As ever, a big transfer bid has stolen the headlines on January 31. It’s been a fair while since an offer of around £500,000 has caused such a stir though.
Arsenal’s attempts to take a stranglehold in the Women’s Super League title race by taking England striker Alessia Russo from league leaders Manchester United have unsurprisingly failed, with United refusing to enter negotiations for a player whose contract runs out in the summer.
The two approaches have been billed far and wide as a world-record transfer fee, and they would have been. Keira Walsh’s switch from Manchester City to Barcelona last summer saw £400,000 change hands, marking a new high for the women’s game. But talk of United turning down a record amount of cash overlooks the size of the organisations involved.
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Manchester United are Manchester United, after all. They generated £583.2 million in revenue in 2021-22, and while only £5m of that came through the women’s operation, the Red Devils are not in a position where they have to sell a player for half a mill. The offer might account for 10% of the women’s team revenue, but it’s less than 0.1% of the overall club’s production.
Also, United are at the top of the WSL going into February with a great opportunity to claim the title for the first time. Russo might well be able to walk for free in the summer, but the riches available in both a sporting and financial sense should they win a first league crown would be greater than anything Arsenal have thus far offered for their number 23. And while the Gunners could come back with a higher offer once more after seeing two rejected already, the inability to replace Russo at short notice before the transfer deadline passes means there’s nothing in it for Marc Skinner’s side to sell.
The natural consequence of huge clubs dealing with huge clubs is that transfer fees will begin to soar as competition becomes fiercer at the top end of the women’s game. And as we’ve seen from the men’s side of things, that can have its pitfalls.
So many men’s clubs and players who used to feel so accessible to their local communities are now treated as demi-gods… untouchables. You might get to speak to or hear from your heroes, but only as part of some corporate event in which they’re being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to flog you soap, or after shave, or the latest breathable sock. They cost a lot of money, so they need to make it back 10-fold, whether on or off the field. They’re a commodity now.
But the women’s game has always been different. The players are good friends with the fans. They will take time to thank the supporters personally after games, posing for pictures and autographs, and chat with anyone and everyone who stops them. This is the more natural way of things, it’s the way men’s football used to be before the money came in.
So one can be forgiven for believing that rising transfer fees and inflated salaries could be the biggest threat yet to the purity of the women’s competitions. The last thing we need is for clubs to start treating their female players in the same way they do their male counterparts, as assets to be protected rather than people to be celebrated.
Women’s football is unalloyed. It doesn’t have that overly-physicalised nature on the pitch. There is no snobbery about who can and can’t have contact with its players. It’s never been about how much things cost or are worth. But the Russo transfer saga might be a glimpse at challenges to come.
It’s hard to believe that the women’s operations at clubs will ever be run in quite the impersonal way we have come to expect from the biggest men’s teams in the country. But with increased success there arrives various moral obstacles and it will be interesting to see how the WSL and its rival leagues adapt in the next decade as the women’s game grows ever greater.