Why WSL without promotion-relegation would be a step back for the sport

Just as the Women's Super League (WSL) is figuring out how to decouple from the English FA and chart a new, independent future, Tottenham Hotspur owner Daniel Levy has reportedly floated his own idea in discussions with other owners: the WSL should become closed competition without promotion or relegation.

Levy drew the ire of the women's football community in reportedly suggesting that the Women's Super League (WSL) should be a closed competition, and his comments couldn't come at a more frustrating time. There are two working groups -- one set up by the English FA, the other by the British Government -- tasked with reviewing the WSL's structure and developing ambitious plans for the future. Yet Levy, along with several other executives, are discussing their own ideas as to how the women's game ought to be structured.

Never intending to be a long-term gatekeeper for the Women's Super League, the plan is for the FA to relinquish responsibility for the top two tiers of women's football in England. What that will actually look like for the WSL and Women's Championship is unknown for now, with Karen Carney still conducting her review that will help shape the game once it leaves the FA's hands.

Levy's reported position is that a closed league would see more investment in the game, but those around the women's game know this is entirely counter-intuitive. It's only been in recent years that more money has begun to flow into the women's game, with several leagues across the world now running completely full-time set-ups. For example, Spurs were a part-time team playing in the second tier just four years ago, their switch to professionalisation only confirmed after earning promotion to the WSL.

With more eyes on women's football than ever before, brands and commercial partners have finally wised up to the investment opportunities of the women's game. In recent years, fans have seen Barclays join as a WSL title sponsor, while a new broadcast deal with Sky has elevated the production values and given deeper in-match insights with the sports broadcaster offering up the same treatment for the league that it affords men's competitions. Further afield, it was only two years ago that Budweiser came on as one of the new raft of sponsors for the National Women's Soccer League, something that may not have even seemed like a pipe dream several years ago.

This summer's World Cup is likely to see the cut-off point where parties can invest for a cut-rate price. So why, when there is boundless room for growth, would the English league shirk its own unique ecosystem that heralds the strength of the pyramid to close the shop up and instead promotes the opposite?

When WSL was settling in for its first season in 2011, it was a closed league: teams had to bid for licenses in order to operate, with a sizable drop to the fundamental base structures of the pyramid below. The licences themselves acted as a tool for evaluation and although they didn't cost teams any money, clubs had to be able to show they had enough in the bank to persuade the FA that they were worthy applicants.

Yet still just running on a part-time basis with running costs supplemented by the FA -- in addition, England players who were centrally contracted by England had their salaries augmented -- the WSL wasn't just a mirror for the Premier League of the time. Although there were some of the usual suspects like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, they were joined by (among others) Birmingham City, Bristol Academy and the Doncaster Belles. It was a time when the talent was more evenly spread across the division and all teams could boast an England international, leading to healthy competition and less predictability in silverware distribution.

However, in those early years, the WSL existed in isolation and for those teams forced to look up in hope at making it in, there was no way in; the door was locked, separating the part-time elite from the rest of the country.

In 2014, the FA introduced WSL 2, a hodgepodge of teams that would be vying for the a lone promotion berth that came with the title -- only the last-placed WSL 1 team could drop down -- but there were still no other routes for teams outside of this closed system. Even then, when the idea of professional, full-time football was still a fanciful dream, there was a desperate call to attach the top two tiers to the rest of the English pyramid and create a pathway for teams from the third tier to climb higher. In time, a promotion play-off from the two regional third tiers was created; Spurs won this very play-off game in May 2017, running an amateur setup, in order to get up.

The club had been using the Tottenham Hotspur moniker since the early 1990s though they wouldn't be integrated into the club for a long time; in fact, they were only granted regular access to the men's team training grounds in 2020. As revealed by Jess Fishlock on the Offside Rule podcast, U.S. international Alex Morgan had catalysed the change, during her short-term stint with the team, after taking exception to the substandard facilities her teammates had historically endured with a smile.

