What does Dunn going to the FA WSL mean for the league?

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While the acronyms used to describe England’s and the United States’ top divisions of women’s professional soccer suggest great similarity between the two, the FA WSL and NWSL differ more than can be ascribed to name only. More than just the national affiliation, these two leagues have crucially different structures and dynamics in place that can confuse the most devoted Crystal Dunn aficionado.

While the NWSL is run as a traditional American professional sports league, with a playoff system determining its ultimate champion, the Football Association Women’s Super League (FA WSL) is fundamentally more complicated on a structural level.

FA WSL is comprised of two divisions, the WSL 1 and WSL 2, in which teams compete to garner the best record on a point system (like the NWSL regular season). Like the men’s football system in England, the teams in the top division, the WSL 1, aim to win the league and earn the title of FA WSL 1 Champions; the teams in the second division, the WSL 2, aim to win the league and earn promotion to the FA WSL 1. To put this in terms easily understood by the NWSL audience, there is no “NWSL Final” that determines the ultimate winner of the league. If run like the FA WSL, the winner of the NWSL’s Shield (Portland Thorns in 2016) would win the league. The team on the bottom of the table in the WSL 1 with the least amount of points accrued over the season is “relegated,” or demoted, to the WSL 2 (Boston Breakers in 2016).

To make it more complicated, the league below the WSL 2, the FA Women’s Premier League (FAWPL), is comprised of two divisions that compete separately for the same ultimate prize.

Yes, funnily enough, the men’s top division in England is called the Premier League, and the women’s third division is called the Women’s Premier League—this is fun, isn’t it? The winners of the Southern and Northern Divisions are not both promoted to the WSL 2 but, instead, compete in one playoff match to determine the team promoted to the FA WSL 2. While there are ten teams currently in both the WSL 1 and WSL 2, there are 11 teams in the Northern and Southern Divisions of the FAWPL. Below these three leagues are even lower leagues that operate under a similar system of promotion and relegation. The basic theory underlying the women’s and men’s leagues in England is that anyone can start an amateur team at the lowest league, and theoretically win each league to rise to the top division. If applied to the United States, this would equate to designating the NWSL as the top division, the ENCL as the next division (maybe), and would be a difficult, basically impossible endeavor for USSF to sort out. 

While the ultimate purpose of the NWSL as an American professional sports league is to be a profitable business that grows every year with greater attendance and expansion, that is not the primary goal of the FAWSL at this point. Like the NWSL, the English FA (equivalent of USSF) supports and runs the FAWSL for the purpose of developing domestic players who can play for the national team. Obviously, players who are not English-born nor hold an English passport can play for FA WSL 1, WSL 2 and WPL teams, but there are restrictions on the number and qualifications required.

Before we get to the debate of what Crystal Dunn even means to the FA WSL, we have to discuss what it means to be professional in England.

The NWSL is run as a full-time professional league in which contracted players are paid at least a minimum salary to work as full-time professional soccer players; several can and do get part-time jobs to help subsidize their lives because the NWSL does not pay a living wage to all of their players (@ Jeff Plush, not me).

Despite working as a starting fullback for the Chicago Red Stars, Arin Gilliland has a part-time job outside of Chicago to help pay for basic living expenses, amenities and basic life as a twenty-something. In the FAWSL, most teams in the WSL 1 pay their players as full-time employees with a salary agreed upon by both parties in a contract. While Chelsea can pay Eniola Aluko say £35,000 per season, Liverpool has no such requirements and can pay their captain however much they think is appropriate. There is a salary cap, like and actually inspired by the NWSL, but it is not a strict number, but rather is a percentage based on the earnings of the club. There is no limit or ceiling for individual salaries; this system is based on the idea that all clubs will be grown sustainably so as to ensure that they’re won’t be large disparities between the clubs. The better individual clubs perform, the more they can pay their players.

There is also a Club Development Fund in which clubs can apply for funds from the English FA, provided they can demonstrate that they can match any funds awarded to them through sponsorship, ticket sales or advertising.

