Following a successful first day the delegates piled in, eager to start another day of learning and networking. Kelly Simmons OBE, Director of Women’s Professional Game at the FA, instantly observed that the room seemed different.
“You can feel the buzz and the energy,” she said, and she wasn’t mistaken. Due to high demand, day 2 was rightly dedicated to celebrating the women’s game.
“It seems odd to think that all of you here would have had no part to play in football in 1971,” said Debbie Hewitt.
A video message from the first ever female Chair of the FA served as a sharp reminder that playing football was not even a possibility for women 50 years ago, much less a road to professional stardom. This room filled with 650 women playing their parts – from CEOs to players, media specialists and students.
It was up to Jacqui Oatley MBE to introduce and interview the first speaker of the day, former England international Anita Asante, now first team coach with Bristol City Women FC. The keynote talk covered all aspects of the game including investment, education, clothing debates, the importance of making football inclusive to find the best talent and even a plea for Jane Ludlow to become a manager in the Barclays Women’s Super League!
The phrase “Be great, not grateful” echoed throughout the conference. As Jacqui put it: “We’ve always had that sense in women’s football that we’re grateful for everything.” Anita’s humorous anecdote that she’d be buzzing when they received an extra pair of socks was a sign of the progress made. She was a fantastic storyteller, recounting how they were once again “grateful” when 3,000 people showed up to Borehamwood to watch Arsenal in the UEFA Cup.
Coaching the Coaches and Referees
Professor Sue Bridgewater moderated a panel discussion on coaching and refereeing in women’s football. Kelly Lindsey, Head of Performance at Lewes FC, said she founded her coaching school because “if you are sitting there and hoping that somebody is going to change it, you’re wrong – we need to change it.”
Katie Rowson, UEFA A Licensed Coach at Everton FC, said she’s always had another job outside football due to poor salaries. The question was raised: how can we expect the best coaches to be involved in the women’s game if the salaries are low?
Lucy Pearson, Director of FA Education, encouraged companies to think creatively when recruiting, pointing out that the number of women taking up jobs in the field has grown exponentially since the Lionesses’ success in the summer but it is important to have a diverse pool of talent.
Marketing The Game: The commercialisation of women’s football
Up in The Arc, the room was packed wall to wall with women wanting to absorb the knowledge from the five experts on the panel hosted by Lisa Parfitt (Co-Founder of The Space Between Sports and a Director of Women in Football).
“Knowing your audience is key,” said Lorraine Moalosi, Head of PR & Communication at Data Talks. The appetite for women’s football has grown exponentially in recent years and Lorraine told the audience: “We need to dream higher and set higher goals – because we know we can achieve them.”
Often women’s football is let down by resources and audience insight data is lacking in the women’s game which makes it difficult for clubs to analyse audiences. Sarah Hunter, Senior Commercial Manager, Women’s Football at the FA, admired how companies like Amazon obsess over their customers and believes sport can learn a lot from this.
Maggie Murphy, CEO at Lewes FC, recalled how her club brought in their audiences: “We had a target audience of ‘unwelcome women’ – those who might like the game but have never attended a match because they might not feel welcome.” The values of the club and what you stand for are as important as the product on the pitch, she told us.
Networking: Making the most of it
“I volunteer in football and having people tell me my work inspires them empowered me”
“I have just come back from maternity leave and speaking to women here I felt listened to in a way I haven’t before”
These are just some of the heart-warming reviews of Jane Purdon’s masterclass in networking. Her top tips:
• Be yourself
• Remember, nerves are normal
• Ask questions and listen
• Seek a point of connection
• Get your key message across
A chat with Jacqui
Back in the reception area I managed to grab Jacqui Oatley for a chat about the occasion. Her story is an inspiring one. At the age of 28, she damaged her kneecap playing football, and it was a turning point. Jacqui realised she had to do something to follow her heart despite already being in a successful career as a Key Account Manager.
“It is so important that people of all ages know that their skills can be transferred in a positive way towards working in football,” she said.
Asked if she would have pursued the career earlier had there been the opportunities, she said: “I would have loved it! When I was growing up in Wolverhampton I didn’t see any opportunity to work in football or broadcasting.”
Finally, we reflected on how the Be Inspired Conference has grown since the inaugural 2022 event. “We had tables last year and now we don’t have room for them!” said Jacqui. This visual tells you all you need to know about the appetite for women’s football!
Influencing and Navigating the Culture of Football, and the Impact on the Women’s Game
This panel, hosted by trailblazing sports presenter Clare Balding, was greeted with whoops and cheers from the audience.
There is often a narrative that women’s football will be seen as the pinnacle when it matches the men’s structure. Challenging this model, Rebecca Caplehorn, Director of Football Administration and Governance at Tottenham Hotspur FC, said: “We shouldn’t just cut and paste and assume the men’s game is perfect, but we can certainly use it as a template and learn from some of their mistakes.”
The issue of injuries in women’s football was brought up by former Spurs and Crystal Palace goalkeeper Chloe Morgan. “Research is so key,” she said, “into injuries and the differences between male and female bodies. We need to have conversations about periods, parenthood and menopause.” With superstars such as Alexia Putellas, Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema missing whole seasons due to the dreaded ACL injury, how long can football let this female epidemic continue?
