Women’s Soccer Was Having a Moment. Then the Clock Stopped.

On Soccer

As the coronavirus pandemic forces soccer clubs and sponsors to tighten their belts, a women’s game poised to break out hopes it doesn’t have to bear the cost.

Credit…Mark Scates/SNS Group, via Getty Images

Rory Smith

These should have been a fruitful few weeks for Glasgow City. For only the second time in its history, Scotland’s premier women’s team had secured a place in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It was scheduled to face the German powerhouse Wolfsburg on March 25. A crowd of 800, perhaps more, was expected to come through the gates of Petershill Park.

Regardless of the result, Laura Montgomery, Glasgow’s general manager and one of its founders, would have been able to bank not only the revenue from ticket sales, but also the team’s share of prize money for its performance in this year’s competition. For a club like Glasgow City, run by volunteers and with a budget just a fraction of that enjoyed by the likes of Wolfsburg, it was a vital windfall.

Then, early in April, would come another boost. It is around this time of year that Glasgow’s sponsorship deals come due. The invoices from the club’s partners should be starting to trickle in, providing the money not just to pay the players’ salaries but to fund the youth programs at the club’s heart.

All of that income, though, is frozen. The Wolfsburg game never happened, postponed indefinitely as the coronavirus pandemic swept through world soccer. The fate of the women’s Champions League remains unclear. The question is not just when, but if, it will be played. Until a decision is made, prize money is a secondary concern for UEFA, the competition’s organizer.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is not yet sure if her club’s sponsors will be willing, or able, to pay. With no games being held, she knows it is possible some may withhold their money. Others, suffering acutely themselves from the economic impact of the global shutdown, may simply not have it to give. “It is,” she said, with commendable understatement, “very challenging.”

For many of Glasgow’s peers — at home and abroad — the situation is substantially more complex. Women’s soccer has boomed across Europe over the last decade, driven in part by improved performances by national teams and growing interest in Women’s World Cups and, to some extent, by the sudden, belated interest of major men’s clubs in the women’s game.

The likes of Juventus and Manchester United have, in recent years, begun women’s programs, while clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City have invested heavily in existing teams.

Interest and attendance have soared across the continent, and though wages remain low and players are often not afforded the same treatment as their male colleagues, budgets have risen, too. Paris St.-Germain spends millions of euros every year on its women’s squad, and while Chelsea made Sam Kerr the highest-paid player in England this season, its financial commitments are still outstripped by Manchester City.

That money has transformed those teams — Chelsea and City, along with Arsenal, are the dominant forces in England; P.S.G. has reached two Champions League finals in the last five years — but it may also serve to make some of them vulnerable in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“My biggest fear is for a lot of the women’s teams attached to another club,” Glasgow City’s Montgomery said. “We have seen before, when times are difficult, that is often the first thing that gets cut.”

In England, home of Europe’s only fully professional women’s league — its 12 clubs are made up entirely of teams connected to men’s clubs, the majority of them in the Premier League — even the biggest, most successful teams run largely at a loss.

In 2018, Manchester City announced an operating loss of more than a million pounds (about $1.2 million) on its women’s team, and Chelsea recorded a loss of 776,000 pounds. The same year, Arsenal confirmed it had limited its deficit to 219,000 pounds, but only because its parent club offered a cash injection of two million pounds. Even some of the continent’s richest women’s clubs, then, remain dependent — at least in part — on money diverted from their men’s teams. In some cases, that support can run at around half the budget.

In the context of the elite men’s game, of course, these are meager sums: a few weeks’ salary for a squad player or a transfer fee for an academy prospect. But at a time when clubs are considering the need to cut costs to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic, it renders women’s teams vulnerable.

FIFPro, the global players’ union, says it has received reports of some clubs contemplating cutting women’s and youth programs to protect their men’s first team.

“The longer it goes on, the more likely clubs are to look at what costs them money,” one executive at a Women’s Super League team said. “And the women might be one of the first things to go.”

That, however, is only one possible impact causing anxiety inside the women’s game. Amanda Vandervort, the chief women’s soccer officer at FIFPro, is concerned that the momentum behind the women’s game — not only attendance, but sponsorship arrangements and broadcast rights deals — could be stalled not only by the crisis, but also by the timing of it.

“It is a real challenge, as it puts many of these recent developments on hold,” Vandervort said. “Women’s soccer has only recently been able to celebrate the longevity of leagues, improving wages and conditions, new tournament structures and more. Both the men’s and women’s game will have significant issues to contend with as a result of Covid-19, but on the women’s side there is great concern for the future of the teams, leagues and competitions.”

The Women’s Super League, for one, was preparing to announce an international broadcasting deal for next season in the coming weeks, a significant development in its attempts to increase revenue and, as one executive put it, help clubs to “stand on our own two feet.” As long as it remains unclear when this campaign will finish, and when the next one will begin, that has had to be put on ice.

It is also not clear what effect the hiatus may have on the offers for domestic television rights. Given that all sports broadcasters are facing a shortfall in advertising and subscription revenue in the wake of several sports-free months, it is likely that any future offer for women’s matches will be substantially smaller.

Women’s teams have the same problems in terms of sponsorship: clubs currently negotiating arrangements with jersey sponsors for next season have had to pause their conversations as they wait to discover when they might next be able to play. “We are no longer talking in a position where we are coming off a World Cup, with all this extra interest,” one executive said. “We are coming off a crisis. It changes the dynamic.”

Next season provides a further complication. In the discussions over how to finish the current European campaign — and start the next one — the needs of the men’s game appear to be under consideration first. Many in the women’s game detect that they are, at best, an afterthought.

UEFA’s unilateral decision to move this summer’s European Championship back a year, dropping it into a summer already set to host the women’s event, was perhaps the most obvious slight. But the minor problems may be most illustrative.

Most women’s teams have much smaller squads than their male equivalents. Many of them share stadiums with lower-ranking men’s sides. The rush to finish the men’s season in a couple of months over the summer cannot easily be replicated for the women’s equivalent.

Vandervort, at least, believes the social values of women’s soccer may make it a more appealing prospect for sponsors and investors. “It can align with modern corporate values like equality and innovation,” she said. “It can and will survive any economic downturn.”

Montgomery, too, is hopeful that everything she has built at Glasgow City — everything women’s soccer has built in the last two decades — will not crumble now. From the moment she established Glasgow City with her friend Carol Anne Stewart in 1998, Montgomery has run a tight ship. “You don’t have a sustainable business by spending all the money you bring in straightaway,” she said. She always made sure to ask herself, “What if disaster happens?”

That approach has not stopped Glasgow from picking up 13 consecutive Scottish titles — despite increased competition, in recent years, from the women’s teams of the city’s two men’s giants, Celtic and Rangers — though Montgomery allows that it has, at times, left it overmatched in Europe.

“We would go for official dinners with teams, with budgets 10 times the size of ours, who could not believe that our club was run by volunteers,” she said. She is used to working, and thriving, against the odds: having to be a better scout than professional scouts, having to be a better marketer than professional marketers.

Most of all, though, she knows that her soccer club is not just about soccer. “Our core message remains the same,” she said. “It is about equality, about championing girls and women, about objecting to objectification. That’s our unique identifier. That’s what we stand for.”

That appeals to brands, of course, but it also gives Glasgow City a purpose, regardless of the economic context. The club has been built, after all, on her passion, and on that of her players.

“We have a few who could have gone elsewhere and earned more money,” she said. “But they stayed because our values really resonate with them.”

Whatever challenges Glasgow City faces, whatever challenges women’s soccer faces, that passion, and those values, will not change.

  • Updated April 4, 2020

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