The buzz around women’s football has never been louder, it certainly echoed throughout this year’s Women in Football Conference. With rapid growth rates and increased visibility, the sport stands at a pivotal moment.

My question is this … is the current trajectory sustainable?

Delving into discussions from the conference, I explore the sustainability of this growth and the challenges the sport faces. Spoiler alert … it’s not all a bed of roses!

A train gaining speed: who has been left on the platform?

I want to start with a positive. Women’s football has seen incredible growth in many areas over recent years and no one is more excited by this than me!

You just have to look at the results of our recent SportOnSearch report to see that the Barclays Women’s Super League (BWSL) led the way in increase of online search in 2023.

Arsenal Women’s transition to playing all their home games at the Emirates Stadium next season is testament to the sport’s burgeoning appeal and the investment that clubs are willing to make. As is the agreement to proceed with independent company (NewCo) in its work to grow the top two leagues in England.

David Dein MBE made an evocative statement at the conference: ‘The train has left the platform and is building speed. Jump on now or get left behind’ – perfectly capturing the current momentum of women’s football.

Although Dein’s analogy was aimed at brands not yet jumping on the opportunities women’s football has to offer, there’s a fear that there are others being left behind as well.

There is a feeling that the gap between the top leagues and the lower divisions is growing. This is a prime opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the men’s game and build a pyramid system that supports teams lower down the funnel. I’d love a world where it’s possible for a smaller women’s team not associated with a prominent men’s team to be battling for the BWSL title in a few years’ time.

If we talk about sustainability of growth and the possibility of increasing the number of professional teams, we have to be looking out for the ‘smaller’ guys.

Alongside small clubs, I fear there are communities also being left behind as the sport ploughs full steam ahead.

We need to ensure all women from all backgrounds are represented as the game grows. We need to make the women’s game the most inclusive it can possibly be.

How can this be done? By laying the foundations correctly and reaching as many communities as possible at grassroots level, and by doing it now. This means ensuring funding is allocated to allow the broadest talent pool possible, to truly represent the diverse UK population.

Women's Football

Governing the game: a lack of women in the room

The discussion on governance in football spotlighted another glaring diversity issue: the scarcity of women in pivotal roles within the sport’s administration. Laura McAllister, UEFA Vice Chairman, and Deputy Chair of the UEFA Women’s Football Committee, gave a fantastic perspective as the only woman on the UEFA board.

She noted that despite witnessing great progress in changing attitudes towards the women’s game, many countries still hold very different beliefs about women’s rights in general, let alone desiring equality in football administration. This was clearly reflected in the responses of some countries to the Rubiales scandal at the World Cup.

It’s about women having respect in football. Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL) Chair, Mary Galbraith put it succinctly, ‘When you speak it’s easy to be heard but harder to be listened to.’

So how do we resolve the scarcity of women in decision-making positions? The debate around quotas is contentious yet pivotal. McAllister argues that in an ideal world, meritocracy would negate the need for quotas. No one wants to feel like they’re just a token. Nevertheless, the current landscape where women are significantly underrepresented in positions of power calls for proactive measures.

Quotas, although a temporary solution, could accelerate the path to gender parity, making sure women’s voices and perspectives shape the future of football at all levels. Let’s get in the room and show the world we deserve to be there.

A different ball game: playing a sport designed for men

Okay, let’s imagine a world where funding comes flooding in, fandoms continue to grow, and women are better represented in the boardroom. There remains another cog that needs to be well oiled. The players!

Echoing Patrick Massey, Portus Consulting’s Global Head of Women’s Sport, a player-first mindset must permeate through sport’s governance and recognise that female athletes cannot and should not be treated identically to their male counterparts.

Women are built differently and this must be reflected in every aspect of the game: from training routines and the dietary needs of players to injury prevention and treatment and mental health support. Even the equipment we use! We’re only now seeing football boots designed specifically for women become readily available on the market. More funding and research is required to help female players reach their true potential.

Will we suddenly see female players reach the levels of Messi and Ronaldo because their boots have changed? No, of course not. But remember, we’re 70 years behind in the field of play, participating in a sport designed and developed to favour men. It’s going to take more time and more money.

While research is being done into female player injuries – particularly Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)  issues – we still lack knowledge in how best to prevent them. One thing we can and must have more control over, however, is game time.

Current match schedules and the wish to fulfil growing demand with an increase in the number of games is an area where we can’t carry on at such a crazy pace. If we do, injuries will increase and players will burn-out. Without players there is no football.

Ultimately, until the match calendar is re-worked I don’t see the sport in its current form as sustainable.

What lies ahead: driving sustainable growth

Sustainability in women’s football hinges on addressing these multifaceted challenges head-on. The key?

Funding. Funding. Funding. All appropriately directed.

It’s easy to throw money at a problem but without direction you may as well throw your investment into a bottomless pit. But we can identify the right direction with additional women in the room helping make decisions.

Women’s football is at a crossroads, with the opportunity to redefine not only its future but the broader landscape of football as a whole. Embracing equity, understanding and innovation, the journey ahead promises to be as thrilling as the game itself.

In short, is the growth of women’s football in the UK sustainable? Right now, no. But we know what we need to do!

Let’s work together to create a sport designed specifically for women, with women playing their part in every major decision.