- Former professional footballer has been appointed as sporting director for Aston Villa Women
- Aluko aims to use her time in the role to promote the women’s game – on both a social and commercial level
- Appointment comes at a time when women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports properties
It’s somewhat ironic that the day the (English) Football Association announced the suspension of professional football was Friday 13th March.
Marked down by the superstitious as a dark day of ill fortune, Friday 13th saw the lights go out on football grounds across the country as both the men’s and women’s games went off the grid for who knows how long.
Then and since, much of the attention focused on Premier League champions elect Liverpool, whose barnstorming season was due to make claiming the title a formality. But in Birmingham, England’s second city, another team with a near-impeccable record were left to ponder on what was to become of what promised to be their breakthrough season.
Ahead of the suspension, Aston Villa Women had won 13 of fourteen games in the FA Women’s Championship, drawing the other. They were six points clear of their nearest challengers, who they had already defeated four times during the season.
The suspension must have seemed a particularly cruel blow to the club’s sporting director Eni Aluko, who had only recently taken up the role following a break which followed a stint of media duties after her retirement as a player.
Now the appointment of a sporting director might not normally pass muster as SportBusiness content. But Aluko’s decision to take up a job at the heart of an historic football club says a lot about the changing face of women’s football and women’s sport in general. The expected continuation of a surge in interest in women’s sport when we emerge from the Covid-19 chaos is one of the positives that some of the sharpest minds in the sector are hanging onto, and Villa’s owners appear committed to investing in the opportunity.
So, the views of a woman who played international football 102 times for England, played top-level professional football in the United States, in England with Chelsea, and in Italy with Juventus are certainly worth paying attention to.
Aluko, who qualified as a lawyer during her playing career and became the unofficial lawyer to the England women’s team in their contract negotiations with the Football Association, has an insider take on women’s football which few can equal.
Now she is focused on the Villa Women’s project being driven by the team led by club chief executive Christian Purslow. And, she says, despite the inevitable stresses and
the current situation, she has enjoyed the start.
“Being new to the role, my first weeks were an incredible education about decision-making on everything from player recruitment and contracts, to stadium share agreements, deciding operationally where and when the players train, working on what the fitness programme looks like and speaking to education partners.
“I am not working in isolation as the role also requires me to sit at the centre of the club and really tap into the different areas of operation. “
Exactly what she has become central to is a project with very specific KPIs. First, to take Villa Women out of the second-tier FA Women’s Championship; second, to become an established Women’s Super League club, capable of challenging the giants of Manchester City and Chelsea for honours; and third, competing regularly in the Uefa Women’s Champions League – something which should become increasingly achievable when the number of English clubs to qualify increases from two to three.
And in doing so the progress of the team will help advance women’s football and opportunities for women in the game. By creating new heroes and role models it aims to build a new and engaged fanbase which itself creates new commercial opportunities, while enhancing the TV product and helping drive rights fees.
According to Aluko, the heightened focus of big brand clubs in women’s football is both a defence mechanism against negative PR and realisation of an opportunity to engage more deeply across a wider fanbase. But, she says, new thinking is needed if mistakes of the past are to be avoided.
“A lot of clubs are now realising that the fanbase is more complex than simply males between 10 and 60. It very much includes women and there is now an expectation from brands that, as their consumers include women, there’s a demand for female role models,” she said.
“Girls football is now one of the fastest growing – if not the fastest growing – sports and I think club executives and owners are realising that it helps, not just from a PR perspective but a fan engagement perspective – to have professional women’s teams. They also know that the cost of running women’s teams is minimal compared to the cost of men’s teams.
“Then there’s the fact that if you don’t have a women’s team there can be PR damage. We have seen that with Manchester United and Dortmund and, until recently with Real Madrid which didn’t have a women’s team.
“Beyond that, one of the things which brands and corporates want is to advance social objectives, whether that’s diversity, the gender pay gap, or general wellbeing. Women’s sport is a great vehicle to tackle those social issues.
“So, from Villa’s perspective one of the main reasons for its focus on the women’ s game is being able to have a women’s team which can engage with the community in different ways and advance social objectives.”
While the global success of the last Fifa Women’s World Cup is widely agreed to have elevated the status of and interest in women’s football in many markets, there is also a consensus that there is work to be done to give the European club game a leg-up to the next level.
Aluko sees it as a circular issue in need of a circular solution and an injection of fresh thinking.
“In terms of attendance clubs need to do more research into who the fans are as part of the wider fanbase for the men’s game. They need to really find out who is interested in watching the women’s game rather than just assuming it is families.
“Looking at my own social media you’ll see that 75 per cent of my fans are men and that broadens out across women’s football. A lot of assumptions have been made from a marketing perspective that just don’t land. The challenge is being able to say who the fans are, what they want, when do they want to see us play and how does that fit into the habits they have developed over the years watching the men’s game.
