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The Sky's The Limit

A week or two ago I saw a link to an article. It was just a passing glimpse; I never had a chance to read it. In fact, If I am honest, I have come to not trust these random articles, because they always seem to be total rubbish. However, while I may not have read the article, the headline of it certainly got my mind thinking. The article headline stated that following an influx of big-name stars into the Women’s Super League, Sky were contemplating picking up the WSL coverage next season.

My first initial thought when I saw that headline, was ‘finally’. Finally, a big-name TV service provider could be picking up women’s domestic football. Finally, the women’s game could be getting the top-level exposure that it both needs, and deserves. Then, as the days went by, I started to think more about the finer details of such a move. Now, as I go through this, I must reiterate the obvious. I am not a pro on such topics, in fact my connection to the women’s game at domestic level has only been for about three years now(albeit I have watched the Lionesses a lot longer). Effectively, I am just a guy who writes articles, specifically about Crystal Palace Women, trying to make a difference. So, there is every chance that what I am about to write may come across as crazy, strange, ridiculous or whatever opinion you as a reader may form. For me though, the exposure of the women’s game needs to happen, but it needs to be done properly, otherwise there is just no point. So, with that all said, here are my thoughts on if such a deal was to actually happen.

OK, so to begin with, I have no idea if there is any truth to the idea that Sky are looking to pick up the WSL, but, for the purpose of this article, let’s say that they are considering it. For me personally, I think it would be a huge move for women’s football. While I have my issues with how badly they represent the smaller Premier League clubs, with the lies that they so often spread when it comes to transfer news, and with the questionable actions of some of their staff, #sackkevah, on the whole I think Sky cover sports better than any over provider here in the UK. Growing up, it was always a battle between BBC and ITV for sports coverage(although Channel 4 had Football Italia), and I always thought that BBC did it much better. Even to this day, when a major international tournament is on, I wish the England games would be just on BBC because ITV just aren’t as good. Sky though, wipes the floor with BBC. Then, the likes of Setanta Sport when it existed, and now BT Sport, to me, they are the expensive version of ITV. So, for me, if Sky were to be the ones to pick up Women’s football, it would be huge. I must comment, that a little while ago I wrote about how I thought the BBC were missing a trick. I said that they should pick up both the WSL and WC(Championship) and put them on BBC2. On a Sunday, they could spread out the times and show a live WSL game and a live WC game, with the option of the others on the red button, or a full highlights show a little later on. This would then make Women’s football available to everyone, and it didn’t seem out of the question given that BBC cover the Women’s International tournaments and specifically, the England Lionesses. However, while being on the BBC would put them in every home in the UK, being on Sky would give women’s football such a higher level of production value and options of additional programming.

So, Women’s football on Sky. I am all for it, but if they were to do it, they need to go hard and go all out. What do I mean by this? Well, I mean that they need to truly commit to the project. They need to give it everything they have, and the start of that in my view, would be to pick up the Women’s Championship as well as the WSL. Why should they do this? Well for me, that is obvious. Yes, I get the appeal of the WSL, because that is where the top clubs are, it is where the big-name players are. The thing is, every season, a team drops out of that league, and a new team comes up. On top of that, there are two cup competitions, the Continental Cup and the FA Cup. The Conti Cup starts as groups, made up of both WSL and WC teams. The FA Cup includes the National League teams, but commonly the key rounds are WSL and WC teams. The WC plays a huge part in the top level of the women’s game, so why would you leave it out? Picking up the WSL on its own, it is just a random league. It is just showing another random league of football, like picking up the Belgian First Division. It is something to watch, but nothing more than that. If you pick up the WSL and the WC, then you start to create something. Having both of these leagues, you could pick up the Conti Cup as well. BBC cover the FA Cup, but not all of it as far as I am aware, so there would be the possibility of tapping into that competition as well. All of a sudden, instead of offering one random league, you are offering an entire package. A package, that over time, would draw more fans, would create more fans, because the package would have depth and that depth would give people a reason to care.

