Aileen Campbell, the former SNP MSP, said there needed to be a wide-ranging review of women’s participation in the most senior boards and governing structures of the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and other bodies, given “there probably isn’t the representation you would like” at present.
Amid debate over how the unprecedented success of England’s historic triumph in Euro 22 can spur interest and participation in the game across the UK, Ms Campbell, a former Cabinet secretary under Nicola Sturgeon’s Government, told The Scotsman: “Decisions about us can’t be made without us.”
England’s 2-1 victory over Germany before a packed Wembley stadium and a peak television audience of 17.4 million viewers has been hailed as a transformative moment. While yesterday’s celebrations were marred by the lack of a Downing Street reception for the Lionesses, those in charge of the sport in England said the impact of the win would be felt far and wide.
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Mark Bullingham, chief executive of the Football Association (FA), expressed confidence the result would “turbo charge” the women’s game in England.
With Scotland vying to win a place in next summer’s women’s World Cup in October’s play-offs, there are hopes the widespread coverage of England’s win and the tournament in general can help bolster the women’s game across the other home nations.
Ms Campbell, who was appointed as the chief executive officer of SWF in August last year, said it was vital that authorities “harness this moment” and use it to “promote and grow” the women’s game in Scotland.
“The fact we’ve been able to see women’s football on television and covered wall to wall is significant – visibility is crucial for women’s sport, and the people who have been watching will have been inspired,” she said.
“We now need to make sure we’re ready to encourage and receive those girls and women who want to play, and think about what more we can do to improve opportunities.”
Emulating the success of the English team, or even coming close to it, will not be a quick fix, however. The Women’s Super League, the top tier of the women’s domestic game, has been fully professional for four years, and the FA has committed to a long-term vision, securing landmark broadcast rights deals and major sponsorships.
It has also put its wallet where its mouth is. Last year it channelled £13 million into the women’s game, up £2m on the previous 12 months. Such sums may appear negligible compared with the riches swirling around the men’s game, but even so, it represents an unprecedented uptick in investment.
In Scotland, the SFA has a strategy in place until 2025 to improve the women’s game, whether it be at elite international level, or the grassroots. However, it does not specify how much money it intends to invest, and states that “commercial innovation” is required to grow the sport.
Ms Campbell said while there was nothing to disagree with in the SFA’s strategy, the key was working out how to operationalise it and measure success. She stressed there was a need for investment “beyond what is available commercially”.
But it is not just money which separates the two associations. The FA board has three women among its 12 members, including its chair, Debbie Hewitt. Significantly, Sue Hough, who chairs the women’s football board in England, is also a member of the full FA board.
The SFA, by contrast, counts just one woman – the entrepreneur and marketing expert Ana Stewart, who has no background in the sport – on its eight-strong board, with no representatives from the women’s game. The seven-strong SPFL board, meanwhile, is dominated by men, all of whom represent men’s club teams.
Asked if there was a need for structural change at the top of the SFA to ensure more women are involved in senior decision-making, Ms Campbell replied: “Absolutely, and that’s an issue we’ve long raised with the SFA, and I’ve raised personally with the SFA and SPFL. It can’t just be about getting women and girls on the pitch. There needs to be representation at the decision making bodies about how we grow the game. Decisions about us can’t be made without us.
“I think this is a moment to look at how we make sure the boards and governing structures represent the breadth of those who want to play and get involved in the sport, and it’s an issue we’ve raised with the SFA.
“It means we need to make sure there is structural change across the piece. If you look across all the decision-making forums, there probably isn’t the representation you would like.”
She added: “These things take time to change, but they don’t happen by accident. That requires us to push hard, and it requires a willingness [for change]. I know there are many people in the SFA who want to drive change, but, like I say, these things don’t happen by accident.
Despite such challenges, the good news is that even before the widespread spike in interest in the women’s game spurred by this summer’s tourney, the women’s game in Scotland had plentiful reasons to be cheerful for the future.
The latest statistics show there are 17,241 registered players across girls’ and women’s football, with Scotland’s historic qualification for the group stage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019 helping to grow the game.
Indeed, the number of registered players has grown by 17 per cent since that tournament and, most encouraging of all, the largest growth is to be found among the under-seven to under-11 age groups.
For example, the latest SFA data shows the number of girl players aged six or under has increased from just 30 in 2019 to 336 in 2021. The increases are equally impressive across other age groups, with the number of eight-year-olds up from 139 to 632, and a spike in registered nine year-old players, up from 279 to 811.
In older youth groups, the jumps are more modest, but still significant, with the 12 year-old band seeing a jump in participants from 808 to 1,069 over the same period.
At the elite level, progress has also been made, not least with the Scottish women’s national team now playing their home ties at Hampden.
In the Scottish Women’s Premier League 1, meanwhile, some 36.4 per cent of players are professional, an increase on just 20.7 per cent in 2020.
Ms Campbell said it was vital to grow the domestic game and encourage more spectators, pointing out the ticket prices were “nowhere near” those in the men’s game.
She also said the English victory ought to give those in the women’s game cause to think about how far it had come.
“It’s just over 100 years since the FA imposed a ban on women playing football, and the SFA followed that,” she explained. “A milestone like that makes you think about how hard women have had to work to get to the levels they are at now. It’s a game that’s been held back for decades.”
The SFA did not respond to enquiries about how much it invests in the women’s game and the representation of women at senior levels.