By Kerys Harrop
With the start of the 2021/22 Women’s Super League season on Friday 3rd September, where Manchester United take on Reading live on Sky Sports, I thought it was apt to talk about how much the WSL has grown over the last 10 years since its launch in 2011. Having the first match of the season live on Sky Sports is a big deal for the women’s game and it is a day I never truly thought would happen in my time being a professional footballer.
I was 21 when the inaugural WSL season launched in 2011 and back then clubs were still part-time and we only trained two nights a week. I was playing for Birmingham at the time and we had built a very strong squad so I was very excited to get the season going. I was one of a couple of players from Birmingham that were chosen to go down to Wembley stadium to film the opening credits for the new Women’s Football Show, a female version of Match of the Day.
It was such a surreal experience and it was crazy to think that all this effort was going in to the women’s game, to create a highlights show for us. We were told that some of the games were going to be shown on BT Sport too, which although it wasn’t a mainstream TV channel at the time, it was still amazing to think that our games were being televised.
For so long we had mostly played our matches in front of our family and the few hardcore fans that would be at games, and now our matches were going to be visible to a lot more people. It was very exciting and at that time I had no idea about how much the game was going to grow even more over the next decade.
Throughout those early years of the WSL, some clubs like Birmingham were still operating on their own without the support of their men’s teams. We were training at a local University and using their facilities; however there were improvements in the number of people attending games. There was much better promotion from the FA and media channels about a new professional league starting for women in England and so the fanbase started to increase.
However, the reality was that it wasn’t actually full-time professional for most teams in those early years, but I guess it just sounded better to say ‘professional’ so we went along with it. Only within the last 5 years would I say the game is now full-time professional for all teams in the WSL, with more investment from the men’s clubs into their women’s teams. The support has been great, with women’s teams now sharing the same training facilities as their men’s teams and even playing some home games at the men’s stadiums.
Having the FA Cup final being played at Wembley Stadium now is also fantastic for the game and it allows for players like myself to achieve those dreams we had when we were young budding footballers. Football is now our full-time job and we are training and playing 5 days a week, without the need for another job to be able to live comfortably. Because of this, the spectacle of women’s football has improved dramatically, and the quality of football on show has significantly improved. This in itself means that there is a lot more interest now in the WSL, not just from fans and media outlets, but also commercial interest which will only help the game to grow even more.
The biggest commercial deal so far in the history of the women’s game came this year with the announcement that Sky Sports and the BBC will be showing more WSL games on their channels. The exposure this will give the WSL is massive and I can’t wait to see the positive impact this will have on women’s football across the country, not only at the professional level but all the way down to grassroots level.
I doubt very much I will be playing in the WSL for the whole of the next 10 years (after all I am 30 now!) but I hope to still be involved, whether it be in some kind of media or punditry capacity or another role. This is what is exciting about the new deal with Sky Sports and the BBC, it not only provides more publicity and opportunity for players on the pitch, but also creates new opportunities for current and former players to seek interests off the pitch, such as media work.
I am very proud to be one of the few players that has played throughout the whole course of the WSL and I feel it makes me more appreciative of the position that I am in now. I have come from an era where we were never paid to play football and played purely for the love of the game. It then advanced to being paid travel expenses and maybe a win bonus if we were lucky. To now say that I can make a living from football and that it is my full-time job, is something I will never take for granted and I am very privileged to be in this position.
At the stage I am in in my career, I am going to enjoy every minute and pass on as much knowledge and wisdom to the younger girls coming through. Long may the WSL continue and I look forward to seeing its continual growth and for the game to keep inspiring the next generation of footballers.