The moment that women’s football would break through and really be taken seriously has long been predicted but we might just be there following the brilliant performances of the Lionesses at Euro 2022. It was not just the action on the pitch, but also the huge television audiences and the packed stadia, that indicate that – at long last – the women’s game is taking the huge strides in England and the UK that it has done in other countries, such as those in Scandinavia and the USA.
But now we’ve seen great players like Lucy Bronze, Mary Earps, Millie Bright, Fran Kirby, Beth Mead and others in action, many may be wondering where they ply their footballing trade when not representing the national side. In this article, we take a closer look at domestic football in England to tell you everything you need to know about top-level women’s football in this country.
Women’s Super League is Equivalent of Premier League
The top level of domestic women’s football in England is the Women’s Super League (WSL). We don’t like to compare men’s and women’s football, but for the sake of simplicity, the WSL can be viewed as the Premier League of the women’s game.
It was founded back in 2010 when it replaced the Premier League National as the level one league and truly has gone from strength to strength since then. It is administered by the FA and at the present time has 12 fully professional teams. Most of these are connected, at least in some way, with men’s Premier League sides, the only exception in that regard ahead of the 2022/23 campaign being Reading. The 12 current sides are:
- Aston Villa
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- West Ham
Which Are the Best Teams in the WSL?
If we concern ourselves solely with the WSL era then there is no doubt that Chelsea have been the top side.
Chelsea have claimed the title on five occasions, including the last three in a row under the brilliant management of Emma Hayes, who also works as a supremely tactically astute pundit on both the women’s and the men’s games.
They have also been runners-up on two occasions, whilst claiming four FA Cups, including in 2021 and 2022, which gave them the “double-double”. In fact, they were just one game away from winning the domestic treble two years in a row as they also won the League Cup in 2020/21 and made the final the following season.
In addition to Chelsea, who were founded in 1992, Arsenal have historically (before the WSL) been one of the very top teams and they also claimed the Women’s Super League crown in 2011, 2012 and 2018/19.
Next up come Liverpool, if we are looking at titles, with the Reds winning in 2013 and 2014. However, the 2022/23 season marks their return to the top flight after a couple of seasons in the second tier and indeed, since being founded in 1989 they have spent a total of eight seasons outside of the top division.
In terms of recent success and stature, therefore, it is probably fairer to look to Man City, who only have one WSL crown to their name but have been runner-up no fewer than six times! No other side has won the WSL to date and right now it seems that City may be the side who can eventually wrest away power from west London in the years ahead.
Are WSL Games on TV?
If watching the brilliance of Beth Mead and co at the Euros has sparked an interest in watching more women’s football then it’s good news because you can watch a number of WSL games live. Well, live on TV, that is to say, although you can also head down to your local team and watch live in person if you want, with tickets generally very affordable and not too difficult to come by, though that may well change in the years ahead.
In terms of watching from the comfort of your own home, however, things are getting better and better. In the past, watching the WSL and its forerunner has not been easy, with coverage limited in terms of the number of games available, the stations they were on and the quality of the punditry and production.
However, in the spring of 2021, Sky Sports announced a huge new deal that they said was “the biggest domestic women’s football contract in the world” and that funds from the deal would be “contributing to success from grassroots to elite, both in the immediate and long term.” The three-year deal began for the 2021/22 season and saw Sky broadcast the WSL for the first time.
The rights deal also included the BBC, which had long been a partner with the league, and meant that Sky would show up to 44 matches with at least 35 on their main channels. In addition, the BBC would televise 22 live games per season, with at least 18 on BBC1 or BBC2 and the others on iPlayer or the Red Button.
FA’s Streaming Service
With the league season only consisting of 132 games that means that half of the games will be shown on major channels. As if that wasn’t enough, games not selected by either the BBC or Sky are available to watch through the FA’s streaming service.
As well as an improvement in the quantity and quality of the coverage, this deal also marked the first time that the rights to the women’s league were sold separately from the men’s. Clubs will receive a significant income boost from this, whilst fans can get to see some of the best players in the world more often.
Do They Play the Full 90 Minutes?
Some may feel this is a silly question when we are talking about a fully professional league with some exceptional athletes. However, of course, when it comes to tennis Grand Slams women play best of three sets, whilst men play best of five. Moreover, in athletics, women are not deemed up to the 10 events of the decathlon and instead contest the heptathlon (seven disciplines).
However, when it comes to the beautiful game, women play the same 90 minutes plus stoppage time that men do. They even let women play extra time in the cups if needed, you know!
Best Players in WSL
The WSL is packed with some of the very best players in the world, true stars of the game. As well as many of the Lionesses, the Super League also attracts several of the best players from around the globe and the following represents just a very small selection of the players you should look out for (though of course this is subject to change with transfers likely in the months ahead).
