Women’s Sport Series – Former Lioness Karen Carney’s Review of Women’s Football

On 13 July 2023, former Lioness Karen Carney published her independent review, Raising the Bar, into the future and opportunities of women’s football in the UK. With the Lionesses recent success in the World Cup capturing the attention of the nation, the popularity of women’s football is on the rise. According to Carney, this review “has enabled us to get a comprehensive understanding of the state of the game, and how we can capitalise on the current momentum.” In the third article of our ‘Women’s Sport Series’, Intisar Abdi takes a look at some of the crucial points raised by Karen Carney for the future of women’s football in the UK.

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We are in a pivotal moment for women’s football; the Lionesses historic win in UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 and their fantastic run during the FIFA World Cup 2023 has highlighted the growing interest and opportunities in the sport. In light of key investments and preparations by the FA into the women’s game over the last few years, Carney’s review and recommendations in her report acknowledges the progress made so far, with a view to implementing strategic recommendations to move the sport forward.

Carney made 10 strategic recommendations and we consider a few crucial points below. For the full independent review, see here.

Strategic Recommendations:

  1. The new entity tasked with running elite women’s football should not settle for anything less than world leading standards for players, fans, staff, and everybody involved in the women’s game.

 Carney proposes 5 principles that ought to be prioritised in the future commercial development of the elite women’s game:

  • Ultimately, the objective of women’s professional football should be a financially sustainable, competitively compelling game. Broadcasting, match day, and sponsorship revenues have been increasing (albeit, rather slowly) in the women’s game, with long term club investment due to follow as the revenue streams increase. To increase greater central revenues, the women’s league should provide the foundation for sponsor interest and broadcaster investment.
  • Financial regulation should be stringently deployed by NewCo (the new club-led independent entity to be formed to operate the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship) to ensure that the financial issues present within other elite sports are not mirrored. Stringent financial regulation will attract more investors as they can be confident the women’s game is a stable investment.
  • NewCo and clubs must provide the necessary professional infrastructure for staff and players to compete.
  • The FA and NewCo must unlock additional investment and funding streams to acquire the resources necessary for the professionalisation of tiers 1 and 2 of the women’s game. They should work towards equalising the prize fund allocated in both the women and men’s games.
  • As the NewCo is established and new governance arrangements are being designed, the FA should ensure that NewCo can engage in independent decision-making to protect the voice of Women’s Championship clubs and encourage sustainable growth of the league.
  1. The FA needs to fix the talent pathway in order to create generation after generation of world beating Lionesses.

Following the success of the Lionesses in 2022 and 2023, Carney believes women’s football in England can move quickly towards establishing itself as the gold standard for women’s sport globally. To build on the success of England’s national team, the report recommends (1) the FA should choose a strategic partner willing to invest in building a sustainable pipeline of domestic talent, and (2) clubs should be allowed to access an increased pool of international talent while the domestic pathway is fixed.

  1. Both the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship should become fully professional environments designed to attract, develop and sustain the best playing talent in the world.

According to Carney, improvement of the professionality of national women’s football means:

  • Addressing the gulf in minimum operating standards between tier 1 and 2, specifically:
    • Minimum contact time; and
    • Player salaries (e.g., through the adoption of salary floors).

Currently, due to the low number of mandated contracted hours in the Women’s Championships, players could earn less than £5,000 a year from their football career, forcing them to work additional jobs to financially support themselves. This greatly impacts their recovery time and therefore performance on the pitch.

  • Providing gold standard physical and mental health provision.
  • Mandating elite training facilities for elite players.
  • Mandating a world leading parental package.
  • Funding full union representation for players.
  • Uplifting duty of care provisions for players.
  • Offering best in class career transition support for players leaving the professional game.
  1. The FA, Premier League, English Football League and broadcasters should work together to carve out a new dedicated broadcast slot for women’s football.

With scheduling issues across the men’s game, it has become difficult for the women’s game to find an appropriate and consistent slot to play matches with strong broadcast viewing figures and match day attendance numbers. Carney suggests that women’s football must be given its own independent and dedicated broadcast slot, where the women’s game doesn’t have to compete with men’s football. She suggests that a dedicated and bespoke women’s broadcasting slot would be more convenient for attendees and maximises broadcast viewership, attracting new viewers and increasing broadcast revenue across the board.

  1. Clubs must better value and support their fans – the FA should raise minimum standards to enforce this.

To improve fan engagement, Carney has suggested the women’s game have a dedicated marketing resource, a fan liaison officer and produce a strategy focusing on growing matchday attendance. Improving the fan experience both in stadium and on broadcast will help build on the momentum of the growing interest in the sport.

  1. Government must deliver on recent commitments around equal access to school sports for girls.

To generate the best talent pool of footballers, women and girls of all ages need to see football as an accessible, safe, and inclusive environment to participate in. All sport has seen systemic issues that surround women and girls’ participation in sport, with research showing that women are less likely to be active than men. The Government has a huge role to play in ensuring girls in school are genuinely able and encouraged to participate in sports.

Carney also points to the need to increase funding of grassroot facilities to better accommodate meaningful access for women and girls.

With the combined efforts of the FA, and all those both on and off the pitch, the women’s game in England has reached new heights.  A deliberate and focused strategic approach to building on the progress made so far towards a bigger and better future for the women’s game will undoubtedly benefit the sport. The Government will set out its response to Carney’s recommendations this Autumn – watch this space!

To find out more about our capabilities and experience in Women’s Sport, please visit our Sports Law+ site.

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