Keira Walsh made history when she signed for Barcelona from Manchester City for a world record fee of £350,000 ($400,000) earlier this month. The move followed the success of the European Championship, which saw England lift their first major trophy on home soil. The transfer is undoubtedly a milestone for the game, but why is the record fee so much lower than the men’s? And is the focus on transfer fees the most important success factor in women’s football?
At this summer’s European Championships, midfielder Walsh was a pivotal factor in England’s victory. And the tournament, which broke records for attendance, viewership and social media impressions, proved that women’s football has grown to a new level and continues to attract new fans. Walsh only drew further attention to the Zug game when she signed for Barcelona, which left many wondering what kind of impact such a transfer will have on the game.
After a number of failed offers to sign Walsh from Barcelona, City agreed the deal with the Spanish club on September 7, a day before the transfer deadline, for a fee that is expected to rise to around £350,000, which exceeds the fee – more of £250,000 ($286,000) – paid by Chelsea in 2020 to sign Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg. By comparison, the record fee for a male player is £198m ($263m) when Neymar joined Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona in 2017. Despite the large gap, Walsh’s move signals another step forward.
Ahead of the start of the Women’s Super League (WSL) season, City manager Gareth Taylor, who has seen significant turnover in his squad this summer with departures and retirements, said Walsh’s move was a “jolt”.
“We had about a week before we realized Keira wanted to leave and had asked,” Taylor said. “Keira served us for eight years, developed very well and wanted to take on this challenge. We got a record fee for them, which shows that we are doing something right here at the club.
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Why is the transfer fee gap so big?
In the last decade in particular, there has been exponential progress and growth in women’s football. From marketing campaigns to sponsorships and investments, from television rights deals to ticket sales, there are many factors that contribute to the growth of football, but the financial gap between women’s and men’s football games is still markedly different.
History plays a significant role in the development of women’s football in England and around the world. Just over 100 years ago, the Football Association (FA) banned clubs from allowing women to play their pitches, ensuring there could not be a women’s league or structure for players to come together and develop. The decision came not long after a historic game in 1920 when Dick, Kerr defeated Ladies FC St Helens 4-0 in front of 53,000 fans at Goodison Park, proving that women’s football was capable of success over a century ago to be. The ban halted much of the success that women’s football had built and it lasted nearly 50 years.
It’s important to mention that men’s soccer has also grown exponentially over the last 30 years, but the time it took them to build the sport enabled men’s soccer decades ago to thrive while women’s soccer made that rise begin to see growth now.
In 1975 Italian Giuseppe Savoldi became the first male £1m footballer to sign for Napoli and just over 20 years later Alan Shearer signed for his boyhood club Newcastle United for a then-record £15m. Neymar holds the current transfer record at £198m for his move to PSG in 2017 and while we may not see the fee escalating to such extremes anytime soon, male players are now regularly bringing in £100m in transfer fees. Broadcast revenue, endorsement deals, and merchandise sales have all contributed to the growth and increase in the game’s finances.
That being said, women’s football is seeing financial growth and it seems only a matter of time before we see the first player sign for £1million. It took just two years for the fee to climb to over £350,000 and as clubs and broadcasters invest more in the game, that record continues to be broken.
Julien Laurens reacts to Keira Walsh’s move to Barcelona for a world record fee.
Based on the numbers
Despite the historical retardation, women’s football is growing in more ways than one. According to FIFA, women’s football transfer spending surpassed $1 million (£880,000) for the first time in 2020 – the same year Harder was signed from Chelsea. However, this year only 36 contracts involved a fee.
FIFA’s 2021 report showed exponential growth as total spend rose to US$2.1m (£1.86m) with 1,304 international transfers made, of which just 58 were for a fee. Most moves were made with unsigned players, accounting for 87.3% of international transfers.
In January 2022, FIFA released another report showing that women’s football transfers had hit a new record of US$487,800 (£430,450) in January – 57.3% more than the same window in 2021. In During the January window, WSL was responsible for more than half of the US$254,200 spent on 20 international transfers – almost double that of Spain, although Spanish clubs have made more than twice as many transfers (46). (£91m).
The evidence points to consistent and significant financial growth in women’s football, both in England and around the world. Barcelona’s signing of 25-year-old Walsh will almost double the total amount already spent in 2022. But while financial growth is important and something to celebrate, other growth factors need to be considered.
Is money the only success factor?
The nature of these transfers raises another question: high transfer fees are always a topic of conversation, but are they the most important measure of success when it comes to the growth of women’s football? When most players in WSL earn less than £50,000 a year on average, are world record transfers the most important thing?
International football in women’s football occupies a large part of the calendar. In 2022 alone, the US women’s national team has already won 29 international caps, while their male counterparts have only won 10. Equal pay at international level not only helps to pay women what they deserve, but also sends a signal that players only appear to be on an equal footing in the eyes of the national federation.
In this case, the USWNT was able to negotiate a historic New Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the United States Soccer Association (USSF) that includes equal pay. The new agreement, which went into effect in June, provides for an equal split of World Cup bonuses, with women and men receiving identical pre-match bonuses and commercial revenue sharing among other equal benefits.
Another major sign of the game’s growth is the changes that are slowly being made to player contracts. A high proportion of transfers in women’s football are short-term, one-year contracts, giving players little job security, and while some players may enjoy the flexibility, the move to longer-term contracts signals clubs’ increased willingness to invest in the game. Alongside a world-record fee, Walsh’s deal with the Spanish giants is a three-year deal and will set a precedent for similar moves in the future.
Access to benefits and player protections in contracts has historically been scarce in women’s football, but it’s been another welcome change in recent years. In January, the FA and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) agreed to change contracts in women’s football in England, giving players maternity, long-term sickness and injury protection. In the United States, the first National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) CBA was agreed in February 2022, giving players a guaranteed minimum wage and parental leave. In February 2020, top female players in Spain agreed on a new collective agreement that guarantees maternity leave, among other benefits.
These agreements are undeniably an important step forward for women’s football, but the growth and improvements in these contracts cannot stop there. Some clubs have started to improve the quality of their training facilities and facilities for their women’s teams, but most training facilities leave a lot to be desired. Brighton recently announced a new £8.5million training facility, while across the pond Kansas City announced a £15.5million ($19million) dedicated training facility for their NWSL team, the KC Current, opened.
Walsh’s transfer fee is something to celebrate and is key to the game, but it’s not paramount. Financial growth in women’s football is crucial, but that growth needs to be reflected through CBAs, services available and training facilities, not just transfer fees.
More important moments will follow Walsh’s transfer and with continued marketing, sponsorship investments, television rights deals and ticket sales, the financial growth is palpable: the Women’s Euros 2022 proved it. Women’s football is just as good as men’s football, but it’s time to stop comparing the two. Instead, let’s focus on celebrating women’s football and all the triumphs that come with it.
https://www.espn.com/soccer/english-womens-super-league/story/4752143/why-kiera-walshs-world-record-transfer-should-never-be-compared-to-neymars Why Kiera Walsh’s world-record transfer should never be compared to Neymar’s