Just look at the men’s game for a moment. The Premier League is the golden goose, of course it is. That is one of the best leagues in the world. It houses the biggest teams in England, it houses some of the biggest name players, it links into the European football scene and of course it gives fans a link to International football, because they can watch other countries and recognise players from seeing them in the Premier League. Never underestimate the power of recognition. For many years, no one in this country would really care about the African Cup of Nations. Sounds harsh, but that is reality. Then, all of a sudden, the key players in the tournament were players from the Premier League, and people started to care, they started to be interested. Fans would watch, because they wanted to see how the players from their team got on. Fan’s would watch, because suddenly seeing so many Premier League names in the competition, would make it feel more legitimate. Now, take that thought, and return it to the domestic scene. While the Premier League has all the perks I have mentioned, one of the reasons that the league is so entertaining, is because of the other 14 teams in it. The ‘smaller’ clubs as it were, who every week show that they can beat anyone. The Premier League is exciting, because any result can happen, and the ‘smaller’ clubs make it far more competitive. Those clubs, come from the EFL Championship. Every season, three clubs come up from that league, and more often these days, they manage to stay up. Premier League clubs are also starting to pick from the Championship when it comes to player recruitment, because there is some real talent in that league. This summer alone has seen Ebere Eze and Ollie Watkins make the move, while last January Jarred Bowen did the same. This works, because fans knew who they were when they signed. Fans know who the teams in the Championship are. They know who the managers are, they know who these players are. So, when these clubs come up to the Premier League, or the players get signed to it, fans are interested, because they have already had experience of them. This, is because Sky provides coverage of the Championship. That coverage has only increased over recent years, and that exposure has not only helped that level of football, but it has helped the Premier League too.

As a Palace fan, signing Eze was huge, it created great excitement and a real buzz. Why? Because the exposure given to the Championship, meant we had seen him play, we knew what we were getting. The same would go for Watkins at Villa. When you get a new club come up for the first time, fans are curious because they have seen them play in the Championship and want to see how they do at the higher level. Now, imagine that Sky only ever covered the Premier League. We would never know about anything outside of it, other than what we may read in newspapers or online. It would kill that interest, it would sour the taste as it were, because it would create a mentality of ‘who cares about anything outside of the Premier League’. If it isn’t on TV, then it isn’t good enough, right? Wrong, but that is the mindset it would create. The fact is, that hardcore football fans, will watch football. We will watch our team play, and we will watch other games in our league to see what happens, partially because it affects our team. We will also watch another league, because we love to watch football, because we can do it guilt free as it doesn’t affect our team, and because the exposure given to it means we know about these teams and players, and we actually care. There will be teams we want to see struggle, #millwall, and then we will all have teams that we keep an eye and would like to see do well, Brentford being one of them for me. That interest exists, because the exposure is there. Hell, I have lost count of how many times I have heard the commentators say that the Championship is one of the best, one of the most exciting and one of the toughest leagues in the world. That makes my point perfectly. That feeling exists, because the exposure and coverage is there to show it to us.

Bringing it back to the women’s game then, for me it makes total sense. For a start, when you launch the project, you wouldn’t just be engaging the fans of twelve clubs, you would be instantly engaging the fans of twenty three clubs. That is immediately a bigger audience you are tapping into, and likewise means more casual fans you have the opportunity to grab hold of, and growing audiences is the name of the game, right? So, you will have two leagues covered, which means you not only have the race for the WSL title and Europe to promote excitement over, but suddenly the WSL relegation battle will mean something. Not only that, but the WC promotion race will mean something more, and that on its own will create a huge buzz in the women’s game. I mean let’s be honest, one of the biggest and most enjoyable stages of the domestic football calendar is the Championship Play-Offs, and I shake my head at anyone who tries to claim otherwise. Straight away, you have two league competitions to care about. That would hopefully filter down into the National League, and over time help boost those levels too. Then, if you pick up the Conti Cup as well, you have a cup competition that your audience would be more interested in, and that would deliver some excitement given its format. Just the other night in the first set of games, Championship side Liverpool beat WSL side Man Utd 3-1. Our group consists of one WSL club in Bristol City, and three WC clubs in us, Lewes and London Bees. Fans would care though, because they would know all the clubs. Straight away then, you would have a package, not just one league, that would have the potential to grow far better, because you were showcasing more elements.

Picking up more than just the WSL, that is step one to my master plan for Sky. Let’s move onto step two.

