Interview – Watford Ladies Chairman Chris Crickitt

Many years ago I took my Dad along. He said it was ok but “wouldn’t catch on”.

My long sabbatical ended two months ago when I went to a game, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So did 15,000 other fan on a cold night in Milton Keynes to watch and support England taking on the USA. I was hooked, and won’t have been the only one.

Well Dad, it did “catch on” and women’s football is in the ascendancy.

Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)
Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)

In March 2015 the Women’s Super League (WSL1) kicked off again for the fifth time since its inception in April 2011, at which time the league had eight teams.

By 2014, the Women’s Super League 2 (WSL2) was introduced with ten teams competing for the league title. With the WSL1 expanding to nine teams for the 2016 season, two teams will promote to the WSL1, while only one team will be relegated to the WSL2. The WSL1 champions and runners up qualify for the Champions League the following season.

There is also a knockout competition, the FA WSL Continental Cup (which is the WSL version of the Football League Cup), so named as part of the sponsorship by Continental Tyres.

Not surprisingly, TV companies are keen to become involved in women’s international games. Both BBC and BT Sport made the recent England vs USA international at Milton Keynes available to their viewers. The BBC is scheduled to broadcast live coverage of the FA Women’s Cup and each game from the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosted by Canada.

BT Sport won exclusive rights to broadcast the FA Women’s Super League as well as the FA WSL Continental Cup. British Eurosport also screens live women’s international football and the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Women’s football is a new brand, has a marketing template, media platforms, social awareness, business strategy and lots more “corporate speak”…the juggernaut is gaining momentum and is on a roll again.

Casey Stoney (Arsenal, England and GB captain at the 2012 London Olympics) recently spoke of her fear at the prospect of calling time on a career spanning 20 years, gaining over 100 international caps on the journey.

“What does she do to pay the bills thereafter?” she asked, a self interrogation type question. Those fledgling players with a potential career span of ten to twelve years ahead are in the right place at the right time. Timing is everything, if not luck.

Women’s football at elite level has generally be defined as “semi pro” to unpaid. The financial clout of Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have moved the goal posts forever, or at least for the foreseeable future.

England’s international players receive a base salary of around £21,000. Coupled with club earnings and endorsements for the lucky few, yearly salaries in some cases can range between £40,000 and £60,000.

The salaries available confirm how the game’s financial structure has changed in a relatively short time span. It’s just a fact how the game is being positioned, and where it’s heading.

There are over 1400 adult registered women’s teams in the UK with over 1.4 million women and girls playing regularly. Football is the most popular sport of women, and only men’s football and cricket have a larger sports base in the UK.

There’s no doubt this is a pivotal year in the women’s game with TV WSL coverage allowing at present an audience of unknown size to tune in each and every week over the coming season.

When the USA won Olympic gold defeating Japan 2-1 at Wembley in 2012 , the game was attended by over 80,000 fans. In the US, network station NBC reported a viewing audience of 4.4 million.

The 2015 World Cup kicks off June 6th in Edmonton, raising awareness, exposure, confirming expectations are greater than ever. It’s little wonder companies are keen to align their product to women’s football (that’s sponsor to you and me).

Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)
Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)

All this new world, new horizons crashing through the glass ceiling of women’s football is a positive stride forward. However, what about those teams who haven’t been jettisoned into “the new world” of women’s football? Those teams who are hoping to step up to Women’s Super League 1, but are acutely aware on the difficulties of simply surviving.

I’ve decided to take a step back from the current banner headlines of high profile salaries and sponsorship. I want to explore what it takes for those clubs, just under the radar. Those who need to survive and prosper on limited finances and high expectations.

I head to Watford Ladies FC who are currently in their second season of Women’s Super League 2. Chris Crickitt has been Chairman of Watford Ladies FC for seven years. He begins by telling me how he became involved in women’s football.

“I kind of fell into it really,” he tells me. “Some years ago (10 to be precise) I became involved with the club as my daughter started to play football for Watford Ladies at junior level. It began by giving up a couple of hours, helping where needed, making some suggestions along the way.

“To be honest I took the job (Chairman) as an interested parent, rather than football enthusiast. The outgoing Chairman Julian Dodwell asked me to take over. My background isn’t business, or committees and meetings, but I do listen and can be quite calm around most situations. So here I am.”