As Fishlock told the ORP, "I think that that influence that they'll have off the field, making sure that the girls have changed training fields, they now train at the men's training fields. That will have a huge everlasting impact on Tottenham as a club."

The Welsh international recalled Morgan's impact: "you get a lot of things swept under the carpet because you want to say you're associated with a men's club, but you don't really hardly get anything that you should be getting. That will eventually have to change and at some point I'm sure that it will -- I'm sure you'll get some people coming out saying this is actually what happens and this is unacceptable. Like I said, Alex came over here and made sure the women changed their training fields because where they were training was unacceptable."

With Levy himself guilty of undervaluing and under-investing in his own team, one has to wonder how he can suggest that a closed league would promote growth rather than encouraging clubs to reduce their funding to the bare minimum with no fear of relegation or reprisal.

The treatment of the women's team at Spurs has been mostly reduced to rumours and whispers, with former goalkeeper Chloe Morgan, although guarded, one of the more outspoken players to have left the London club over the past few years. Indeed, when she left the Lilywhites in 2020 the former shot-stopper put out a statement that threatened to lift the curtain on what had been happening during her six years at the club.

"As a female player, my values have not always aligned with the main club and it has been difficult and conflicting for me to reserve comment on things which I feel strongly about -- especially equality. While I am not yet in a position to share my experiences, I am even more in awe of the players and staff for the achievements of the women's side, despite the adversity we have sometimes faced."

When she joined the Athletic earlier this year, Morgan recalled the "sand-based artificial turf at a leisure centre" where the team would train twice a week as recently as 2015, even though it was one of the most prosperous times for the men's team, the women's section remained an afterthought at best.

At a time of penny-pinching for most households in England, not to mention that large swathes of the game is still trying to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that forced numerous clubs to fold, slamming doors shut around the women's game -- which is still embryonic in comparison to the men's version -- would only lead to more disbanding.

We only have to look to Spurs' recent past when former manager Karen Hills -- who spent over a decade coaching the Lilywhites -- doubled as team accountant, driver, kit-woman, dinner lady and more. As she told the Telegraph in 2019, Hills was responsible for "paying the ref money, doing team sheets, making sure the sandwiches were done, making sure the girls took their kit home to wash it themselves. I had to drive minibuses to away games, go on courses to get my minibus license. You organised the end-of-season presentations: I had to go and buy all the medals for 186 players."

It's just one story among many about the game's unhealthy past in England, which saw dedicated people like Hills willing to devote their entire lives to voluntary and unpaid work for clubs: Hills' paying job at the time was actually in the Tottenham Foundation.

Although closing WSL wouldn't limit the growth of women's football elsewhere in the world, it would raise the simple question of why any team outside of the favoured few in WSL should invest in their women's side. What would be in it for them? Promotion would be off the table and with opportunities limited below the top tier, there would be little hope of any team outside that system holding onto their players and creating a dynamic, upwardly mobile team.

Any savvy businessperson, or indeed anyone with any degree of stock and heart in the women's game, knows that more investment is needed. Being open to traditional and new sources of investment, rather than rigidly trying to follow a men's football template -- especially one that simply mirrors the biggest teams -- is how the game can thrive.

In the last year we've seen community club Lewes FC partner with Xero -- who have since gone on to sponsor the England women's national team -- with a view to increasing the financial health of clubs around the country. Or in a very different way, we've seen the founding of Angel City, an NWSL expansion side co-owned by some of the USA's sporting and celebrity elite from Sarena Williams to Natalie Portman as well as some 14 former U.S. women's internationals.

With men's football so firmly stuck in a mould, the onus is on women's football to be brave enough to forge its own path rather than repeating what's already been done.

Ultimately, Levy's "idea" of closing off the WSL smacks of the same arrogance and entitlement that led to some of the richest teams in the world thinking they deserved their own European Super League regardless of how their teams actually performed on the pitch.