The Aussie striker was the top scorer in WSL in 2021/22 and her goals helped fire Chelsea to yet another league title. Set to turn 29 as the next campaign begins, the captain of her national side is at her peak right now and has scored goals for fun wherever she has played. Since joining the Blues in January 2020 Kerr has notched 42 goals in 46 WSL matches and also boasts 59 goals for the Matildas, as well as 110 caps.
Mead had a stellar Euros and if she wasn’t already a hot property she certainly is now. Born in North Yorkshire she began her career at Middlesbrough and Sunderland before moving to Arsenal in 2017. Capped at every age group for England she averages better than a goal every other game for the full national side and also provides plenty of assists.
In fact, since 2021 those stats are more like a goal per game as her output has really increased. That’s impressive as she now increasingly plays in a wider role, rather than as an out-and-out striker as she did earlier in her career. Fast, direct, skilful and a brilliant finisher, Mead has got it all.
Another Lioness who really roared at the Euros, Bright is strong, great in the air, reads the game brilliantly and is now one of the best defenders in the world. The Chelsea centre back cut her teeth at Doncaster Belles but has been with the Blues since 2015 and boasts a half century of England caps. Named in the 2020 FIFA world XI she has captained England before and also chips in with the odd valuable goal too.
Hemp was part of England’s deadly front three at the Euros and was also named PFA Young Player of the Year in the 2021/22 WSL season. She was just 21 when the Euros started and really proved just how good she is, justifying her selection in 2020 as one of the 10 youngsters to watch in European football. The Man City star is only going to get better and given the skill, pace and composure she already possesses that is a scary thought for WSL defenders.
Russo is just 23 at the time of writing and has an impressive goals-per-minute record for the Lionesses where she has mainly been used as a substitute for England’s leading all-time scorer, Ellen White. With White approaching the twilight of her career it seems a matter of time before the tall, powerful Chelsea striker replaces her as the focal point of England’s attack. The Man United forward is excellent in the air but is a fine all-round striker and was the joint-fifth top scorer in last season’s WSL.
Fran Kirby is another Chelsea and England star and the diminutive forward is the Blues’ all-time leading scorer. For England she plays in a slightly withdrawn role that sees her increasingly contributing almost as many assists as goals. Her career has been affected by illness and injury but the brilliant number 10 still has a whole host of honours to her name. On an individual level, those include being crowned Players’ Player of the Year in 2017/18 and 2020/21.
The last of the Lionesses on our list, although we could easily have included more, Earps is quite simply a brilliant goalkeeper. Commanding, organised but also a brilliant shot-stopper, she is very good in one-on-one situations and does not appear to have any weaknesses. She kept 10 clean sheets for Man United in 2021/22 which was a fine accomplishment for a side that finished fourth and took that confidence into the Euros where she was superb. Now established as England’s number one, Earps is a charismatic figure who could be around for a good while yet.
Miedema is a class act who won the women’s Euros with Netherlands in 2017 and was runner-up at the World Cup two years later. The Arsenal striker has twice been the top scorer in the WSL and has achieved the same feat on two occasions in the Champions League too. She won the Bundesliga twice with Bayern Munich and helped the Gunners to WSL glory in 2018/19 too. That season her incredible haul of 22 goals in 20 games was instrumental in helping her side to the title whilst on the international stage she has made 113 appearances and scored an incredible 94 goals.
McCabe is the captain of the Republic of Ireland and a key figure for Arsenal, with whom she has won the WSL and also the FA Cup. A hugely versatile player she is vocal on and off the pitch, supporting LGBTQI+ causes and also working alongside Seamus Coleman to obtain equal pay for men and women as far as the Irish national side is concerned. A very creative player she can play anywhere on the left side, as well as further forward and is a set-piece specialist, helping bolster her tally of both goals and assists.
Danish superstar, Pernille Harder, was signed by Chelsea for a world record fee in 2020 after a brilliant three years in Germany with Wolfsburg where she was prolific. The attacking midfielder has been capped well over 130 times by her country and boasts almost 70 goals, a brilliant return by any standards. Twice UEFA Player of the Year (in 2018 and 2020) she has won silverware at every club she has played for and has been nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times, coming second in 2018.
Magdalena Eriksson is partners on and off the pitch with Harder and the Swede, like her teammate, is an advocate for LGBTQI+ issues. Signed by Chelsea in 2017 from Linköpings, she provides leadership and organisation on the pitch, as well as just being a brilliant defender. Playing on the left side, either as a full back or centre back, she is the club captain at Chelsea and gets the best out of those that play alongside her.
How Much Do WSL Players Earn?
