The Way to the Top: How Big Clubs Enter Women’s Football

One after the other they are joining. It happened in England, in Spain and then in Germany. Four worldwide household football clubs are now part of the women’s game. Manchester United moved first, followed by Real Madrid, then Schalke 04, and if this wasn’t exciting enough Borussia Dortmund is now in.

It will take a while for these teams to reach and stay at the top of women’s football. In their announcement, Borussia Dortmund envisions that this will happen in 10 years time. So how come Manchester United after two years of existence are labelled as a challenger to England’s top three WSL teams, Real Madrid will start immediately in the Liga Iberdrola (Spain’s top division) and the two Ruhr clubs face a long uphill climb? Let’s explore.

The Accelerated Way – Manchester United

The women’s football pyramid is made of seven levels. Manchester United Women started their women’s football journey back in the 2018/19 season of the FA Women’s Championship, the pyramid’s second level.

“At the time, The FA had reopened licensing whereby any club could apply for a place in the WSL or Championship”, says Nicole Allison, Founder of sports consultancy NA Sport football and former GM of Tottenham Hotspur Women. “Manchester United decided to apply for a licence in the Championship”.

“The relicensing was part of The FA women’s football strategy and a restructuring of the elite level. If a club wanted to enter now they couldn’t because we’re not in a relicensing period”, she adds.

When the announcement was made, an article on Sky Sports mentioned that United ran programmes for girls up to the age of 16 through the club’s foundation. After 16, they had to find a new place to go. The team that played during the club’s first season included some of the players from this programme.

The Takeover Path – Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s entry to women’s football was a long-awaited and most welcome move. It is unimaginable to see the Real Madrid brand fighting its way through lower leagues to eventually reach the top division in Spain and miss out on qualification for the UWCL. Real Madrid is a brand that belongs only at the top.

Until 2019 there were three Madrid clubs in Spain’s Liga Iberdrola, Atletico Madrid, Madrid CFF, Rayo Vallecano. A fourth CD Tacon, founded in 2014 quickly made its way up to the top division in 2019. Shortly after that achievement, Real Madrid announced the acquisition of CD Tacon for €400,000 making it their women’s team. For reference, that amount is €100,000 more than what Pernille Harder cost Chelsea Women. An official affiliation with Real Madrid was made in July 2020.

The started from the bottom now we’re…on our way – Schalke 04 & Borussia Dortmund

Two months ago Germany made the women’s football headlines and not due to a successful completion of the only women’s football league in the age of COVID19. Schalke 04 announced the establishment of their first-ever women’s team.

Unlike the previous examples, Schalke 04 will start at the bottom of the German women’s football pyramid. Schalke 04 will compete in the Kriesliga B and is set to see a familiar foe join next summer, Borussia Dortmund. 

In an announcement on 10th of September 2020, Dortmund made it clear that they will start at the very bottom and will not acquire a licence of another club. The attitudes of German football fans towards club ownership are very strong. It is reasonable to assume that if BVB went and acquired a licence such a move wouldn’t have been received quietly.

Status of Club Structure in Europe

A year ago the ECA published a study examining thoroughly the organisational and operational structures in women’s club football of 25 clubs in 20 football associations. One of the key findings is that 52% reported that at their club the men’s team is prominent to the women’s team. In 28% of the clubs, the women’s team is supported equally as the men’s. And its terms of budget levels we can see the image below from the study.

Credit: ECA Women’s Football Club Analysis on YouTube

The four clubs mentioned above are affiliated with vastly resourceful men’s teams. It is reasonable to assume that they would be in the 1m-5m category growing to more than 5m in the future. Manchester united’s operating expenses for the 2018/19 season were nearly £1.5M.

What we can learn from the examples above is that it’s a matter of opportunity and choice when the time comes to establish a women’s team. Although it does seem that where the money is the decision is a no brainer. To the top and fast. This is not to say that Schalke 04 and BVB lack money. Both could have acquired the licence of existing teams and potentially starting their journey higher up. When the football culture is stronger than the opportunity it eventually dictates the choice.

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