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Creating a sustainable future for football – the women’s game

Sports Technology
Bart Huby Partner and Head of Sports Analytics

“Raising the Bar” - Karen Carney’s review into the future of women’s football highlights huge growth potential. Importantly, it recommends a less risky approach to achieving financial independence and sustainability compared to the men’s game.

Our view:

  • There is a huge growth opportunity in women’s football following decades of underinvestment and unequal opportunities.
  • As the women’s game is in a “start-up” phase, many clubs are in a financially vulnerable position as costs are significantly outpacing revenues.
  • A focus on financial sustainability will be critical to ensure the sport’s future success, and lessons need to be learnt from the institutional weaknesses prevalent in the men’s game.
  • Careful planning will be required for women’s clubs to achieve financial independence from external funding sources such as affiliated men’s clubs and owners over the longer term.
  • Focusing on slower, more sustainable development could facilitate investment into the sport from a more ‘traditional’ pool of investors and help deliver a suitable balance between growth and risk along the journey to expand women’s football.
  • The industry needs to be mindful of the possibility of unequal opportunity for clubs without rich affiliated men’s clubs, and must strive to create a level playing field environment where both types of clubs are able to thrive on and off the pitch.
  • Intelligent use of technology, data and AI has the potential to help to level the playing field, improve player experience and generate greater returns on investments into the sport.

Karen Carney’s review does a fantastic job in achieving what its title suggests, which is reframing the opportunity in women’s football. It is easy to be discouraged when considering how the history of the women’s game has contributed to the current huge disparity with the men’s. However, key lessons from the men’s game and other more developed elite sports can be learnt – helping build a framework for sustainable growth and lasting success.

Francesca Bailey, Partner


Just over a year ago Karen Carney, a former England international, was announced as the Chair of a formal review into women’s football. This 128 page review, Raising the bar - reframing the opportunity in women's football was released in July.

The timing of the Report coincided with LCP’s in-depth review into the financial sustainability of men’s football in the English league pyramid. Our analysis showed a worrying trend of consistent losses from the majority of men’s football clubs, with a huge reliance on owner funding to maintain viability. One of the key challenges for the women’s game is to achieve the desired growth without repeating the mistakes of the men’s game and other elite sports.

The disparity in scale between women and men’s football is stark. In aggregate, clubs in the women’s game currently generate under £40m in annual revenues, compared to almost £7bn in the men’s game. The gulf in scale is no surprise given the Football Association banned women from playing football on football league grounds for about 50 years, and it was only in 1994 that the FA took on the administration of the women’s game, three years after the Premier League was formed. Decades of underinvestment and unequal opportunity have brought us to this point.

The opportunity

However, this also demonstrates the monumental opportunity in the women’s game. The direction of travel is hugely encouraging and interest in the game is at an all-time high. Last year was indeed a record-breaking year for stadium attendance, broadcasting figures and live coverage. The success of the England Lionesses team in the Euro 2022 tournament and progression to the semi-finals (so far!) in the World Cup currently taking place in Australia and New Zealand is creating a higher profile and more interest in the women’s game.

UEFA estimates that European women’s football could reach around €700m by 2033 (6 times the current market size), and Carney has publicly stated the ambition to become a £1bn sport within a decade. To achieve these targets, large investment is required and the Review addresses the challenge of balancing the intended rapid growth within a sustainable financial framework.

Despite this potential for fast growth, the women’s game however currently finds itself in a financially vulnerable position, with costs rising faster than revenues and a widespread reliance on owner / affiliated club funding without any protection or guarantees.

Creating its own journey to achieve financial independence

Unlike the men’s game, the women’s game is in ‘start-up mode’ and the time is now right for it to formulate its own path to operate independently.

The Review covers many important areas for reflection, from player health and safety, the social value provided by women’s football, current failings in diversity within the sport, and the importance of equal access to football in building future generations of Lionesses.

But financial independence and sustainability were clearly the key foundations underpinning the Review’s overall objectives. Without careful consideration, it would be easy for the women’s game to rely heavily on the infrastructure and funding from affiliated men’s clubs, which, as already noted, currently attract far higher revenues.

This approach would not achieve the desired financial independence of the women’s game. Rather, it would create a reliance on an industry which has been shown to not be sustainable itself. Furthermore, this approach would likely simply favour the richer clubs in the Premier League (eg the Big 6 or 7), where most of the financial might within English football currently exists. This could easily create a framework where there are barriers for the game to grow organically, more broadly and more equally across the football pyramid, impeding progress towards equal access and diversity in the sport.

