One of the world’s richest soccer clubs and biggest global sports brands is officially—and finally—investing in women’s football. The English Football Association has approved Manchester United’s application to launch a professional team, which will start play later this year in the FA Women’s Championship, England’s second division.
According to the club’s Executive Vice Chairman, Ed Woodward, “starting a professional team from scratch is challenging but rewarding and we will make every effort to provide the support and experience for the new women’s team to be successful and to uphold the fine traditions of our great club.”
That this support is now forthcoming, 13 years after the club disbanded the previous iteration of the team, is, perhaps, a sign that the landscape for women’s soccer is at long last starting to change.
The women’s game has long trailed behind men’s soccer in levels of investment, institutional support, and acceptance in the halls of global football’s power brokers—former FIFA president Sepp Blatter even once remarked that the game would be more popular if women wore tighter shorts.
While major challenges in these areas remain across the board, there are positive signs as well. Attendance is on the rise for major women’s tournaments, leagues are professionalizing and growing and UEFA—on the heels of its one-year anniversary of the #WePlayStrong campaign—recently committed to decoupling the women’s Champions League final from its men’s counterpart, providing the event with an opportunity to stand in its own spotlight.
This summer, the International Champions Cup, long a vehicle for European men’s’ teams (including United) to grow their fanbases outside the continent, will feature a women’s competition for the first time. This tournament boasts a strong lineup featuring United’s neighbors and rivals Manchester City, three-time reigning European champions Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, and the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL. Even before a ball is kicked, tournament organizers Relevent Sports are reportedly considering expansion to 16 teams for next year’s edition, which will follow closely on the heels of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
The extent to which European superclubs like United can fully take advantage of these new opportunities to drive growth and brand awareness will depend on how deeply they are willing to invest in and promote their women’s teams, beyond simply “checking a box.” As global brands increasingly—and correctly—face increased scrutiny on their stance on gender equality, these clubs would be wise to realize not only the enormous potential of the women’s professional game, but also the financial and institutional roadblocks currently impeding progress and growth—and, ultimately, their own unique capacity and indeed remit as leading brands to effect change.
The onus will be on Manchester United, the last of the Premier League’s leading clubs to launch a senior women’s side, to make up for lost time. While the club’s legacy on and off the pitch remains one of excellence, only by promoting its mens and women’s teams equally—a la Lewes FC—will it fully deliver on legendary manager Sir Matt Busby’s proclamation that, for the club, “only the best [will]be good enough.”
—Geoff Miller is Senior Manager, Client Services for Interbrand