Different ball game

With the English FA now onside, women's soccer has become Britain's fastest-growing participatory sport, offering an open goal to entrepreneurs. Paul Arnott commentates.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's three in the morning in the Coly valley, just west of Lyme Regis.

A mist rolling down the river to the sea obscures the playing fields as Tony Love, chairman of Colyton Youth Football Club, sets fire to a mound of oak chippings. These should cook the annual hog roast by noon. They had better. It earns about £1,500 in a day for the club, and subsidises its activity for the rest of the year.

This year, though, Love has a pair of aces up his sleeve. He has persuaded a London head chef whose son is playing for Colyton to carve the hog.

And he has invited girls' football teams to play in the tournament for the first time ever, but he has no idea how this will work out.

Sitting with his treasurer the following morning, he is told that this year's profit has more than doubled to £3,600. Five hundred of that is down to extra portions of pork yielded by the chef's precision carving, but the lion's share comes from the entry fees for the girls' teams and the phenomenal amount they and their parents spent at the refreshment stalls and bar. He'll be inviting even more girls next year.

This in microcosm is how one small town has been affected by the fastest-growing participation sport in the world: female football. According to the Football Association of England, a decade ago there were just 60 female teams in the UK. Today there are 3,820 registered, charter-standard clubs, and each week 1.6 million girls play properly coached and organised soccer, either through a club or their school. The FA calculates that the current annual growth rate for participation is 35%.

This demographic explosion poses many questions. What will the health benefits be for the generation of women who have started to play, or the social consequences of young boys and girls playing the same sport, a round-ball game that unites rather than divides their interests? And why on earth has it taken so long?

The Football Association must take some of the blame, because it deliberately smothered women's football in its cot back in 1921. Women's teams like Dick Kerr's XI from Preston were formed from the workforces of WWI munitions factories and played in front of 50,000 crowds against teams such as St Helens' Ladies. However, the FA asserted that 'complaints have been made as to football being played by women, and the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females'. It forbad any league grounds from hosting any form of female football - on pain of expulsion. The ban was not lifted until 1971.

Repentance came in the '90s, when the FA set up a five-year plan to improve the opportunities for female players, to increase their level of skills, and eventually to provide a generation of crack players for the England national side. It now has 51 centres of excellence, providing UEFA-standard coaching for girls between 11 and 16, feeding a stream of skilled players into club or regional sides.

Bev Ward of the FA always wanted to play football herself, but instead watched her dad coach her brother's team as she kicked a ball on her own up the touchline. Today, she is spearheading the marketing drive for the female game, and is at last able to play soccer for an FA five-a-side office team in a London league. But what she mainly does is to fulfil the FA's social remit to grow the game for all. On the commercial side, she observes that although Umbro has produced a female England shirt with the FA, there is precious little for this new legion of female players to get excited about.

'Companies like Umbro and Footie Chick (see later) could really do very well soon. There seems to be a complete lack of other competition in soccer clothes for women. Men don't tend to have curves, and above 12 years of age girls tend to change shape. Sports clothes need to be a bit closer-fitting, to be tailored to the right body shape. The girls are bothered about style and how they look as well. They don't want to wear a baggy men's shirt when they could be wearing something nicely fitted.'

However, she admires the enlightened self-interest of some of the bigger professional clubs. 'Arsenal and Charlton are two great examples of clubs that engage with their communities and have a very clear community charter. And it works for them. Charlton has integrated female players into every level, and a good percentage of those girls and women pay for tickets to watch the men.'

Down at another misty Valley, Steve Sutherland, assistant chief executive at Charlton Athletic and chair of the club's women's committee, is eager to confirm that it's not just about ticket sales; it's about growing the brand. And brand owners win prizes.

'We've just done the biggest sponsorship deal in our history - £6.6 million with Spanish construction giant Llanera SA. They share the same community ethos as us back in Spain. And they insisted that our women's football set-up was fully incorporated into the deal. There's no doubt at this club that success like our women winning the FA Cup last year was an integral part of our package in approaching sponsors.'

So, a tangible benefit in invisible ink to the bottom line. At Charlton, Sutherland believes this benefit by association works across the board.

The club is in the process of redeveloping its training ground and back-office set-up. This attracts grant funding from organisations such as the Football Foundation and Barclays. 'It is seen very favourably that we have a fully integrated women's outfit - from development to academy to university to reserve and first teams. Women's football is not a drain on our expenses - it is a crucial aspect of this club.'

This benevolent view of the use of women's football to the club brand may just help it survive a crucial transitional period at the highest level. Last summer, Birmingham City Ladies was almost closed down by the club - ironic, given the provenance of much of its cashflow. At Arsenal, the team is fully backed by chairman David Dein, but it does not show a profit. A crowd of 2,000 is still viewed as remarkable. Women players are lucky to earn a few hundred pounds a week, but they can supplement this by extensive coaching in schools, arranged by the clubs. It is like it used to be in men's football - there is no money in it for players until they become internationals, and this remains the greatest personal and professional aim.