Another interesting point explored what the men’s game can take from its female counterparts. The women’s side is much more LGTBQ+ friendly and Rebecca explained: “It’s hard to undo a long-standing culture, but we can be role models and ambassadors and model the inclusive behaviour we want to see.”
After a lunch with cheesecake and connections aplenty, the delegates dispersed to the final breakout sessions.
Allyship: Using your power for good.
Hosted by Jayna Patel, a passionate panel discussed the importance of remaining authentic in this industry. Troy Townsend is Head of Player Engagement at Kick It Out and reflected on his journey. His main message: “If we remain authentic in this industry, it will embrace you. Never lose your name, never lose who you are – it’s part of what will change this industry for the better.”
The panel provided inspiring advice on how to make your impact, which included understanding what you can do now and that big change takes time. Be deliberate in your action and properly educate yourself and never stop learning, urged the panellists. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The Women Telling The Stories
An exciting panel hosted by Jacqui Oatley featured producers and content creators who spilled all their secrets on how to be the best storytellers.
Once again the theme of gratefulness came up when Deborah Halliday, Production Manager at Sportsbeat, recalled how people were stunned that she was head of production at just 30 years old. “Would they say that about a man who is head of production at 30? No!” exclaimed Deborah.
Another theme the panel discussed was knowing how to sell yourself. Sarah Collins, Executive Producer at talkSPORT, pointed out: “We’re great at empowering each other but not at bigging ourselves up. We have to do that.”
The conference was filled with young aspiring media professionals ready to step into the shoes of the panellists. Ryhanna Parara is a young ex-model turned content creator who started making TikTok content off the back of the World Cup and found an agent in Jo Tongue’s renowned Tongue Tied Management. The rest is history.
Two people who have seen it grow from nothing are Rachel O’Sullivan and Sophie Downey, who run Girls On The Ball. Having seen the lack of coverage following Team GB’s triumph at the London 2012 Olympics, they took matters into their own hands setting up their social media pages dedicated to covering the women’s game and it is now their full-time job!
Female Athlete Health and the Future of Player Care in the Women’s Game
Another topical conversation throughout the day was female athlete health, and this panel agreed that compassion is key in player care when tackling traditionally taboo subjects. The panel shared some concerning stats, explaining that 82 per cent of players have never had help finding the right bra fit, which can affect the body in negative ways.
Other issues that arose were the number of players who were presenting with amenorrhea, missing their period for three consecutive months, which is an alarming sign that athletes are not fuelling correctly.
Pelvic floor issues are also affecting just as many young athletes as middle-aged women and a lack of research is failing women of all ages. The panel concluded that having high expectations and demanding the best experts to provide support for players is non-negotiable going forward.
What’s Next For Women’s Football?
After a day of celebration and reflection it was time to address the big question: What’s Next For Women’s Football? Jane Purdon challenged the panel and audience to reflect on their corner of the game and what it could look like in the future.
On the agenda for Paul Barber OBE, Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman at Brighton & Hove Albion FC, is a designated women’s team stadium. Throughout the day it was discussed that while men’s stadiums can currently be slightly too big, many of the women’s stadiums are too small. Take Chelsea playing at Kingsmeadow, which seats around 4,850: with the correct promotion, they could easily be selling out a larger stadium week in week out, instead of leaving fans missing out on watching their heroes.
Fern Whelan, an England international who now works as an executive for equality, diversity and inclusion in women’s football at the Professional Footballers’ Association, called for clubs to put their money where their mouth is. Ebru Köksal, Chair of Women in Football, said long-term investment is key, with too many clubs investing one year at a time, ignoring the benefits of a long-term strategy.
Similarly, Arianna Criscione, Director of Women’s Football with N3XT Sports, recognised the importance of looking overseas for ideas. “Some countries are developing more than others and I want countries to develop all together,” she said.
In their keynote Dawn Airey and Kelly Simmons OBE seemed the fitting duo to conclude the day as two of the most influential women in football. They even came in matching suits – unintentionally, of course, they insisted!
The pair have been tirelessly paving the way for women’s football for years: “The women winning the EUROs was not an accident,” explained Dawn. It was a key part of the FA’s strategy for women’s football and entailed precise detail and work to develop that team in every way, she said. The pair agreed it was important not to replicate the men’s game and instead make the experience of women’s football distinctive.
They carried on to reveal a few of the FA’s plans going forward, including the WSL becoming club-owned by 2024, which will need a great deal of planning. With viewing figures reaching new levels since the summer, a new broadcast deal is in the pipeline.
And that’s a wrap! The emotion was high as Yvonne Harrison, CEO of Women In Football, took to the stage to reflect on a game-changing two days at Wembley. “We’ve heard so much about progress, growth, success, momentum – these things keep building!” she said. “And beyond trophies, we’ve talked about making a difference in society.”
The key takeaways from the two days? Let’s be great, not grateful. More women need to be making decisions. Protect the culture of women’s football culture. Let’s continue to be inclusive, to listen and learn. If we hold on to these things then what we can achieve together is without limits.
Eloise Martin is a media and communications student at Cardiff University. Find her on LinkedIn