Additionally, unlike the NWSL, where USSF pays the salaries of USWNT players who are playing for NWSL clubs, 30 players in the English women’s national team player pool are awarded “central contracts” for a minimum of £25,000 per year that are separate from their club contracts and salaries. Consequentially, there is significant disparity in the quality (let’s call it that to be kind) of players on each team; while Manchester City Women employs nearly half of the English national team pool, some teams have had no players called up by Mark Sampson this month and/or Kosovaren Aslani on their roster. Beyond money, teams like Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal (just last week, they got a selfie with Mo Pharah), attract players with world-class facilities that are funded by their men’s teams. Look at Melbourne City Women in the Australian W-League, which just unveiled a world-class training center just for Head Coach Jess Fishlock’s team—this wasn’t funded by their successes, but the support of the larger Manchester City corporation.

While Manchester City has the full backing of their men’s team that allows it to have the best of the best in terms of player roster, amenities, training, etc., this varies on a case-by-case basis for clubs.

Most teams in the FA WSL 2 employ their players as part-time professional athletes with trainings on different days of the week rather than every day and varying accommodations and perks. There are a few exceptions to the general rule of fully professional FA WSL 1 and semi-professional FA WSL 2 teams. Everton, with the full enthusiastic backing of their men’s team, employs their team as full-time players, and Sunderland AFC recently announced that they will only employ their players as part-time from now on to cut down on costs. While the ultimate goal is obviously to pay everyone as full-time professional athletes, there’s no requirement or impetus to do that. If you’re a business looking to stay in the FA WSL 2 and are comfortable in the league, there’s no need to pay players more or hire players of a higher calibre. Teams in the FA WPL can and do spend more money (hello Charlton Athletic) on their teams than WSL 2 clubs, as is their right—they’re trying to get promoted.

Like the wavering stability of different teams in the NWSL, conditions of teams in the league are not permanent or guaranteed at any time. While Liverpool won the league a few years back under Matt Beard and went to Champions League (the two top teams in the FA WSL 1 advance to the UEFA Champions League competition), now their men’s team no longer supports them as much as they did, and they’ve fallen out of favor. Chelsea is a rising power in the FA WSL, and with their acquisitions of Dunn, Mjelde, Bachmann, and Cuthbert, they’re looking to challenge the reigning monarch of FA WSL, Manchester City, who were undefeated in the 2016 season.

Additionally, while there is a divide between MLS-backed and independently-owned NWSL teams in the States, all teams in FA WSL are affiliated with men’s leagues, from Liverpool Ladies (Liverpool FC are a Premier League team) to the Doncaster Rovers Belles (Doncaster Rovers FC are a League Two team). This helps contribute to that pesky issue of an increasingly lopsided league in which powerhouses, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal, fight for the top two spots to go to Champions Leagues, and others try to avoid relegation. One growing worry of the FA WSL, a league that needs domestic competition to grow it’s domestic players that can play for its national team, is becoming like the Damalsvenskan in Sweden or Ligue 1 in France, where Lyon and PSG battle it out and everyone else just survives.

Crystal Dunn’s acquisition raises the profile of this very issue as a new debate emerges over the level of competition and professionalism rages in England.

The United States has won three World Cups and five Olympic gold medals. One of those World Cup wins was with our favorite professional league in place, and the others were not. The English Women’s National Team’s best performance was in 2015 with their bronze medal win at the 2015 Women’s World Cup against Germany (this was epic). A great portion of this success was due to the strength of its domestic league that cultivated incredible English players like Lucy Bronze (Manchester City), Alex Scott (Arsenal), and Karen Carney (Chelsea). Some of these players have plied their trade in other countries, but almost all players on the English WNT have played in their domestic league at sometime in their careers.

It is the impetus of the English FA to cultivate a strong league to improve the quality of their national team. Therefore, by all accounts, Crystal Dunn arguably took a spot on Chelsea away from an English player. Does she benefit the league by increasing the level of competition or hurt it by taking the spot of a young player on Chelsea who could become the next English great? Is the FA WSL strong enough to have quality players start on a FA WSL 2 side and then rise through the ranks to the FA WSL 1 and full English national team? This balancing act is the true question of the English women’s league system.

