The Lionesses’ triumph at Euro 2022 is a colossal victory for the playing squad, the coaching and support staff who contributed to their success and all those who have long advocated for the women’s game.
This is a moment of enormous opportunity – to change the game and to change attitudes. It’s safe to say that this has already begun. The focus is now on building the legacy of this current success for the women’s game into the future. This is both tremendously exciting and challenging.
Governance was probably far from the minds of the 87,000 fans at Wembley, the millions watching on TVs around the country, or the thousands gathered in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the achievement. But it is at precisely this moment that it ought to be firmly in the thoughts of those charged with capitalising on this exceptional moment.
Governance is often seen as a burden. At The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland and in the Sports Governance Academy – our partnership with Sport England – we see it differently. It is an enabler of performance. Good governance enables individual organisations and whole sectors - including individual sports - to grow and flourish in a sustainable and equitable way.
As we expect an explosion of interest among young girls – in fact, among all people – in taking up the game, investment in infrastructure will be required to meet demand safely and sustainably. Much work already goes on at the grassroots level to ensure that the game is grown and placed on a sound footing – see, for example, the recent SGA essay discussing the development of governance among county football associations – and The FA must and will continue to invest in facilities and opportunities to take part.
It is crucial that local networks be supported and resourced from the start, not just in terms of facilities and coaching, but in the fundamentals of governance and administration. The perils of getting this wrong are well documented, with the recent Whyte review into gymnastics illustrating starkly the consequences of failing in this area.
Of the bigger picture, what will be interesting is the direction that the women’s game will take now that there is both pressure and opportunity to grow the sport in scale, visibility and commerciality. There is so much that needs to be retained. Not just the self-evident quality of play, but also the relative accessibility of its stars, the family-friendly atmosphere in the stands and the absence of on-field histrionics. Indeed, it was the football-without-the-nonsense at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada that converted me.
Effective governance supports the values and culture of organisations and there is a great deal to admire and learn from in the women’s game. Despite its own struggle for parity of opportunity, exposure and investment, it has shown itself to be more accepting than its male counterpart in other areas. Why is it, for example, that its players feel so much more comfortable being open about their sexuality than male players do? Presumably, this says something about the prevalent cultures in either case.
As football looks to seize the current opportunity to shape the future, the challenge is to build on these positives while addressing engrained disparities. It didn’t go unnoticed during the Euros that ethnic diversity among the Lionesses was limited at best. The FA has acknowledged that the talent development structure needs to facilitate participation for all communities. The same goes for the game’s leadership and this is another area where progress must be made. Initiatives such as the Leadership Diversity Code are important, but the trajectory must be an upward one.
Organisations in all sectors are accountable for the differences in pay between genders and the gulf for women in sport must not be overlooked. Yes, there is an imbalance in commercial value and marketability. But clubs such as Lewes FC have already led the way, having committed to equal playing budgets for both male and female players. Though in a different context, the US National Women’s Team reached a collective bargaining agreement with the men’s team in May to set equal pay for both.
The growth of women’s football which Euro 2022 can herald requires investment in finance, infrastructure and administration. Expansion also brings pitfalls. There are structural issues in the wider game that it must seek to avoid. Does it serve the best interests of the sport to merely replicate the men’s template, to tie the development of women’s football to the existing architecture of the men’s professional game and its attendant problems? Let’s not forget the litany of financial, governance and ownership woes laid out starkly in last November’s Fan-Led Review. That report called for a dedicated review of the women’s game to consider tailored solutions which keep its positive and unique advantages while developing the game sustainably and fairly for all. It would be difficult to think of a more propitious moment to do just that.
SGA Programme Manager
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