Change at the top for women’s football


Women’s professional football in England must embrace its “rebel spirit” and chart its own course if it is to thrive, said the former investment banker tasked with creating the world’s top club competition.

Nikki Doucet started work earlier this year as chief executive of a new commercial entity — for now known simply as “NewCo” — that will take over responsibility for the top two tiers of women’s football in England this summer. The game has until now been operated by the Football Association, the sport’s governing body. 

As the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship gear up for life as a standalone business, Doucet told the Financial Times that the game must not fall into the trap of simply copying structures and habits from men’s football.

“I hope we learn the best bits from the men’s game, but I hope we learn from the bits that may not necessarily be working as well,” said Doucet. “We’re not trying to take market share from men’s football. We believe this is a different audience.”

Replicating the standard broadcast model from men’s football, for example, with ex-players presenting detailed tactical analysis before, during and after a live match, may not work the same way with an audience that includes many people without much experience of watching the sport.  

“We have a lot of new fans coming to women’s football, what is the right programming to bring them in and to explain the game to them?” she said. “I think there’s probably something that doesn’t exist yet. We have to create it.”

Maintaining a high level of competition is another consideration as the game maps out its future. There are concerns that a lack of financial controls risks widening the gulf between a small group of well-funded teams and the rest of the league.

But Doucet said that every club had signed up to a vision to make English football the “most distinctive, the most competitive and most entertaining” in the world. 

In the US, where the women’s game has a much stronger presence, the National Women’s Soccer League — the top professional competition in the US — has spending caps and a closed league with no relegation or promotion. Investment has poured in, sending NWSL team valuations soaring. Last month the San Diego Wave set a new record after being sold for $120mn.  

Doucet, a former Citigroup banker and Nike executive, pointed to several challenges facing the women’s game in England, ranging from an increasingly crowded match calendar to a dearth of appropriate venues for hosting top-tier matches.

Games are often held at small, non-league grounds that are hard to reach, or in men’s stadiums that are difficult to fill. That the game has grown so steadily in such a difficult environment was testament to the great opportunities ahead, she said. 

“Despite all the challenges that are there, it’s a thriving audience that wants to watch it. And so imagine if we had more visibility, a more consistent broadcast slot or just a more consistent approach in terms of where to find it, where to watch, where to engage.” 

The popularity of women’s football in England has soared since the Lionesses triumphed at the European Championships in 2022. The final victory over Germany attracted a peak TV audience of 17.4mn. 

The Euro 2022 England-Germany final. Doucet credits a crop of ‘amazing athletes’ for the game’s recent breakthroughs © Harriet Lander/Getty Images

The success of England’s national team has fed through the club game, with WSL attendances surging 43 per cent so far this year. Arsenal set a new record earlier this season, selling more than 60,000 tickets for its match against Manchester United. 

Doucet credits a crop of “amazing athletes” for the game’s recent breakthroughs. “Nothing is given to these players. Obviously now they’re getting more support. But they have had to fight for that. That’s the rebel spirit coming through,” she said.

“If it was horrible football, I wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s not. It’s amazing,” she added.

Investors have also started to show an interest. In December, US entrepreneur Michele Kang acquired the London City Lionesses, a second tier side that is unconnected to a men’s club. Kang also owns teams in the US and France.

Speaking at the FT’s recent Business of Football Summit, Kang said that women’s teams had long been treated as “a sort of charity” and that “separate and dedicated” management was needed to drive commercial success. 

Doucet welcomed the arrival of investors like Kang who are focused exclusively on the women’s games, rather than executives at men’s football clubs who “at 5pm, for 20 minutes, think about the women’s team”.

“We want the space. We want the ability and the opportunity to build a business”, she said. “Once we start to unlock some of those structural barriers, I just think the growth potential is unbelievable.”



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