Create new programming and use what you already have, namely Sky Sports News, to promote your new product hard. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s go back to the reason for why I am writing this, and that is the article headline I saw. It stated that Sky were considering picking up the WSL, because of the influx of big-name players into the league. Ok, so let me cover what they are talking about. This summer saw the top WSL clubs go all out on the recruitment front. Let me give you some of the main examples. Several American players have joined the league, with Alex Morgan going to Spurs on a short term deal, Rose Lavelle moving to Man City, and the pair of Tobin Heath and Christen Press have joined Man Utd. Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood have returned to English football, both going to Man City. While Danish player Pernille Harder has moved from Wolfsburg to Chelsea. This doesn’t even touch on all the business that Everton have done, as well as clubs like Brighton. Despite these big moves though, no one outside of the women’s game would be aware they happened, and most causal fans would say they don’t know who the players are. Even fans of the domestic women’s game, may have been unaware of these moves, or who some of these players are. At the very least, they may not be aware of why they are such big moves. The crazy thing is, we should be aware. Lavelle, Heath, Press and Morgan are all USA Internationals. All four of them were part of the squad that won the World Cup in 2019. This was quite possibly the most well known Women’s World Cup over here, as millions watched it. If I said the name Megan Rapinoe, then I would probably grab the attention of more people. Yet these four players were all in that same squad, and most people wouldn’t have a clue. Given that America has led the way domestically for years, for four of their World Cup winners to come to the WSL is huge news. Moving on, Pernille Harder is a Denmark Legend. She led them to the Euro 2017 final, has 61 goals in 118 appearances, and for Wolfsburg last season she was the Bundesliga top scorer with 27 goals in 21 games. As for Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood, both are England Internationals. Alex moved from Man Utd to Lyon last season, while Lucy left City to spend three years at Lyon, before making her return. Lucy was part of the squad that won the SheBelieves cup in 2019, and at the 2019 World Cup was voted the second best player of the tournament, missing out on first spot to Megan Rapinoe. She has over 81 caps for her country. Both have come from Lyon, who have dominated European football, having won the Champions League five years in a row. These are big, big moves, yet people don’t know about them. Quite possibly the biggest spell in English women’s domestic football is taking place, and it is literally going unnoticed. Most of this information, I knew because I follow the women’s game, including via social media, to help expand my knowledge. Even so, I had to google confirmation of what transfers had taken place as I did not know them all, and it was google that provided me with the information about Pernille Harder. All of this highlights the problem, and why my second step is so important.

If you are going to put the WSL, and going by my plan, the WC, onto major television, then you need a reason to make people care straight away. The majority of football fans have no idea who plays for who, and who most of these players are. The only way to make them know, is to tell them. When these moves were happening, Sky Sports News should have been all over it, but they weren’t. Apart from maybe one line across the bottom of the screen, or a brief few second’s mention, they were ignored. Given Lockdown dried up all the sporting news, you would have thought that they would have jumped at the chance for something to talk about, but they just ignored it. That would need to change. Before the season started, they would need to run programming that looks at the teams involved, and the players. They would need to start actually covering transfers properly, to grab the interest. If you keep seeing that Alex Morgan is making a shock move to WC side Durham for example, then when their game comes around, you may well watch because you know this big name player made a shock move there. The long term plan would be to let the matches help build the interest and knowledge, but at the start that won’t really exist unless they put the work in to do it.

To give an example, I am a huge pro wrestling fan. I don’t care what anyone says, and I have had all the stick over the years, I love pro wrestling. If you going to start a new company though, and put it on TV, you need a way to grab the audience. People are not going to watch, if they have never heard of anyone on the roster. However, if that first show you air, promotes that alongside your unknown roster, Hulk Hogan is going to be there, suddenly people will pay attention. Hogan fans are going to tune in, because they want to see what their guy is going to do. Casual fans will be interested, because they know who Hulk is, and they wonder why on earth he is on this show. His name power would add some instant validity to it. It will make fans think that this new company is something that a big name like Hulk must have a high opinion of, so perhaps fans should too(when in reality it was more likely a big fat cheque lured him there). You lure them in with the big name, then you keep them with the rest of your product. New wrestling company AEW did it. Their roster was mostly made up of wrestlers from the independent circuit. Hardcore fans of smaller companies knew who they were, but the casual fan who only knows about WWE, would have no clue and no reason to watch. AEW then signed Chris Jericho, one of the biggest names and talents in the industry. All of a sudden, they had a lure for the casual fan. They used Jericho as their main guy, while then gradually selling the rest of their roster to the casual fan each week. It is the same principle here. Push hard on these big names to get that causal fan in, and then let the product keep them there. This won’t happen though, if you don’t ever provide that exposure. With these big names coming into the WSL, it is seeing WSL quality players drop down into the WC, raising the level of that league too. Highlight this. Look at the big name players making that drop, and sell it. Push it hard about what they could do in that league, and give the casual fan a reason to watch. There is no point creating this great package, if you don’t bother trying to give people a reason to watch it. There is so much Sky could do with their programming, they just need to foresight to actually do it.