Another point of comparison that I would be remiss not to discuss would be the popularity of these leagues in attendance and broadcast. While every single team in the NWSL averages a minimum attendance of 2,000, FA WSL 1 teams would celebrate a league game with 2000 people in attendance with champagne, cigars and a trip to one of the nightclubs that Prince Harry frequents. Every single NWSL game is available to watch on YouTube or Fox Sports; in the future, we expect greater TV deals and better streaming from all teams. The English FA negotiated an exclusive broadcast deal with BT Sport for the rights to the FA WSL, the England Women’s Senior Team and The FA Women’s Cup.  Rather than every match broadcast somewhere, only a few matches are broadcast live on television, and there is a limit to the number individual clubs can broadcast on their own.

Despite the resources and desires of Manchester City, they were only allowed to broadcast a few of their FA WSL matches on Facebook (Alex Morgan isn’t the only one). Their UWCL (UEFA Women’s Champions League) matches are all broadcast on Facebook. While attendance for the FA WSL 1 has averaged over a thousand people for the past couple of years, the attendance for the FA WSL 2 has yet to reach an average of 500 people in attendance. Unlike the thousands that Crystal Dunn is used to seeing in the stands at the Plex or online in Youtube streams, the FA WSL is a less popular league that is trying to gain fans in a crowded and prejudiced marketplace.

While the United States has a long way to go in convincing everyday Americans that female athletes are worth watching, the United Kingdom has decades to go in convincing people that women can and should play football. While women’s football was MASSIVE during World War One, drawing crowds of 53,000 even after the war had ended, the English FA banned women from playing football in 1921.

From 1921 to 1971, the English FA banned professional women’s football in the United Kingdom on grounds that females were “unsuitable” to football and called for clubs to refuse women from using their grounds to play. Cultural norms persist in this country among some populations where women are not expected to play or watch football. Huge strides have been made, but the fact remains that many think little or nothing of women’s football.

The success of players like Lucy Bronze at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, with England’s best finish in a World Cup since the England MNT’s fourth-place finish in 1990, has helped change a lot of minds, but it’s just the beginning. If you think the United States is a crowded sports market, every city, village and township has a football club belonging to some league that draws crowds. Sometimes during the summer, the NWSL is the only professional sports league operating on any given day in a market; the Orlando Pride sometimes are the only team playing in Florida that can be watched and attended by Central Floridians. It’s not just the Premier League that is drawing attendance away from the FA WSL, but all the other teams in 11 tiers of English football to compete with.

While it would be fun to also discuss the wonders of the FA Women’s Cup and Champions League, that’s another 2,000 words. The real worry for NWSL supporters in the face of Crystal Dunn’s move to England is what it means for them. The saving grace for NWSL fans who want Americans to stay in the American league is the strict rules for soccer/football players who do not live in the European Union or European Economic Area.

All FA WSL clubs are entitled to register a maximum of two non EU/EEA players on their rosters, and Chelsea is all full up with Crystal Dunn and Ji So-yun. Maybe Christine Nairn or Vanessa DiBernardo will leave the NWSL for the FA WSL one day if they’re never called up for the national team and can earn more abroad in the UK, but there are so few spots for non-EU players to play in the FA WSL. Chelsea used one of their ever-so-valuable spots on Crystal Dunn because she is of the calibre to merit her international spot.*

Players like Crystal Dunn are not just attracted to the FA WSL for money but also for the opportunity to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and work in facilities that far surpass the Rutgers Soccer Stadium in New Jersey. But the NWSL can offer different things, and, depending on who you talk to, is likely to grow more competitive, popular, and profitable than the FA WSL—and grow faster. But the NWSL is limited by the short season and long off-season, the maximum salary ceiling that hurts Tom Sermanni’s quest for Caitlin Foord, and standards of the league that Alex Morgan has rightfully complained about.

Can the NWSL and FA WSL exist symbiotically? Yes. Could it become an antagonistic relationship in the future with no advantage given to either side? Absolutely.

*With Brexit looming, the English FA will have to adapt to new realities away from the EU, so who knows how these rules will change.