big in their marquee league. The creation of the FA Player, which allows all first and second division games to be broadcast FOR FREE with commentary ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD (except Australia after their newly struck deal with Optus Sport), is a true testament to that investment. There is little money to be made if the broadcasting rights are not sold, but who wants to watch a competition they are not familiar with? They have seen the value for what it is: engagement and exposure might not be able to be quantified in numbers in the bank, but the more fans you can capture now, the more they will be willing to pay to watch the women in the future.

On the eve of the 2018-19 season, the English FA changed the competition rules for the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship. They made every club who was already in either league reapply for their licence and agree to new terms and conditions. These terms included elements to secure the professionalisation of the game and a succession plan: things like a minimum 16 hours of contact for players in the club, and the compulsory establishment of an academy to play in academy competitions. A salary cap is also in place, although how that specifically works is a bit complex and doesn’t necessarily ensure ‘equality’ across teams, but it does ensure that teams are paying their players, or that they have capacity to do so. This has now led to a system of Tier 1 to Tier 7 levels, and in order to be at the very top, clubs have to comply not just with results on the pitch, but with a sustainable commitment to ongoing professionalism.

This is as simple as watering plants in a pyramid shape. Water the top and it will trickle through, and results will ensue. The English FA have led the way in many ways, but this ongoing commitment to making the women’s game sustainable and to make it a professional league is a breeze of fresh air, and proves to other Football Associations that plants do not grow overnight and gardens take time, but they provide much needed air. I suppose, for those familiar with British Sport, this is nothing new, but it is definitely a step in the right direction, a direction that ensures both success on the field and grassroots uptake – and not solely focused on gold medals in niche sports, which they have been guilty of in the past.

So they went ahead and turned a weekend with no English Premier League games (and amidst the men’s international break) into the #WomensFootballWeekend. Promotional posts began ten days before a ball was kicked.

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Make a weekend of it 🤩 #WomensFootballWeekend

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And make a weekend of it, they have. The numbers don’t lie.

Over 38,000 at Tottenham Hotspur stadium. Over 23,000 at Anfield. Great atmospheres and great performances to match them. The FA WSL is setting an example of leadership that is very much needed across women’s football worldwide. I believe most leagues, at this stage, should look at what is happening in England, and try to imitate some of the things they are doing. It’s worth taking a punt. The future might be closer that we’d think.

#ConvenioFemeninoYa: Bottom up leadership

In Spain, women’s football is heading into a completely different direction. Or is it?

Leadership does not need to come from the top to impact every layer of an organisation, and what we have in Spain is a situation that has reached a boiling point: after months of negotiations between the players association, the clubs, the federation, and the broadcasting corporations, no agreement was reached to settle the players’ demands for the introduction of basic workers’ rights. Players had no choice but to go on strike, despite the efforts made by all parties the weekend before to bridge the chasm between them.

Why are players striking? Some very simplistic (social) media readings have focused on the fact that players are requesting a minimum wage of 16,000 euros (although they are willing to take 12,000 as a starting salary). However, the key demands are beyond the minimum wage; it is a matter of obtaining a collective bargaining agreement that will ensure that all players have access to a minimum of rights as professional employees. Rights such as regulated contact hours at clubs, full-time employment, full pay when injured (and the security of not being fired due to long term injury), paid annual leave, as well as work-life balance adjustments and a sound maternity leave policy are the thorny side of the argument. These rights, the clubs argue, do cost money that goes beyond just paying minimum wage.

Player spokespeople such as Athletic Bilbao’s goalkeeper, Ainhoa Tirapu, have been very vocal in advising that minimum wage is not, in fact, the main point of concern: that had that been the case, the CBA would have been signed months ago as the clubs were willing to raise the salary conditions, but did not agree with guaranteeing the players other essential workers’ rights. Players want to rightfully be recognised as full time workers, because, as Tirapu argues, whilst there may only be a certain amount of contact hours at the club, “you are a footballer 24 hours a day, and have to behave as such.” Their national insurance contributions as a part-time worker mean that supplementing their income is not just something necessary from a daily expenses point of view for a great proportion of them, but also to ensure that they have a pension upon retirement.

The reality is that players are not asking for anything that is not already a part of any other workplace agreement. And despite the big differences in salary and working conditions between those playing in modest clubs compared to those at, say, FC Barcelona or Atletico, the strike was fully supported by all players. It has also been supported by FIFPro and the Spanish Ministry of Work. Some male footballers have also used their platform to support the female players, such as Antoine Griezmann or Andres Iniesta. Players in youth teams also joined in in solidarity.

The strike seems to have worked, at least for now. The visibility and attention raised towards the issue have made the parties get back to the negotiation table, and there is an expectation that an agreement can be reached in the next few weeks. The players have agreed to provisionally suspend the strike until the 20th December in the hope that the collective bargaining agreement will be in place before Christmas.

So there we have it, two very different approaches to advancing women’s football, some pushed from upstairs, some from downstairs, and yet both will have a massive effect on how the future shapes for women’s football. It is just sad that the situations are so ridiculously different, and that workers’ rights, which is the minimum professional athletes should be guaranteed, are taking so long to be the norm in women’s football. But there is hope! (And hopefully, football this weekend!)

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