A Beginner’s Guide To The WSL: The History Of The League

A Beginner’s Guide To The WSL: The History Of The League
Emily Laycock
Emily Laycock

With the start of the 23/24 season fast approaching, here is the first blog post in “A Beginner’s Guide To The Women’s Super League”, discussing the history of the league. It’s certainly no secret that the Lionesses’ success at the Euros in 2022 massively influenced the amount of interest in the women’s game with crowds dramatically increasing alongside viewership figures, and their success on the international stage again this summer at the Women’s World Cup 2023, is likely to be a catalyst for change again in domestic women’s football. And so, for those who are new to the league or new to supporting a women’s football team, this guide is for you.

Prior to the founding of the Barclays Women’s Super League in March 2010, the highest level of women’s football in England was known as the FA Women’s Premier League National Division. Whilst the first season of the WSL was deferred until 2011 due to the global economic downturn, Chelsea and Arsenal eventually kicked it off at Imperial Fields (Chelsea’s home ground) on the 13th of April, 2011.

Between the years of 2011 and 2016, the season was played from March through to October, operating through the summer as opposed to the traditional footballing season of through the winter. The league then returned to align with the traditional football calendar in England, and the UEFA Women’s Champions League, in 2016 with games played between September and May for the first time, and the league was split into two divisions, The FA WSL 1 and the FA WSL 2, bringing with it a promotion and relegation system.

The WSL 1 consisted of eight teams to begin with, but a plan was in place to make this ten teams within two years. This plan materialised with two teams out of the ten making up the WSL 2, promoted at the end of the 2015 season, and two promoted at the end of the 2016 season, whilst one team was relegated from the WSL 1 at the end of the 2015 season, and again at the end of the 2016 season. The WSL 1 was then a ten-team league.

During the 2017/18 WSL season, the WSL 1 became a fully professional league for the first time, renamed as the FA Women’s Super League with the WSL 2 becoming the FA Women’s Championship. A new license criteria was created that required clubs to form a youth academy and offer players a 16-hour week contract as a minimum - this is when the women’s game first showed signs of real development within England as it made the first small step towards reaching a similar level to that of the men’s game; there is no doubt that there is still a significant way to go, even in 2023.

The 2018/19 season saw the league become fully professional as ten teams become 11, with the 2019/20 season bringing with it change once more as 11 became 12; this is how the league we know today looks. The top three teams from the WSL each season qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League where they will face the top women’s teams in Europe.

The first Women’s Football Weekend took place in November 2019, with a new WSL record crowd of 38,262 achieved as Arsenal beat Tottenham in the North London derby. This weekend acknowledged the rapid growth of the women’s game, and perhaps highlighted the game to new fans. Taking place during the men’s international window, it was an opportunity for fans to still watch their club in action, this time watching the women as opposed to the men.

In April 2021, the WSL celebrated its 10th birthday - it’s been quite the journey to get the league to where it is today. Starting out as a semi-professional, eight-team league, to becoming a fully professional, 12-team league, producing some of the best female footballing talents of our generation… the growth of the WSL has been sensational, and it is a very exciting time to be a part of, or a fan of, women’s football as the game is guaranteed to go from strength to strength from here on out if we keep building the support, recognition and awareness of the game.

Hopefully that gives you a little bit of background information on the formation of the WSL and insight into just how much the league has grown and developed over the years. The next blog post in “A Beginner’s Guide To The Women’s Super League” will be looking at the 12 teams that make up the league.

Here’s to the 23/24 season (only 20 days to go!)

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