Feelgood glow in women’s football does not extend to finances


Despite new commercial deals being struck, Women’s Super League clubs are struggling to be profitable

Yeovil celebrate a goal against Everton but will revert to part-time status next season. Photograph: Emma Simpson/Everton FC via Getty Images

Women’s football has a feelgood glow to it. There is a buzz as the World Cup approaches, record league attendances are being set across Europe, and, from Barclays to Boots, brands are throwing their weight behind the sport sensing the potential for rapid growth.

But what about the foundations? What is this growth, at domestic level, being built on? What does rapid commercial growth and an acceleration of professionalism mean to the balance books? And, crucially, is it sustainable and, if not, how do we get it there?

We are a year away from being able to analyse the financial implications of full-time professionalism on every top-tier club. There have already been indications, such as the points deduction of Yeovil – who stagger to the season’s close on the promise that they will revert to part-time status following a pre-season fundraising effort to try to stay at the level at which they have earned the right to play on the pitch – that some clubs are feeling the negative effects.

Yet, despite being a year behind developments, there is plenty to be learned from the accounts filed by eight WSL sides this month, that cover the year ending May/June 2018. They are patchy, there seem no template or rules for what they have to show, and so they do not all reveal the same information. But what they do show is that, after the switch from a summer to a winter season, far from moving towards sustainability, losses have risen – some staggeringly so – and the gap between matchday and commercial revenue continues to widen.

At the top Manchester City saw their operating loss grow by £357,000 to £1.106m, while Arsenal officially reduced their deficit to £219,000 (from £264,000) but their accounts point to additional operating costs of £2.041m borne entirely by their parent company (up from the almost £1.6m the company shouldered in the previous financial year) that also employs their entire staff.

Chelsea saw their operating losses grow from £107,752 to £776,775 and previously profitable Birmingham saw their minimal £9,838 profit become a £13,604 deficit. Everton remained the only club in the black, a tiny £770 profit down from £2,616 the previous year.

All this is before the financial commitment to full-time professional playing staff comes into play. It is no wonder Yeovil have struggled to keep pace with those able to pile their debts and risk on their parent holdings. Any club lacking the financial might of a Premier League men’s side cannot realistically compete in this new era of professionalism.

Manchester City and Liverpool have increased their commercial income as a percentage of turnover but seen a fall in matchday revenue. Photograph: Richard Lee/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Commercial deals are on the rise, the FA has secured seven new commercial deals in the last 12 months, and some club accounts show small rises in their commercial income – Manchester City’s up 7.3% to 77.6% of their turnover, Liverpool’s up 2.1% to 83.9% of their turnover.

Yet it is matchday revenue that has dropped and is becoming a less and less significant cut of club incomes. City’s matchday revenue fell from 9.4% of their overall turnover to 6.7% on the previous year, Birmingham’s dropped from 4.7% to 1.5%, while Liverpool’s dipped from 1.3% to 0.9%.

There are two things it represents. Firstly, commercial partners are investing in women’s football because it looks good image-wise and they can see the genuine potential for growth.

Deloitte’s Football Money League report, which has looked at women’s football for the first time, highlights this potential. Three fifths of football clubs in the world’s top women’s leagues have front-of-shirt sponsors that differ from the associated men’s team and they predict this will rise to 100% in time for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s Super League has the lowest proportion of unbundled sponsorship, with only four clubs having separate front-of-shirt sponsors. It also points out that separate sponsorship deals for women’s teams present an opportunity for the biggest clubs in the world to increase their commercial revenue. Where the men’s game is saturated with commercial deals, the women’s game is not.

If the growth does not materialise, though, there is little incentive to stay in the long term. That is not to imply brands are about to jump ship – quite the opposite. Many are committed long term to helping be part of the game’s growth.

But having assurances of the strength of the game at base level, knowledge that it is not being built on sand and there is a stable future for the game, is important.

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