The elite women’s season runs from March until November with a month’s break from late May until late June but, from 2017, it will roughly mirror the men’s game by moving to a September to May format.
By way of bridging the gap next year, there will be a one-off competition – the FA WSL Spring Series – that will take place between February and May and provide Mark Sampson’s England side with a platform for the summer’s European Championship in the Netherlands.
Apart from boosting Sampson’s team, the move should facilitate a better alignment with the women’s Champions League programme – and thereby potentially enhance the European ambitions of WSL teams – as well as with the grassroots women’s game.
It is also hoped one of the biggest changes in the sport’s history will minimise fixture congestion and reduce injuries while potentially increasing attendances. The latter ambition remains debatable as the original idea behind a summer game was to avoid clashing with men’s football and grow the league against a backdrop of better, more spectator-friendly, weather.
Although there is to be a winter break between mid-December and mid-January the FA believes the increased availability of grounds and improved synchronisation of cup games will make it easier to space matches more equally and avoid the fixture pile-ups.
There is also a sense attendances will be improved by marrying the season to the school year and no longer clashing with many fans’ summer holidays. Similarly, they are convinced supporters will feel more comfortable being part of the traditional English football culture of playing from autumn to spring. Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s head of women’s football, has been an instigator behind the changes.
Kelly Simmons, the governing body’s director of football participation and development, said: “The FA is committed to investing in women’s football and aims to double participation and attendances by 2020, as well as creating the right environment for England to have the best chance of winning the 2023 World Cup. We believe that these changes will help us to further achieve these aims.
“When we launched the FA WSL in 2011 it was the right decision to play it as a summer league, which has been demonstrated by the competitive, exciting football, growing attendances and player development.
“However, there are still a number of issues holding the league back, such as fixture scheduling and ground availability. We want to keep building on the momentum and growth of the league and we believe now is the right time to change the calendar.
“Player welfare is the prime concern of clubs and for us, and these changes will allow more structured rest and recovery time, while fixtures will be more regularly structured with less congestion.”
Launched as an eight-team summer League in 2011, the WSL expanded to incorporate a second division, FA WSL 2, two years ago. Staffed increasingly by full-time professionals, it now has 19 teams – nine in the top tier, 10 in the second – and experienced a surge in popularity following England’s third-place finish in last year’s World Cup in Canada.
It is hoped an additional benefit of the revamp will be to better showcase the women’s FA Cup final, which, staged in May, can now serve as a climax to the domestic season rather than a punctuation mark in the middle.