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Lyon to buy Reign FC – how will this affect the NWSL?

Helen's interview with Munitionettes:

On Monday, Reign FC announced that they are in negotiations to be bought by OL Groupe, the parent company of Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon). Lyon are the most successful women’s football team in the world, and OL have invested a lot of money into top facilities, players, and wages. They have a star-studded squad, including Lionesses stars Lucy Bronze and, since this summer, Nikita Parris.

Reign compete in the National Women’s Super League (NWSL), the top division in American women’s football. They are home to this summer’s World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Megan Rapinoe. They consistently come in the top half of the NWSL table, but it’s been a few years since they won any silverware.

When I heard that OL were planning to buy Reign, I had mixed feelings. It’s inarguable that their investment in Lyon has accelerated the development of the top sides in women’s football throughout Europe – the game needs money to grow. But a massively uneven concentration of money can bring its own problems. When smaller clubs have no hope of competing, a league can become less competitive, and less interesting to fans.

To help get my head around the news and the impact it might have on the NWSL, I turned to Helen Hardy. Helen co-hosts the excellent Two Girls Talk Balls podcast, and covers the NWSL on the podcast’s Patreon. Thanks so much to Helen for sharing her knowledge and insights below, and I definitely recommend checking out the podcast, the content on its Patreon, and all the other great stuff Helen is doing.

Munitionettes: Since Lyon have won 13 titles in a row and four Champions Leagues in a row, and with their ability to buy the best of the best, it seems like they have made the French league, and even the CL, uncompetitive. My impression of the NWSL is that it is more competitive. Although North Carolina Courage [NCC] tend to come top every year, unlike Lyon they do actually lose matches! How do you see the competitiveness of the NWSL?

Helen Hardy: I think it’s a really interesting argument to look at NWSL v Europe in terms of competitiveness. I think the standard of Europe is a lot higher than that of NWSL. If we look at the Women’s Super League in England, any of those top 4 teams could have a go at Lyon… it wouldn’t necessarily be a walkover for Lyon. This sort of level isn’t achieved by monotony and stringent rules around salaries/nationalities etc. Teams like Lyon have catapulted other European teams into getting proper training facilities, paying their players decent salaries (Lyon are rumoured to be paying players an average of £150k a year) and using the best coaches and support teams possible. This sort of front runner club is what pushes the other teams to wake up. Can Arsenal ever win the Champions League if Lyon pick the best players, pay them loads of money and give them every opportunity to be the best they can be (with top facilities etc)? Well, Arsenal better step their game up if they want a stab at the biggest prize in footie!

Now, if we flash back to the NWSL and look at those top teams (NCC, Thorns etc). Consistently over an entire season, a club like NCC couldn’t compete for a title against the elite players in the WSL or European Leagues. They simply haven’t got the squad depth. When we look at the top WSL teams this week (end of November 2019), they’ve played 3 fixtures back to back. They have depth in their squads for these busy periods in their calendar. They’ve forked out salaries for players that might only play 8-10 fixtures this season because they need that depth to survive in European football. Other than profit and loss, there are no constraints on Arsenal to buy whoever they want.

Unfortunately for the NWSL, the league has restricted itself with capped salaries and rules around the number of US-born players being in the squad. They’ve not moved with the times in terms of budgets for players and facilities.

I think there’s a cloud hanging over NWSL when it comes to US-born players who want to compete at the highest level. Every top US Women’s National Team (USWNT) player knows they could have a stab at European football. They know they could be earning a decent salary (NWSL players earn a maximum of £36k a year which is over £100k less than first team Lyon players) and they know they could be playing more fixtures in bigger games on the world stage. They can’t leave the NWSL on a permanent contract because of the risk of losing their coveted place in the best international team in the world.

They’re trapped in NWSL, in teams with 2-3 world beaters and 15-20 college graduates.

So… How could NWSL become more competitive? Evidently they need to increase their budgets, make it more accessible for home fans (put their kits on an online shop, have merchandise, do transport links to stadiums etc) and they badly need to remove the rules around the number of US-born players in the squad.

M: How do you think this takeover could change the NWSL?

HH: At the moment I can’t see the benefit to Lyon buying an NWSL team because of the restrictions with being an NWSL club owner. Maybe this rumour is subtly hinting that NWSL big boys are having a change of heart on their outdated policies? I was always secretly hoping that NWSL would be entered into the Champions League one day (kind of like Australia being in the Eurovision song contest!) because I’d love to see more USWNT talent playing in the top fixtures in world football… this rumour (Lyon buying Reign) kind of poo-poos my dream as it’s against FIFA regulations to own two teams that could end up playing each other.

M: Is there a risk that five years from now Reign could be the US version of Lyon with nobody able to compete?

HH: I don’t think there’s any risk of Reign becoming some sort of world beater if players are capped to earning less than £40k a year… but Lyon have a great recruitment policy and a fantastic team of scouts, so I’m sure they could work wonders in the NWSL Draft!

M: And ultimately do you see this being a positive development for the NWSL and women’s football globally or a negative one?

HH: I’ve got mixed thoughts on this rumour becoming a reality. I think the NWSL needs to up its game before becoming a force in the world of women’s football. I think Lyon could have a huge impact on their policies by showing them how it’s done but the change needs to happen at the top and there needs to be a scrapping of the rule book before the NWSL can have any real impact.

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