“A lot of bad decisions have been made for women’s football. For example, if you put a women’s game on an hour either side of a men’s game then of course those men who have been watching the club for 20 years aren’t going to come. And because those decisions have been made, our fan engagement is in deficit from the get-go.”
She sees increasing attendance as the key to establishing a virtuous circle of interest, engagement and revenue but the challenge is significant. Despite some eye-catching turnouts at local derbies played at clubs’ main stadiums, the reality remains that the average attendance in the FA Women’s Super League (for the suspended 2019-20 season) ranges from Tottenham Hotspurs’ 8,614 to a little over 1,200 for Bristol City. Even Manchester City has an average of just 3,867. These figures include the Big Game Bonus attendances.
“Broadcasters want to get involved but ultimately there will always be an issue if the attendance is not there. The last thing they want is to be showing games in empty stadiums. We need to figure that bit out and carve out a day or days where people expect to watch women’s football so that we can build more fan engagement around it,” Aluko said.
“Ultimately the broadcasters will then pay more for the rights and that (revenue) gets distributed throughout the league to the women’s game.”
Creativity, she says, is the key to commercial success. She stresses that women’s teams can carve out their own identities and develop commercial relationships with brands which share their social values and aspirations.
“We need to identify with the social objectives we can align with and engage with brands who do that (share) and partners who also want to engage with those objectives and want to invest in women.
“I am an adidas ambassador and have just been part of their ‘I Fund Women’ campaign, which is built around the fact that women are the fastest growing group of innovators in the world. To get behind female business and empowerment is a clever thing to do because that is where the world is going.
“To be able to recognise that and propose to brands the opportunity to align with clubs is important. In the past, women’s football has waited to be approached. Now we are in our own space and its down to people like me to figure out what Aston Villa stands for and how can we align that with brands and how it (our relationship with brands) connects with our player recruitment.
“If I wanted to recruit a player from Germany, I might start looking at brands which have a presence in that country.”
While Aluko isn’t about to go public on the budget fuelling Villa’s ambitions in the women’s game, she is clearly confident that it is enough to enable her to achieve her objectives.
“My role is to get the team prepared for promotion to the WSL and then to keep us up and allow us to aim for Champions League football. The budget is commensurate to that of other teams in the FAWSL. We don’t have the same pulling power as other teams so we have to be competitive enough to pay players who may be good enough to play for the top three or four clubs but who may not get so much game time as others,” she said.
“Christian Purslow has put us in a position to offer competitive salaries and from then on it is down to the players.”
It is often said that being a professional athlete is not simply about being paid to perform, but about a state of mind. And Aluko is determined that her Aston Villa players should benefit from an end-to-end professional experience which goes beyond the training and playing environment.
“Birmingham has some of the best universities in the country and I am trying to build partnerships that would allow us to educate players,” she said.
“I want to be able to be in a position where younger players, who might have an offer to go to the USA on a scholarship, can think twice about doing that because we are in a position to give them support for education for now and in the future.”
She’s also committed to bringing more girls into football and says that the Villa academy is key to the process of recruiting talent and keeping girls in the game.
“When you start a professional women’s team, playing in the locality, it creates an aspiration. Then you must have a pathway, engaging with the girls and making them feel part of the Villa women’s community.
“What does (that pathway) look like for a young girl who starts at Villa when she is 10 and wants to end up in the first team? How are we going to support her and make her aspiration real? We have to make sure youngsters can be part of it and meet the players and see them train,” she said.
“There are a lot of barriers to entry and a lot of research on why they drop out at 16. We need to be empowering young girls and women and make them realise they can do anything in sport and maximise their education alongside football.
“My football career has informed a lot of the decisions I have had to make. It helps that I have just come out of the game. I played abroad, balanced working and playing. America was an intense professional environment. I have had so many different experiences that allow me to understand the players.”
For all the expectation over the continued growth of women’s football and excitement over unlocking its commercial potential, one recent incident has reminded us that there are still hurdles to overcome.
Legal papers prepared for the US Soccer Federation, designed to defend it against its own women’s national team players who are claiming pay discrimination, revealed attitudes which many hoped were a thing of the past.
Despite the fact that the US women’s team is the most successful in history and commercially outperforms its male equivalent, the papers claimed that: “(The women’s team players) do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort” to the men because “the overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength”.
Aluko, who has played in the US system and against the national team on many occasions, says she was disappointed to read what she describes as “shocking comments” which recently led to the resignation of USSF president Carlos Cordeiro.
“I don’t understand why this is even a case,” she said.
“The women’s team are bringing in more money than the men’s team, they are the most successful national team in the world. I don’t understand why it is a fight and although I do think it will settle now, it has been damaging for US soccer.
“The players are probably disillusioned right now. After all, what does it mean to wear the shirt if you feel so disrespected? We are just talking about equality and accepting that the women are in a much better commercial place than the men’s team.
“Change always takes a while but this really needs to happen. If that’s the US’ take (on the issue) you ask yourself whether that’s also the take of other federations.”