Keira Walsh made history when she signed with Barcelona from Manchester City earlier this month for what was widely reported to be a world-record fee of £350,000 ($400,000). The move followed off the back of the success of the European Championships, which saw England lift their first major trophy on home soil. The transfer is undoubtedly a landmark moment for the game, but why is it that the record fee is so much lower than in the men’s game? And is focusing on transfer fees in the women’s game the most important marker of success?
At the Euros this summer, midfielder Walsh was a lynchpin in England’s victory. And the tournament, which saw records broken in attendances, viewership and impressions on social media, proved that the women’s game has grown to new levels and continues to pull new fans in. Walsh only drew further attention to the game upon signing for Barcelona, a move that left many wondering what impact a transfer like this will have on the game.
After a few failed bids to sign Walsh from Barcelona, City agreed to the deal with the Spanish club on Sept. 7, a day ahead of the transfer deadline, for a fee expected to rise to around £350,000 beating the fee — in excess of £250,000 ($286,000) — that Chelsea paid to sign Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg in 2020. In comparison, the record fee for a men’s player is £198 million ($263m), when Neymar signed for Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona in 2017. Still, despite the vast gap, Walsh’s move signals another step forward.
Speaking ahead of the Women’s Super League (WSL) season getting underway, City manager Gareth Taylor, who has seen significant turnover in his squad through departures and retirements this summer, said that Walsh’s move was a “jolt.”
“It left us with about a week when we realised Keira wanted to leave and had requested to go,” Taylor said. “Keira had given us eight years of service, had developed really well and wanted to take this challenge. We got a record fee for her, which shows we’re doing something right here at the club.”
Why is the gap so wide when it comes to transfer fees?
There has been exponential progress and growth in the women’s game over the past decade in particular. From marketing campaigns to sponsorship and investment, from television rights deals to ticket sales, there are many contributing factors to the growth of the game, but the difference in finances in the women’s and men’s games are still notably different.
History plays a significant role in how the women’s game has progressed in England and around the world. Just over a 100 years ago, the Football Association (FA) banned clubs from allowing women to play in their grounds, which ensured there could be no women’s league or structure in which players could come together and develop. The decision followed not long after an historic game in 1920, where Dick, Kerr Ladies FC beat St. Helens 4-0 in front of 53,000 fans at Goodison Park, proving that women’s football was in a position to be successful over a century ago. The ban halted much of the success women’s football was building, and it lasted for nearly 50 years.
It’s important to mention that men’s football has also grown exponentially in the past 30 years, but the time in which they had to build the sport up put the men’s game in a position to succeed decades ago, while women’s football is beginning to see that ascending growth now.
In 1975, Italian Giuseppe Savoldi became the first male £1m footballer in signing for Napoli and a little over 20 years later, Alan Shearer signed for his boyhood club, Newcastle United, for a then-record of £15m. Neymar holds the current transfer record at £198m for his 2017 move to PSG, and while we may not see the fee rise to that extreme again soon, men’s players now regularly bring in £100m in transfer fees. Broadcasting revenue, endorsement deals and merchandise sales have all contributed to the growth and increased finances in the game.
All of that being said, the women’s game is seeing financial growth and it feels like only a matter of time until we see the first female player to sign for £1m. It has only taken two years for the fee to rise to upwards of £350,000 and with increased investment from clubs and broadcasters in the game, that record will continue to be broken.
Julien Laurens reacts to Keira Walsh joining Barcelona for a world-record fee.
By the numbers
Despite the historical stunt in growth, women’s football is growing in more ways than one. According to FIFA, women’s football transfer spending surpassed $1m (£880,000) for the first time in 2020 — the same year that Harder was signed by Chelsea — however, only 36 deals that year involved a fee.
FIFA’s report for 2021 showed exponential growth as total spending rose to $2.1m (£1.86m) with 1,304 international transfers made, only 58 of which were for a fee. Most moves came with out-of-contract players, which accounted for 87.3% of international transfers.
In January 2022, FIFA released another report showing that women’s football transfers had reached a new record for January of $487,800 (£430,450) — 57.3% more than the same window in 2021. In the January window, the WSL was responsible for over half of the amount spent at $254,200 on 20 international transfers — almost double the amount spent in Spain, despite the fact that Spanish clubs made over twice the number of transfers (46.) By comparison, the same period in men’s football spending topped $1.03 billion (£91m).
The evidence points to consistent and considerable financial growth in the women’s game, both in England and globally. Barcelona’s signing of 25-year-old Walsh will almost double the global amount already spent in 2022. But while financial growth is important and something to be celebrated, there are other factors of growth to be considered.
Is money the only mark of success?
The nature of these transfers brings up another question: big transfer fees are always a talking point, but are they the most important measure of success when it comes to growth of women’s football? When most players are earning under £50,000 a year on average in the WSL, are world-record transfers the most important thing?
International football in the women’s game takes up a big portion of the calendar. In 2022 alone, the U.S. women’s national team have already played 29 international matches, while their male counterparts have played only 10. Equal pay at the international level not only helps to pay the women what they deserve, but it sends a message to that the players only seem to stand on equal ground in the eyes of the national federation.
In this case, the USWNT were able to negotiate an historic new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), which includes equal pay. The new agreement, which came into place in June, will see World Cup bonuses split equally, the women and men receiving identical pregame bonuses and a split of commercial revenue among other equal benefits.
Another important mark of growth in the game are the changes that are slowly being made to player contracts. A high proportion of transfers in the women’s game are short-term, one-year contracts, which gives players little job security, and while some players may enjoy the flexibility, the move towards longer-term contracts signals an increased willingness by clubs to invest in the game. In addition to a world-record fee, Walsh’s contract with the Spanish giants is a three-year deal and will set a precedent for similar moves in the future.
Access to benefits and player protection in contracts have been historically scarce in the women’s game, but it has been another welcome change over the past couple of years. In January, the FA and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) agreed to make changes to contracts in women’s football in England, guaranteeing players maternity and long-term sickness and injury cover. In the U.S., the first CBA the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was agreed to in February 2022, giving players a guaranteed minimum wage and parental leave. Top-flight female players in Spain agreed to a new collective wage deal in February 2020, also guaranteeing maternity leave among other benefits.
These agreements are an undeniably important move forward for the women’s game, however growth and improvements to those contracts cannot stop there. Some clubs have started improving the quality of their training grounds and facilities for their women’s sides, but most training grounds leave much to be desired. Recently, Brighton announced a new £8.5m training facility, while across the pond Kansas City opened a dedicated £15.5m ($19m) training facility for their NWSL team, the KC Current.
Walsh’s transfer fee is something to be celebrated and is key for the game, but it is not paramount. Financial growth in women’s football is critical, but that growth needs to be shown across CBAs, available benefits and training facilities, not just transfer fees.
More landmark moments will follow Walsh’s transfer and with continued marketing, sponsorship investment, television rights deals and ticket sales, the financial growth is palpable: the Women’s Euros 2022 proved it. Women’s football is just as good as men’s, but it is time to stop comparing the two; instead, let’s focus on celebrating women’s football and all the triumphs that come with it.