London Seaward fully support the findings and recommendations in Raising the Bar, the review led by Karen Carney into the state of women’s football, but we would like to see more.
We particularly welcome a number of key findings and recommendations, which reflect our past and current experience of the game as an independent, FA Women’s National League football club. We also feel these will feel familiar to many of our peers. We particularly note:
The need for more accountability and stability in the relationship between men’s affiliated clubs and their women’s teams
Whilst the investment and greater involvement of established men’s clubs in the women’s game has undoubtedly led to many benefits, within it lurk potential issues that the review acknowledges. These can include a lack of transparency about the split between sponsorship or other revenue sources between the women and men’s clubs.
It also highlights the vulnerability of women’s clubs to the sudden withdrawal of financial or logistical support from men’s clubs due to changing ownership or financial circumstances. This is an experience we know only too well and needs to be addressed.
The need to increase opportunity for girls from all backgrounds to continue their involvement in football
Words and promises from government and local authorities are not enough. Action is required on the ground to ensure that – whether it’s at school or after it – girls and young women are both encouraged to participate in football and provided with the opportunities to do so, on and off the pitch.
This needs to be regardless of their background or income group. The review acknowledges that this is not currently happening, and has strong recommendations to help ensure that this situation is corrected.
The need for massive investment and accountability to address the lack of pitch access for women’s football.
The review correctly identifies that there is both a chronic shortage of pitches for grassroots football throughout the country, and that this has a disproportionate impact on women’s clubs. From matches to training, we are unable to secure the same level of pitch access as men’s teams can, even those significantly further down their respective pyramid.
Without correcting this situation, on which the review has a number of good recommendations, it is simply impossible for the women’s grassroots or league pyramid to grow and improve.
Preserving promotion and relegation across all tiers and resisting calls for a ‘closed league’
A closed league financially benefits only those teams within the closed league structure, and restricts – not increases – access to the game for women at all levels. It is also detrimental to the fan experience and growing support for women’s football in this country.
The review is clear on this and its recommendations to preserve promotion and relegation at all levels should be heeded.
Greater central FA focus and investment on Tiers 3 and below
The review correctly identifies the major issues affecting clubs within the Women’s National League. Most particularly, the lack of secured tenancies.
It is all very well offering funding schemes to clubs with long term tenancies (5 – 10 years). As the review correctly highlights, however, those schemes are not being accessed because most Women’s National League clubs do not have security of tenancy. The facilities are either not there, or the local authority or men’s clubs who control most tenancies will not provide women’s clubs with longer deals than 3 years (at best).
We have fought long and hard to secure a permanent home in East London. We are incredibly lucky to have finally found a men’s club in Redbridge FC who both respect us and women’s football and have been prepared to offer a long term groundshare, without demanding we surrender our identity in return. But this should not conceal the fact that in order to secure our future, we have had to leave our home borough of Waltham Forest.
Being in possession of a long term tenancy now also makes us an exception among WNL teams. This cannot continue to be the case.
The review states that, having shifted responsibility for the WSL and Championship to NewCo, the FA should use the space this creates within its own capacity to take a much greater role in fostering financial and logistical improvement in the Women’s National League.
We wholeheartedly endorse this recommendation. Without the Women’s National League, there are no future Lionesses. To represent the peak of women’s football, the Championship and Women’s Super League need a pyramid to sit atop. We are that pyramid.
Room for improvement: The role of independent and ‘lesser’ affiliated women’s clubs
We welcome the review for highlighting that allowing ‘big name’ men’s clubs to heavily invest in women’s football is not the answer to the game’s problems. It also highlights that this carries significant risk of both a power imbalance in league governance and financial issues for clubs where such relationships falter.
We do not, however, feel the review goes far enough to highlight the enormous role that independent and less brand-familiar clubs have – and indeed need to play – in ensuring the success of the women’s game.
For women’s football to prosper, it needs to show its differences from the men’s game, not just its similarities. We have a vibrant, different footballing culture in our own right and a key part of that is the variety of clubs that exist at all levels within the women’s game. Teams that are recognisably different from those you will see in the men’s pyramid.
That variety brings with it the opportunity to foster different – and in some cases better – values than can be seen at the top of the men’s game. It also allows a better culture of ownership, accountability and a healthy relationship with our fans.
Bluntly, the women’s game prospers when independent, player-owned clubs like ourselves and others exist. It prospers when clubs like ourselves and Lewes FC can speak openly and proudly about our successes, the issues we face as women playing this game, and find new and creative ways to solve those to the benefit of football as a whole. Equality of FA Cup prize money and better access to facilities are both ideas that this review has endorsed. It needs to be noted that these are also ideas that the independent and ‘lesser’ affiliated clubs have led on and shouted loudest about.
The WSL, Championship and WNL cannot become a list of clubs indistinguishable from a list of clubs at the same tiers in the men’s pyramid. It cannot simply be affiliated clubs, dependent on the same set of owners – whether individuals, investment vehicles or nation states – found in the men’s game.
That would not be evidence of success for women’s football in this country. That would be evidence of our absorption and subsumption.
In line with this, greater controls need to be in place within the Women’s National League and beyond to prevent established men’s clubs from ‘buying’ their way up the women’s pyramid, through disproportionate temporary investment. This does not create a sustainable future for the clubs in question, and disrupts and distorts the tiers through which they pass, damaging more responsible clubs in the process. Success and promotion should come through hard work and excellence on the pitch, not at the bank.
We thus welcome this review wholeheartedly. All of its recommendations should be adopted. All would strengthen and improve the women’s game. But we would also like both the FA and future reviews to look at, and acknowledge, the importance of non-affiliated and lesser-affiliated clubs to the brilliance and future of women’s football in this country.
To quote one of our players:
“We are London Seaward. We are nobody’s footballing side hustle.”
For women’s football in this country to prosper, it needs to make sure that remains true for the whole league as well.