Right, so we have the package, and we have the plan to sell it hard with exposure to the players, so what is step three?

Step three would be tricky to do, but essential in my view. Step three would be to put pressure on the FA to make some structural changes. When I say tricky, I mean because the FA are incredibly questionable, stubborn and have no idea about anything outside the big names, but, you would like to think that this Sky deal would be great for the FA, so they would go with it. So, what structural changes are needed? Well, the key to all of this, is making the set up balanced. Right now, it is a total mess. As it stands, what the FA have in place screams of a lack of professionalism, and more of a looking after their own interests, not the clubs. This needs to change. The first thing that would need to happen, is that all teams in the two leagues would be made professional. At the moment, only the WSL clubs are professional. In the Championship, it is a mixed bag. There is a mix of full time professional, part time professional and then part time! So, for example, looking at this season. Liverpool were relegated from the WSL last season, so they are full time professional. I believe that just before the season started, Leicester went full time professional too. Durham, because it is based at the University, I believe are a higher level of part time, in the sense of they get more days training. I believe the same is for London City Lionesses. Then there are clubs like Palace, Lewes and London Bees(forgive me if I am wrong on this), who as far as I am aware are part time. This means that they train two nights a week. How can you have a league where there is such imbalance in the level of the clubs? Don’t get me wrong, there will always be differences in stature, but that is not what I am talking about here. How can you have a league where some teams train every day full time, some train four times a week and others train two nights a week? That is just ludicrous. You are immediately saying that basically, you don’t care about certain clubs and the fact that before a ball is even kicked, they are on a back foot. It makes the league predictable and slightly soul destroying. Can you guess which team is currently top of the Championship? That’s right, Liverpool. Last season, I believe Aston Villa were training four days a week(again forgive me if I am wrong), and guess who won the league? Yep you guessed it, Villa. The season before that, 2018/19, the first season of the newly shaped Championship. Tottenham I believe, were training four days a week, or very close to it. Manchester United, who had not had a team for about fifteen years, had formed one, been put straight into the Championship and were a full time set up. Who won the league by a canter? You guessed it, United. Who were the other team to go up? Bingo, it was Spurs. It is just ridiculous. This is not the fault of the clubs by the way, I am not moaning at them. In fact, I applaud the fact that they are putting in such strong set ups for their teams. My issue is with the fact that not enough is being done to help this spread through the leagues. If you have a league of teams in which the difference between them is down to talent, then that is how football should be. But when one of the major differences is because one trains every day and the other does two nights a week, it is just madness. So yes, every team should be pro, and the TV deal money should be used to help make this possible.

A side point required from this change, would be some form of financial package spread out through the two leagues. Right now, the imbalance of finances is too great. While it is fantastic seeing these top players come into English football, if you aren’t currently getting the benefit of the pull it brings, you are getting the hindrance of the imbalance it brings. The top clubs are so strong now, it is hard for the rest to keep up. What you have is a WSL league with three teams on zero points, facing the harsh possibility that their only hope of a win is when they play each other. The first weekend saw Arsenal beat Reading 6-1. The following weekend, Arsenal beat West Ham 9-1, United beat Birmingham 5-2 and Chelsea put 9 past Bristol City without reply. The last round of games saw Everton taking their turn, as they beat Aston Villa 6-0. So far, in their first three WSL games, newly promoted Villa have conceded eleven and scored just one. The gulf in that league is just too big, and while the odd drubbing would be fun to watch, long term there would be no appeal to such disparity and domination. We all criticise the Scottish Premier for the domination of Celtic and Rangers, and if this keeps going, the WSL would be no better. So, if Sky were going to do this project, then the other clubs would need a bit of a financial boost to help them play a little catch up in regards to their squads. Sky would benefit in the long run, because the football they broadcast would be far more competitive, and that would be far more appealing to the masses.

A top quality medical plan would also be needed. I believe there is a medical care plan in the WSL, but there isn’t one in the WC. The fact is, clubs that are part time, the likes of Palace and company, they can’t afford the full medical care that they would love to provide. My interview with Ashlee Hincks highlighted this very point. Without the money, or a structured care plan, players if they pick up a major injury, are stuck with having to wait for NHS surgeries, which means a long term injury becomes even longer. They have months to wait for an operation, before the recovery starts to take place, while in the men’s game, it would be days, or weeks until that surgery. This needs to change. Again, this is not the fault of the clubs. They want to be able to provide the care and treatment for their players, it just isn’t financially possible. So, part of the deal should be to get a proper care plan in place, so the women can actually be looked after and protected. This would be beneficial for Sky long term, because they wouldn’t want their star attractions sitting on the side-lines for longer than it could be.

