Football regulator delay offers chance to discuss reparations for women’s game| Kelly Simmons

Estimated read time 6 min read

The general election has put the government’s legislation for an independent football regulator on hold. With both the Conservatives and Labour supporting the proposal, it should return to parliament regardless of who wins. This delay provides an ideal opportunity for a rethink. To date, the women’s game hasn’t been properly considered in the discussions and deliberations.

Let’s start with the IFR’s name. It’s actually the independent men’s football regulator as the women’s game hasn’t been included. Language is important and this plays to an outdated narrative that the women’s game doesn’t count.

I’ve heard various reasons as to why the women’s game was excluded; from not wanting to add another layer of complexity into the mix and risk stalling the bill, through to giving the women’s game a chance to self-regulate and not wanting to stifle new investment opportunities available to it. But this feels to me like a huge, missed opportunity for the women’s game.

A look at its impending powers is also revealing. Firstly, it would have backstop powers to resolve the long-running saga between the Premier League and the English Football League regarding solidarity payments that flow down the men’s pyramid. This is currently worth £130m per annum to EFL clubs (and another £200m-plus in parachute payments to relegated clubs) and Premier League funds can equate to as much as 50% of an EFL club’s turnover. Uefa brought in a solidarity payment for the Uefa Women’s Champions League clubs to support the growth of the women’s game, but in England the women’s game isn’t included in any Premier League solidarity. With women’s football still recovering from the FA’s historical ban, and trying to grow in a saturated market with limited broadcast slots, surely this has to change. Perhaps reparation money for the ban should be considered.

If the IFR’s remit included women’s football and it pushed for its inclusion in any new solidarity package, it would transform and protect the women’s game overnight. The sorry saga where Kayleigh McDonald from Stoke City set up a GoFundMe page to fund her ACL surgery would be consigned to history. Alongside this new guaranteed cash for the women’s game, the FA or the IFR could enhance and expand club licensing criteria to raise standards in performance, medical and welfare provision, helping implement many of the excellent recommendations in Karen Carney’s review down through the pyramid of women’s football.

Rishi Sunak’s calling of an early election means plans to introduce an independent football regulator are on hold.View image in fullscreen

The challenge the Carney review has is that there is no money and no teeth to implement it. It relies on either the football authorities stepping up, waiting for WSL NewCo (the new club-owned entity being set up to run the women’s professional game), revenue growth or clubs stepping up as one and we all know how patchy that is.

And, if the women’s game was to receive a share of these distributions, alongside its own commercial growth, it would absolutely make sense to adopt best practice in cost controls with robust and independent financial regulation, monitoring and reporting to ensure that we do indeed learn the lessons from the men’s game – which many, including me, feel is vitally important. Instead, the women’s game has been given a chance “to regulate itself”, even though 22 of the 24 clubs in NewCo are the very same owners that the government has decided cannot regulate themselves and require independent regulation.

The new IFR will also oversee the vitally important club owners’ and directors’ test (ODT). This will include a new fitness and propriety test to ensure integrity of owners and directors, an enhanced due diligence of sources of wealth and a requirement for robust financial plans. All critical considerations within the women’s game especially at a time when it is receiving growing interest from new investors. The vast majority of the NewCo club owners will go through the ODT by default, from being owners of the overall parent club sitting within the Premier League or EFL – indeed the WSL table is increasingly resembling the Premier League table, with seven of the top eight being the same clubs for the past two seasons. But, NewCo, under the IFR proposals, will still need to create and resource a separate test for independent women’s clubs such as London City Lionesses, recently bought by the indomitable Michelle Kang. Integrity of competition surely dictates that this should be the same ODT test for all NewCo clubs? It all feels very inefficient.

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Then there is the IFR’s role in developing a mandatory club licence for the men’s clubs. Imagine a world where this included a commitment to best practice governance and diversity. We know that women are as scarce as hen’s teeth on most club boards – women make up roughly 10% of Premier League club boards – and that the women’s team doesn’t always get appropriate oversight and focus. Without diversity of leadership, there is a risk that the women’s teams will operate in an unhealthy, macho or even misogynistic culture. Lobby group Women in Football has publicly called for the inclusion of best practice governance including diversity within the licence. Again, a governance code including provisions for diversity is an open door to drive positive change for the whole game but one I fear could be missed.

I understand the argument that the platform for the men’s game is a burning one and that the regulator needs a narrow focus to address the issues that have seen so many clubs in crisis. Those fans and those communities deserve better. But the women’s game should have the same level of thinking and the same amount of teeth to address the issues it has. A slightly broader regulator remit and joined-up thinking between the IFR and the Carney review could transform and protect the women’s game overnight. And with our history we deserve it.


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