Despite the massive growth in women’s football, a ground-breaking TV deal and increasing equality talked about above, it would be wrong to think that WSL players earn anything like the top starts in the (men’s) Premier League. Pernille Harder’s move to Chelsea remains the world record fee paid for a woman and the €294,000 fee is considerably less than many top EPL stars earn in a week. It certainly pales into insignificance when put alongside the €222m that PSG paid Barcelona for Neymar.
The money in the women’s game just cannot be compared to the billions that swill around the men’s most popular leagues. FIFA stats show that transfers involving women in 2020 totalled less than £1m, whilst for men the figure was almost £5bn! There is a relatively strong correlation between transfers and wages and so it should come as no surprise to learn that you won’t see too many WSL players driving Ferraris (even if they wanted to!).
Between £20k and £250k Per Year
In 2022, it was reported that players in the top flight earned between £20,000 and £250,000 per year. Unsurprisingly the top clubs highlighted above, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City, tended to pay the highest wages, with Spurs among the lowest payers.
Whilst the WSL is touted as a fully professional league, players on the very lowest wages are said to have supplementary jobs to boost their earnings. Of course, whilst earning £20,000 a year to play football would be deemed a dream for many, in reality, it is not an amount that lends itself to any sort of lavish lifestyle. Even the top stars who earn six-figure annual salaries must find it hard to know that many men earn in a week what they do in a year.
Some may find the disparity between what women and men earn unsavoury or certainly unfair, whilst others may feel the fact there is a professional women’s league at all is reason to cheer. Our personal feeling is somewhere in the middle: great strides have been made but there is still a long way to go. Until very recently women could only dream about playing football in England as their job and about scoring at Wembley in front of a packed crowd. Now it is a reality, which is fantastic, but the game must try and find a way to keep growing, both in terms of popularity and exposure and in terms of finances.
The Market Drives Wage Growth
The reality is that market forces drive wage growth in the Premier League. Women’s football is more popular than it has been for a long time but in terms of crowds and interest, it still lags a long way behind the men’s game. It is something of a chicken and egg situation with regards to exposure and popularity, but the sport and its administrators must maximise the opportunity Euro 2022 has given and if they do there is no doubt the WSL can continue to go from strength to strength and pay higher wages in the future.
Sponsorship Deals Compared
TV money is the biggest driver of finances in the Premier League but sponsorship is also a key part of any club’s revenue. Real Madrid’s shirt deal with Emirates is thought to be worth a cool €70m per season, with Man United’s arrangement with TeamViewer coming in at €55m. To ease their financial woes Barcelona signed a deal with Spotify to name the Nou Camp whilst just about anything that can be sponsored in football is.
As the exposure that women’s football and the WSL receive increases, the deals clubs can sign will become more lucrative. However, as things stand the figures in terms of sponsorship mirror players’ wages in lagging well behind the Premier League and Champions League big boys. The biggest deal involving women’s football was recently signed between Visa and FIFA and was worth more than $20m over multiple years. That deal was quickly surpassed by a £30m deal between the FA and Barclays, a three-year sponsorship deal for naming rights to the WSL and the newly created women’s Championship (the second tier).
However club deals are typically far smaller, with many WSL having relatively few standalone sponsors that are completely separate from the affiliated men’s team. Spurs signed a back-of-shirt deal with Herbalife in 2021 though the financials of that sponsorship were not disclosed. The same year Chelsea agreed a shorts sponsorship deal with N+1 Singer and again the value of the arrangement was not disclosed. On Chelsea’s official page (for the men’s and women’s sides) a whole host of partners are detailed but Singer are the only one for the women’s team.
Given Chelsea are the undisputed biggest side in the WSL right now and have been for some time, the fact that they only have one official women’s partner is telling. We do not know what that, or Spurs’ agreement, is worth but given what we know about the wages and transfer fees in the WSL it is probably safe to assume we are talking about multi-million-pound deals.
Are There Other Professional Women’s Leagues?
An English side has only won the women’s Champions League once (Arsenal in 2009, though Chelsea made the final in 2021) and so it is clear that the WSL cannot make any serious claim to being the best league around. But are there other leagues in Europe and around the world that are also professional?
The US Paves the Way
The first ever professional women’s league was in the USA, in 2001, but that lasted just a couple of years and did not return until 2009. The US are one of the powerhouses of the game though, boasting four World Cups (from eight completed editions of the competition). Japan is in the process of launching a pro league and they have also lifted the World Cup, in 2011. Aside from the US, Germany are the only nation to have won the global showpiece on more than one occasion and perhaps surprisingly their domestic league is not fully professional.
France, Spain & Sweden
France, Spain and Sweden all boast professional football leagues for women, which might explain why Lyon are by far and away the most successful side in the Champions League with their eight victories (and two runner-up finishes). Three Swedish sides have made the final, with only two clubs having won it more often than Umea. China also has a pro Super League but by and large fully professional competitions are very much the exception.