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Chelsea FC Women welcome new London rivals in messy reorganisation of domestic football

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Hello, Hammers!

Arsenal Women v Chelsea Ladies - SSE Women's FA Cup Final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

On Monday, the Football Association announced the results of a long-planned top-to-bottom reorganisation of women’s football in England. The goal of their clunkily-named The FA’s The Gameplan for Growth (ugh) is to create a formal league structure in which teams can move up and down from the grassroots all the way to the top, and to fully professionalise the top tier.

The upshot as far as Chelsea are concerned is that a new team has been added to the Women’s Super League (WSL) in West Ham United. That gives the Blues a second London derby opponent, to go with Arsenal. The top flight has also been expanded from ten teams to an uneven eleven for next season. The goal is to eventually build-up the first division to 14 teams, using promotion and relegation as the method.

Newcomers Manchester United will play their first season in the league’s second tier, named the FA Woman’s Championship. They will be joined by Tottenham Hotspur.

The FA make no bones about it, money is at play here.

“Providing an elite performance environment that will produce more and better players, increase the interest and excitement via a more competitive league, attract a greater number of fans and in turn deliver improved commercial viability for clubs and the leagues.”

-Katie Brazier, ‎Head of Women’s Leagues & Competitions; source: The Football Association

What does “an elite performance environment” mean? It means that regardless of the promotion and relegation structure that will now run from the top, through the Championship and into regional leagues, no team will be allowed into the elite level WSL unless it’s a fully professional operation. In other words, the players must all be full-time paid professionals.

Clubs applying for tier 1 will be required to commit to having full-time professional playing staff delivering a minimum of 16 hours of daytime contact per week (plus matches), increasing to 20 hours by the 2021-22 season.

Source: The FA

For example, Sunderland, which have a fine program but have been cut loose by their parent club in a budget move, don’t have any money and look to fall all the way to the third tier, which is broken into regional territories. Yeovil Town were a bottom feeder in WSL 1 last season and were in danger of being moved out of the new WSL until they raised the £350,000 needed to become a fully professional club. Doncaster Belles, who had earned promotion for winning last year’s old WSL 2, will not actually be promoted to the new WSL. They’re not rich enough to be able to pay their players and maintain the support structure the FA is now demanding.

Chelsea Ladies v Wolfsburg - UEFA Womens Champions League Semi-Final: First Leg

The Championship is the new home for semi-professional teams. Manchester United are there because although they’re investing £5m in their brand-new team, they’re in their infancy. They’ll get a shakedown season and then, if they earn promotion, they’ll be admitted to the WSL. West Ham get their Tier 1 license into the WSL because they already field a successful team — in 2018 they won the FA WPL Plate and the Goodmove.co.uk Women’s Cup, as well as 12 of their 15 competitive fixtures.

None of this is sudden. The Football Association announced their intention to restructure the women’s game as far back as last year. They made their motives clear:

The restructure is central to The FA’s ‘Gameplan for Growth’ strategy which outlined the approach to transform the future of the women’s game via three core goals: to double participation, double the fanbase and for England teams to achieve consistent success on the world stage.

Oh, and by the way, to improve commercial opportunities too, as Katie Brazier said.

Simply put, they want to grow the game. The model is the men’s game, indeed, all professional sports leagues. There’s no room for semi-pros at the top. That’s cruel to long-time participants who have the enthusiasm, but not the means.

But if women are to make a career out of playing football in England, if the game is to grow, if commercial opportunities are to be generated, then moves like today’s are necessary.