These three pieces of step three, in my opinion, are absolute musts. The rest of my step three plan, are my personal opinion to enhance the excitement and standard of the leagues. In terms of the WSL, the only change that I would make structurally, is that two teams would get relegated. Nice and simple. In terms of the WC, first and foremost, it needs another team added. Ever since it was set up three years ago, there have only been eleven teams. That first season saw two teams(Utd and Spurs) promoted out of it and none relegated. Meanwhile Coventry United and Blackburn were then promoted into it. Two out and two in, meant still an odd number of eleven. Last season saw one team promoted out of it(Villa), one team relegated into it(Liverpool) and no teams relegated from it, nor promoted into it. This means, that there are still an odd number of eleven teams. It makes it look poor, and it means that every week, a team has to sit out. That just isn’t the way forward when you are trying to sell the product. So, it needs to change to twelve teams. I would have the team that finishes 12th gets outright relegated. The teams that finish 11th and 10th, would have a two leg relegation play-off, in which the loser also goes down. The league winners would be automatically promoted, while 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th would face off in Play-Offs to decide the second promoted team. Why would I do this? Well, The WSL has the star power currently, and the ‘big teams’, so if you are wanting to sell the WC as a league also worth watching for the casual fan, then you need to make it as interesting as possible. If no one goes down and only one team goes up, then the competitive edge to the league dies off pretty quickly. Under my plan, pretty much every team would be involved in some form of battle, right up until the final fixtures. That would not only create excitement, but it would boost competition, give the women more to play for and help raise the level of play. I would love to know what others think about this, but I think it would make for a great league.

So, those are my three steps, but I am not quite done. If Sky were to do this, there is one more key, fundamental thing required. Only this is not a physical action to be taken, it is a mindset. I am talking about time. Sky would need the patience to give this project time. If they were to go into it expecting big things quickly, they would be disappointed, and sadly, I think that would lead to them pulling the plug. The fact is, this isn’t Hulk Hogan leaving the WWF and turning up on WCW Nitro, it isn’t Brentford signing Cristiano Ronaldo. They wouldn’t be taking something already established, but just at a lower level, and putting a huge element in it to try and elevate it higher. In terms of exposure, women’s football just haven’t had it. Aside from the odd cup match on the BBC, and the FA Player now showing games, women’s football has no TV time. It has no established base. It should do, but it doesn’t. What you have are clubs full of hard working people, many giving their free time, and players who work their socks off, full of passion and desire, in a sport that is refusing to give them the recognition they deserve. You also have a small loyal fanbase. The elements for success are there, the problem is that no one has given the opportunity, and so if this idea was to launch, they would be playing catch up. This is why it would be so important to provide content in the build up to the launch, because you would need to start making up ground. A lack of coverage is not the only issue. Sadly, despite it being 2020, the women’s game is still facing the uphill battle against sexism and the mindset of ‘women can’t play football’. I see it all the time on twitter. Whenever someone posts something positive about the game, or calls for some equality, out come the idiots stating women are crap at playing football. It drives me mad, because these people have never seen a game, hell I doubt they rarely see the men play, but are full of opinions behind a keyboard. The style between the men’s game and the women’s game is different for sure, but that’s it. Get your head past that, and it’s football. I mean, there are so many who complain about how the men are all about the money, and question the lack of passion and desire. Well if they watched the women, they would find it in abundance! Sadly though, that mindset still exists, and it is something that Sky would have to work hard to overcome.

For me though, if they gave it time, if they showed patience, then the success would come. I have every faith in the women. For me, the only way it would fail, is if Sky were lazy and didn’t put in the work.

Now, I have no idea if that headline had any truth to it. I have no idea if Sky have any intention of picking up women’s domestic football. I hope they do, I truly do, because the women deserve it, they have earned it, and I think there are so many opportunities it could create for those involved, and for brand new exciting content. I just hope, that if Sky are contemplating this, that they read this article first, so that they do it right.

Don’t do the obvious, don’t set it up to fail. It’s time to see what those of us who follow the WSL and WC and lower leagues already know…that for the footballing women of the world…the sky is the limit!

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