Although Watford Ladies FC, formed in 1970, like a host of clubs these past few seasons, has seen the bar of expectation and performance raised significantly.

Chris takes up the story.

“Season 2012/13 was our most successful; it became significant in the club’s history,” he explains.

“The senior team finished runners up in the National Premier League, having pushed Sunderland all the way to the season’s end. Our reserve team were champions in the Premier Reserve League South Division Two.

“These achievements went some way to ensuring the club submitted a successful WSL application and Watford now enter a new era from 2014 onwards as part of the 2nd tier of the Women’s Super League.”

From our discussions, it’s abundantly clear he’s passionate, committed, and gives up many hours without any financial return. He’s a volunteer. The club is run by volunteers.

We are in the clubhouse at Berkhamsted FC having just watched Watford Ladies beat Brighton and Hove Albion Ladies 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup, along with 210 spectators.

Players, supporters, bar staff all know Chris and he knows them, by name. You guessed it, volunteers one and all.

We move onto the club’s payments and salaries structure. I begin by asking if players and management receive payments?

“This is the first season we have been able to make a financial contribution to our 27 senior squad players, we hope it covers their expenses,” he says.

“There is funding from the WSL (Women’s Super League), this is to cover some of the wages for our General Manager and Media Manager. These are part time jobs. Our main sponsor, Watford FC Community Sports and Educational Trust, makes up the remaining finances.

“Unfortunately at present it’s not enough to cover all the hours worked by these individuals,” he laments.

Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)
Image courtesy of Andrew Waller (AW Images)

So how do you make the club work, from week to week?

“It’s the need to consistently recruit and work with our core of volunteers who help run the football club is a high priority on our agenda,” he says.

“With the women’s game growing so quickly, the ideal model for managing a Women’s Super League club ( or even a club outside the WSL) is ever changing, therefore we need to be flexible with our management style.

“Media plays a big part in the growth of our club. The media managers, together with volunteers promote our football matches and the activity surrounding those games. We promote through social media, local newspapers and sometimes hand out material, to our community.”

Crickitt believes that a steady growth in match attendance is a good indication that the club is doing some things right in the way it promotes itself.

“The working partnership with Watford FC is also very important in our growth. Each season we are gaining more support from the men’s club,” he says.

“Financial support from them is very important, however, it is not just money. The men’s club continually show their support for the ladies team by featuring them in their match day programmes. There are match day announcements and community events, which encourage supporters of the men’s team to also support the ladies when they play.

“We currently enjoy healthy support from the singing section of the Watford FC supporters. This makes for a great atmosphere when they come to support the ladies team. [I can confirm singers and drums were present and very loud during the game!]

“It’s a knock on effect, better match day attendance and improved TV and media coverage which leads to more sponsorship deals, in turn helps our club grow even more.”

Watford Ladies football club has three teams which compete in open age leagues – WSL first team, WSL development team, once known as ‘reserves’, and an under 19s development team.

As well as that, they have three ‘Elite Player Pathway’ junior teams – Under 11 Hornets, Under 13 Hornets and Under 15 Hornets (Hornets being the nickname of Watford FC) – and seven ‘Community Player Pathway’ junior teams – Under 10s Harts, Under 11s Harts, Under 12s, Under 13s Harts (Harts taken from the Hertfordshire county badge, a Hart being a male deer), Under 15 Wasps (Wasps due to their black and yellow colour), Under 15 Harts and Under 17s.

At any given time during a season over 200 footballers are signed to a Watford Ladies sponsored team.

“It’s important to remember whilst our senior team get the headlines; Watford Ladies cater for hundreds of young girls who want to play football,” says Crickitt.

“For each of the teams their is a designated coach, who gives up their time for training and weekend games. Kits have to be bought and maintained, and travel costs are absorbed by the volunteers.

“These are really exciting times for the club and women’s game in general. We are focused on striving for success in WSL2 with our elite squad, but have dozens and dozens of talented young girls coming through the pathway junior teams.”

I suggest that it’s akin to stop spinning plates from falling, keeping the club’s structure in place. Chris agrees, adding that “it seems we have more and more plates spinning by the week”.

This situation is being replicated across the country. In some cases, due to press and TV coverage, girls and young women are flocking to put on their football boots, and you can be in no doubt that volunteers will be at the heart of operations on and off the field.

The Author

Owen Peters

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