Barclays WSL branding on the Mitre Delta MAX match day ball Birmingham City Women v Everton Ladies, WSL football match, The Autotech Stadium, Birmingham, UK - 08 Sep 2019 Photo: Paul Greenwood for The FA

How will Covid-19 affect women’s football in England?

With the 2019/2020 season having been ended early, the main subject which many players and clubs can consider is the after affects of the disruption caused by Covid-19.

Women’s football is and has for a long time been a fragile environment, with the sport lacking the same foundations as it’s male counterparts. The instability of the current situation is currently causing havoc for players and clubs alike.

When looking at the current and future effects, you have to split these into the effects on players and how these present different circumstances, although being reliant upon the effects that clubs will feel. The effect on players is felt by a huge number across the country with different individual impacts but covered by overarching common themes. In an interview with Sky Sports, forward Courtney Sweetman-Kirk discussed her decision on choosing to leave Liverpool recently, she explained that players would be asked to sign temporary contracts if the league was to continue. It caused some discomfort for Sweetman-Kirk as she explained that if players were to become injured, they would receive no medical care and would most probably have their contracts terminated. She instead now sits  without a club and explained that the road ahead is uncertain as clubs do not know where they stand and are still awaiting further instruction from The Football Association, which means they are currently unable to offer any new contracts or contract renewals for players. It is having undeniable effects upon players and their wellbeing.

The uncertainty is leaving players in precarious positions with those already teetering on the margins becoming more at risk of losing their livelihoods. The truth is that many players’ contacts are short term and often are only one-year deals. Worldwide, just 18% of players are classed as professional under FIFA standards in which their income paid is more than their expenses. With a further 82% falling into ‘amateur status’, the pandemic will hit these players the most with the potential of no protection of lost wages.

In football worldwide, just a fraction of players earn more than £3,000 a month, with 60% taking home less than £600 a month. What clubs often do is instead offer ‘lifestyle packages’ in which they get provisions for housing (51% of contracts), health insurance (44%) and food (37%), however, with the potential of contracts being axed, it in turn may cause a loss in income but also a complete loss in livelihoods. If you look back to Notts County, their dissolution left their players not only out of contract but also some losing homes and livelihoods, disastrous consequences which we must learn from.

The uncertainty of these precarious times will no doubt be taking their toll on players and their mental and physical wellbeing. Many have already expressed their concerns for the lack of communication between players and clubs, with some getting frequent updates while others not so much. With players fearing for their livelihoods, the lack of communication can only exacerbate this with those who have already previously experienced clubs going under. With all the progress gained in recent years, it will be especially hard for players that have lived through this to see their careers and progress put at risk through no fault of their own. With decisions seemingly slow to take place and relationships between clubs and players put to the test, it begs the question do the current circumstances highlight the lack of development in women’s football in making it a sustainable industry?

The mental wellbeing of players is a cause for concern which hopefully clubs will be addressing. It will no doubt be hard for players to see their wages cut and to potentially see their contracts at risk and all that will come with it, players will no doubt be experiencing high amounts of stress and anxiety. Spare a thought for the foreign players isolated in our country. While many were able to go home, some remained showing their commitment to their club, ready to continue football should it have resumed. They instead now are left isolated away from home and away from a support group of family and teammates. Could you imagine being a young player away from home with no support around you and uncertainty from the club on where you stand with everything at risk?

Add to that the undeniable expectation to remain match fit and in the best shape. Players are expected to keep the same fitness routine in some cases without proper facilities, equipment, and pitches to practice on. Some have already expressed their concerns when it comes to this, many players have been evicted off local parks and pitches, leaving them with nowhere to train. The other problem is that with no knowledge of when women’s players can return to training at their clubs, it may leave a short turnaround between resuming training and matches for the new season. It also brings to the forefront that although the Barclays FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship have ended what does this mean for the Women’s FA Cup, could this competition resume at any point against all odds? The expectation to keep to the elite standard of fitness will no doubt take it’s toll on players and their mental health causing stress and worry.

With all the talk on the effects of players, current uncertainty felt by clubs is also underestimated. One such problem felt by The Football Association is how women’s football will resume and in what capacity? When will next season begin? The usual season runs from September to May but with us already in June, there is currently no information on when players will resume for training. Will the beginning of the season be pushed back and are we instead looking at an October or November start date? With a later kick-off date for the season, it would mean a later date for it’s close, potentially June. That would cause problems with the newly-rescheduled date for the Olympic Games in Tokyo set for 23 July and recovery afterwards. If the following season starts in September 2021, it leaves just a matter of weeks following the closure of the Olympic Games for pre-season preparations. This will cause strain on clubs and players, potentially resulting in fatigue as previously seen following the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 when players returned to club matches within a week of the closure of the tournament.

Another question is when the new season does start how will it be held. It will no doubt leave lots of administrative and logistical questions in terms of distancing and safety and all will depend scale of the pandemic. Will the FAWSL be used a trial for safe distancing seating and the resume of fans in stadiums? With crowds for women’s football matches considerably lower than that of men’s football, will it be easier to test out safety. For example, Leigh Sports village currently only uses the main stand with often the opening of one behind goal stand on bigger occasions, with two full stands unopened could the distancing of fans be tested out here?

Prior to the pandemic, women’s football in England was beginning to gain momentum with a big money sponsorship deal from Barclays and a BT Sport agreement to televise more matches. The Barclays three-year sponsorship deal, worth over £10 million, was huge news when it was announced, introducing a larger prize fund for the Barclays FA Women’s Super League winner. The early end to the Barclays FA Women’s Super League season will no doubt have affected Barclays’ overall sponsorship visibility and with further disruption possible, will this have an impact on their decision on whether to extend the deal in 2022. BT Sport currently have a broadcasting deal in place until the end of next season but scheduling could be tricky with most football in Europe out of sync.

How could club transfers be affected by Covid-19? In financial terms, many clubs already struggle and few manage to breakeven so will the situation push clubs further into the red? Managers may have smaller budgets to operate on next season so it may be a real headache trying to assemble a squad with less money in the pot. Also, if movement around the world is restricted in some countries, will managers instead be focused on signing home grown talent rather than top class internationals?

I feel as though The Football Association should place an emphasis on good player mental health and wellbeing and look for ways to provide financial support to the clubs and players who need it most. This is a tough time for all but I hope that we will come out of the other side with a more sustainable game which will grow for years to come. In the words of FIFA, we must ‘limit damage to our industry, while building a more solid foundation.’

 

Source: FIFPRO

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