There is also scope for the fortunes on the pitch of women’s teams to be materially dependent on the success of their respective men’s teams, which is in contradiction to what the Review aims to achieve.

The concept of ‘real growth’ runs through the Review. This is fundamental to achieving one of the Review’s key principles to create a “financially sustainable, competitively compelling game.” The Review advocates for “independent financial sustainability”, with annual cash breakeven targets. This approach will likely create slower growth in the short-term but create a more sustainable, longer-term model. This should be more attractive for investors on financial merits based on ‘traditional’ drivers of value, rather than reliance on clubs running huge losses maintaining an ability to continue to attract wealthy owners (as is the case for many clubs in the Men’s game).

The target of ‘real growth’ is fundamental to achieving financial sustainability and I believe this approach can attract a more diverse range of investors, to help support the vast funding required to deliver the growth targets for the women’s game.

John Parnis England, Principal

It is, however, unrealistic for the women’s game to operate independently from day 1, and clearly some financial support from affiliated clubs / owners will be required in the short-term, until financial independence can be reached. This may take the form of formal funding commitments, which in turn will give further confidence for external investors entering the space.

Stringent financial regulations are suggested as a vehicle to de-risk investments into the game, promoting investment into a more stable and well-governed venture. This approach is interesting in that it may attract a different type of investor, perhaps one with a more risk-averse appetite, and it opens the game up to a range of new investment possibilities.

The role of technology, data and AI in supporting the sustainable development of the women’s game for all

The Review does not explicitly mention technology, data or AI. We believe however that intelligent use of technology, data and AI can both improve decision-making and make organisations and individuals more efficient. Examples of this are seen in:

  • Extending the reach of a recruitment team into new regions by using analytics to carry out initial assessments of player performance and compile shortlists;
  • Wearable devices and tracking technology can monitor players’ physical conditions, leading to effective fitness management and injury reduction with fewer staff than might otherwise be the case;
  • Use of AI to make everyday tasks within a club, such as data analysis or report writing, more efficient, which frees up time for individuals to work on other tasks;
  • Use of technology to enable developing women’s teams to efficiently arrange friendly fixtures against other well-matched teams, so as to provide their players with wider experience.

Some women’s clubs are already making use of data and technology to pursue growth and success in a financially sustainable way. For example, in 2021, LCP working in collaboration with Analytics FC, made TransferLab the first data-scouting platform to provide comprehensive coverage of women’s football. TransferLab is now used by several top tier women’s clubs, and also by Championship side Lewes FC (“the world’s first gender-equal football club”), enabling them to extend and enhance their recruitment processes in an efficient and cost-effective way. LCP have also worked with the European Club Association (ECA) to develop the ECA Fixture Hub, enabling women’s clubs in the ECA network to more easily arrange friendly fixtures against other similar-strength sides across the continent. I believe further intelligent use of technology and data can help all women’s clubs, and the industry as a whole, to achieve more financially sustainable growth.

Bart Huby, Partner and Head of Football Analytics


In summary, we consider the Review to be well-timed and, if the proposed approach is implemented carefully, can help to capture a huge market opportunity for the women’s game whilst achieving something which has eluded the men’s game and many other elite sports, which is genuine financial independence and sustainability. Successfully achieving these goals would have widespread financial and social benefits across many stakeholders.

The industry also needs to be mindful of creating an unlevel playing field. We consider it appropriate to leverage funding in the short-term from affiliated men’s clubs, but careful thought must be given to ensure that clubs that do not have the luxury of a rich affiliated club are not left behind. This can potentially be achieved through a combination of intelligent and effective regulation, appropriate use of technology, and creating an environment where smaller clubs are also enticing investments where investors can achieve real returns.

LCP has been supporting the development of the women’s game in several ways in recent years. In March 2021, LCP (in collaboration with Analytics FC) launched the women’s version of the TransferLab online player recruitment SaaS platform. In March 2022, it was announced that Sports Interactive would be using TransferLab to help develop their women’s version of their Football Manager game. And in April 2023, LCP and the ECA launched the ECA Fixture Hub – a new online platform for football friendly fixtures coordination across Europe – the development of which was originally driven by the ECA’s “Be a Changemaker” strategy for women’s football.