Sutherland is convinced, though, that after a five-year explosion in participation, the business of women's football is at a crossroads. 'It's bubbling under now and it just needs that one big media opportunity for people to get what an incredible, athletic game it is. It's almost like rugby league when Sky revamped it. It needs a different scale of awareness.'

This is a view shared by female football's very own Richard Branson, David Brint, founder of Footie Chick and former head of sales at Reebok.

Brint's company is going headfirst into the football fashion and kit market for girls and women, and he sees another angle into possible media coverage.

'It's a game you can go to as a family. It's taking you back to the days of the schoolboy internationals, where you could go and scream and have fun. I always compare the women's game to male and female tennis. It's the same sport, but it's played differently. There are different tactics but equal skills.'

Brint is hoping this difference will clarify and allow him to exploit the gap he perceives in the female soccer fashion market, in which he is fast expanding his exports into the US, where the participation figures are even more impressive than in the UK.

'In the States,' Brint says on his return from a sales conference in Philadelphia, 'there are 22 million females playing on a weekly basis, but its still really hard for them to get a proper kit. It's amazing that the likes of Reebok, Puma and Nike are not really addressing this market at all. Soccer is seen as exciting and dynamic there by the upper socio-economic groups, but if you look at the lower groups too you've got the Spanish and Mexican influence, where soccer is the absolute number one sport. I think this is mirrored in Britain now. It's still growing in the inner cities, but the female public schools are playing it now too because of the whole Bend It Like Beckham thing. That film had an epoch-making effect, but it also reflected what was happening with girls going through this laddish thing at the time. They wanted to be able to play football at two in the afternoon and then wear a ballgown at 10 at night.'

Even in his home market, though, Brint faces an uphill struggle. His products are well sourced, paying attention to colour and weight and texture of cloth more than might be demanded by the average spotty boy playing soccer. But there is no point his selling through the big outlets like JJB or JD. 'Our research shows that those places are more fashion establishments than sports shops now, and that girls find them just too laddish to shop in. We have really targeted the good-quality independent retailer and we work hard to promote both them and our products through our website.'

Brint speculates that the huge sports brands have not stepped into female soccer yet because they're afraid to take their eye off their main business: men. 'This growth is happening so quickly, but they are supertankers and can't change direction fast enough. You can't just sell men's shirts with a "small" size tagged on the end of the range. Items like shinpads, boots, goalies' gloves need to be different shapes because women are different shapes to men. That's why my biggest department is sourcing and product development, because it's crucial to get the product right.'

Brint's outrage and his ambition are impressive. He can't believe female marathon runners have long had their own running shoe, yet female soccer players, in a game of twists and turns and heavy impact, have only recently been able to buy their own boot. Even so, he clearly loves the position he finds himself in. 'In five years' time we will be even more established in the US than we are in the UK. In Scandinavia and northern Europe we will be the main brand for female players. There's not another business area with this kind of market growth rate but which has only one dedicated brand worldwide - and that's Footie Chick.'

For a relatively new company, Footie Chick could hardly have asked for a more favourable wind. Last year's Women's European Championship was held in England and achieved live broadcast on the BBC. This year, the England team looks set to qualify for the Women's World Cup in China in 2007. And a whole generation of young girls is beside itself with excitement over the prosect of a Great Britain team playing in the London Olympics in 2012.

Every Wednesday evening, come rain or shine, 60 girls at age U12, U14 and U16 run themselves ragged on a windy astroturf pitch at Exeter City's FA School of Excellence, based on the university campus. Students and academics who've hired the pitch after them watch in amazement as the players trap, pass and lash the ball with all the skill of Ronaldhino. These girls are dedicated - and desperate to shop.

Brint and Ward agree from their different takes on the game on the next stage of growth to secure the marketplace. 'We've done a lot of research as to why girls come into the game,' says Ward, 'and for most it's still because they really like David Beckham or Michael Owen. We need to give them realistic role models like Rachel Yankee or Kelly Smith, because girls can never go and play in the men's professional game. They need quality female role models to ensure that they get into the game for a start and then stay there for a lifelong involvement.'

Brint has seen this too, and Footie Chick has backed Everton Women's FC and their immensely marketable star, England's Rachel Unitt. The BBC is considering its position on televising the 2007 World Cup, but is expected to give women's football unprecedented coverage. That should be good for Unitt and Brint, and for the reputation of the FA, which has very nearly made amends for its howler in 1921. It might also be that in future years Love should consider getting in a second hog roast.

On their way to China The England women's football team is currently leading a highly competitive group and is expected to qualify for the World Cup in China in 2007. England 9 pts France 6 pts Holland 6 pts Austria 3 pts Hungary 0 pts Next match is on March 26, when England play France at Ewood Park, Blackburn

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