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Is it time for the Women's Super League to expand?

The 2023/24 Women’s Super League season has begun! The league is the topflight of female football in England with major potential following the recent success and popularity of the Lionesses. Being a pivotal time for the growth of women’s football in England, key figures have called for an expansion of the league; why now more than ever?

The Women’s Super League consists of 12 teams, after expanding from 8, four years ago and is currently a 22 match campaign. After the season kicked off on October 1st, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes has said that she believes it is time for another expansion. The Blues’ manager led her side to their 4th consecutive league title last season but has recently described the WSL as being more unpredictable than ever. She asks the question of “when are we going to make our league a bit bigger?”.

Hayes pointed out that the small number of games leaves little room for error and takes the excitement out of the title race and relegation battle; Manchester United finished just two points behind Chelsea last season, the points difference came from the Red Devils having an additional draw.

There has evidently been a close in the gap between the standard of teams in the WSL, two games in this season and we have already seen some unpredictable results. Liverpool have started off the campaign in an exceptional manner, with some shock results; on the opening weekend, the Reds saw victory over Arsenal at the Emirates in front of a record-breaking crowd of 54,115, after Miri Taylor found the back of the net just after half-time. Upstaging Arsenal, a team who have been top contenders for the title almost every year since the league began in 2011. The following week, a 2-0 win at home over Aston Villa, who were considered serious title contenders last year after previously being a bottom of the table team. Goals from Marie Hobinger and Natasha Flint gave Liverpool the comfortable win. Previously, Liverpool finished in 7th place, in their first season back in the WSL, since their promotion from the Women’s Championship.

It is early days, however unpredictable results against top sides happening more frequently demonstrates how much the standard is improving year on year. In the past, it was only top ‘veteran’ sides (Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal) who were in contention for the title, however in recent years the competition is much tighter. This is healthy for the women's professional game, as teams continuing to develop their standards improves the 'product' of women's football. Hayes has said that this is evidence that more teams need to be added into the league.

“It’s time to grow, it’s time to go from 12 to 16 or 18 teams”.

An expansion to the WSL would undoubtedly be an opportunity for development. The women’s game in England recently underwent an independent review launched by the government, it focuses on strategic priorities for the development of the women’s game. It mentions how the opportunity for women’s football in England right now is huge, and English women’s football is uniquely situated to capitalise on this using momentum from the Lionesses’ ongoing success.

One of the key principles which ‘must be prioritised in the future commercial development of the elite female game’, mentions that the ultimate objective of women’s professional football should be a financially sustainable, competitively compelling game.

There has been debate regarding how the proposed principles are to be achieved, however an expansion to the league would enable positive consequences that could play a part in reaching these objectives. Additional teams given the chance to play in the most professional environment for female footballers in English club football, will give more teams the opportunity to improve their standard over time.

By facing the best teams in the country frequently, teams are given a level to aspire to compete with, encouraging development. Improvement of standard in the game, lifts the competition and inspires more exciting football games, derbies and title charges – a competitively compelling game. Football being exciting to watch will gain traction, an opportunity to grow a consistent following and secure broadcast or sponsorship deals.

Big crowds have been present at major fixtures over the past few seasons, but this is inconsistent on a weekly basis, as discounting the 8 matches held at main stadia, the average Women’s Super League crowd stood at 2,800. An area for growth, likely to develop as the game does.

An expansion would also see a longer season, with teams playing more games over its duration. Hayes has said that this is also likely to further development. More games would give extra opportunity for games to be held at larger stadiums, big occasions to draw in larger audiences. A growth in fanbase is an important factor in achieving sustainability.

Another thing that can be noted is expanding the promotion and relegation window, the league is currently operating with one up, one down at the end of the season. If the league were to expand, it is important that this does too. Promotion and relegation create jeopardy and excitement in the game, creating stories which are of interest to fans and the media, extending interest throughout a season. This increases the commercial value of the league, driving broadcast values. It also works as an incentive for teams throughout the season, with Championship teams targeting promotion and success, which can inspire a club to invest in their women's side.

These are all building blocks to creating a financially sustainable, competitive, attractive game. It is arguably the right time to expand, as it would inevitably see growth overtime and work towards the ambitions put out by the independent review. Women's football is continuing to grow, now more than ever, a league expansion would play a part in accelerating this.

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