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NewCo takeover of WSL and Women's Championship agreed

In case you missed it, there was some big news coming out of the Women's Super League (WSL) and Women's Championship (WC) in the last week. The clubs in the WSL and WC have voted unanimously in favour of the proposals under which the two leagues will be run by a new body going forward. This comes after a revolt by all but one of the WC clubs just days before put the agreement in doubt.

Up to now, the WSL and WC have been run by the FA. The move to club-ownership of the league reflects the structure in the men's domestic game in England, which is run by the Premier League - a body formed of the 20 clubs which participate in it. The news of the restructure comes as no surprise for those watching the development of the game closely. The FA has made it clear in recent years that it planned to hand over the running of the women's professional game for the long term. Viewing figures and crowd sizes for WSL games this season have torn up previous records (following huge increases in the last few seasons), with recent BBC coverage of Chelsea v Liverpool drawing peak viewership of just under 1 million. The Manchester derby was recently reported to have broken the viewership record for a paid TV channel for a women's game, with peak viewership just under 600,000 and average viewership just under 500,000. And some of the headline matches are being pushed to bigger stadiums - Old Trafford, The Emirates and Stamford Bridge will host some of the key games for Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea this season. With viewership and commercial interest at an all-time high, and women's football being the key driver of viewership in women's sport nationally, it seems to have been considered the right time to make the change. 

The new governing body, temporarily named NewCo, will run the professional game from the beginning of next season (2024/25). The reason 11 of the 12 WC clubs didn't agree last week appears to have been linked to the proposal that the WC clubs' voting rights were reduced and that commercial revenue from the two leagues will be split unevenly. The WC will reportedly receive 25% commercial revenue from the two leagues with the WSL receiving 75%. However, with the proposals now agreed, attention turns to the restructure taking shape.

Former Nike director Nikki Doucet will take the helm as new CEO of NewCo. She consulted with clubs, players and the PFA as part of her role in the takeover discussions, and has worked with the FA to bring the proposals to the clubs.  The FA announced yesterday that her role will begin immediately as the process to move the WSL and WC into the new structure needs to be completed before the start of next season. It's been reported that funding might come in the form of a £15m loan from the FA or from various types of other external investment, with a key aim being for the game to become the first women's sport to break the billion-pound revenue barrier within 10 years.

Current head of women's football at the FA, Baroness Sue Campbell, along with Nikki Doucet and the clubs seem to be united in the view that the new structure can be transformative for the women's game, and enable it to capitalise on the commercial opportunities presented to it to develop the game whilst still cementing the values which make it unique and so popular amongst its fans. What might be more difficult for the WSL and WC clubs to agree on is how best to achieve this, with the gap between the two leagues not only significant in footballing terms, but financial terms too.

So, what other changes might be on the horizon? It's clear that increasing the commercial investment in the game will be a key priority, to support its growth and development across the WSL and WC. A new broadcasting deal looks set to be made in the new year, which, against the backdrop of both huge growth in viewership as well as a landmark broadcast deal agreed in the US for the NWSL, is likely to be for an unprecedented sum. In terms of the game itself, there have long been discussions as to whether more than one promotion spot to the WSL should be opened up, to increase competition in the WSL and incentivise more investment into women's clubs outside of the WSL. The lack of promotion spots to the WSL has a knock-on effect to the WC and lower down the ranks too. Only one club in the FA Women's National League can win promotion each season. Questions have also been raised about whether the actual size of the leagues could be expanded.

Whatever the changes may be, sustainable growth will be key. Careful thought will be needed to ensure the quality of the leagues is not impacted if their size or the number of promotions and relegations each season does increase. Further, given that clubs in the WSL must be fully professional (a rule effective since the 2019/20 season), decisions will need to balance the need for future growth against ensuring changes are not so fast that clubs' cannot keep up financially. 

Recent discussions in the men's game have focused on the introduction of an independent regulator, with the government set to introduce proposals for the set-up of the regulator. This does raise the question of whether, eventually, an independent regulator might be brought in to regulate the running of the women's game too. For now though, we will wait and see how the set-up of NewCo plays out and whether it can deliver on its billion-pound target.

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