Imagined in 2015, ignited in 2017

How a vision to ‘develop a better future for women’s football’ sparked the journey that led to our talent development agency

It was May, one month before the 2015 Women’s World Cup commenced, and women’s football could not be more unrecognisable from what we know today. SSE had just signed a landmark sponsorship with The FA, agreeing to become the headline sponsor of the Women’s FA Cup. Women’s football in England had already started to ‘professionalise’, but this only applied to certain teams or, in some cases, certain players. The salaries involved were small. The top division, WSL1, featured 10 teams, two of which have since ceased to exist. It was a summer league. Attendances were low. And, importantly, the England women’s national team had never made it past the quarter-finals of a World Cup.

Having grown up in the USA, I was well aware of the potential of women’s football — it is the largest participation sport for females. In fact, females account for 48% of registered US soccer players under 18 years old. That’s a staggering figure relative to the status quo in England, or even Europe. The leading players of the US Women’s national team were already well-recognised role models and commercial-valuable superstars. By 2015, the NWSL was in it’s 3rd season and setting the global benchmark for a professionally-run league — with dedicated team sponsors, active fanbases and matches livestreamed online.

Looking to take my career in a different direction, I was intrigued as to how I could support the growth of the game in England. However, after researching the sport, I realised that a copy-paste approach from men’s football would not work. It would take some fresh ideas and creativity.

The vision: it starts from why, not what

In my previous job at Jaguar Land Rover, we’d done some work to define a new business model using Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle — and I found it a great way to clearly articulate what I was setting out to achieve. In summary, rather than starting with what you do as a business, you rather define (1) why you do it (define the underlying vision of what the business wants to achieve) (2) how you will do it (identify what differentiates your business in achieving these); and then (3) what you do is actually a consequence of this process.

The idea is that what you do doesn’t define a successful business, it’s rather why you do it that drives success.

This thought process led to the vision which underpins all of our work to date:

Why we do it: We believe in developing a better future for women’s football

It was then necessary to articulate the principles that would allow us to be successful in achieving this, which led to the following conclusions:

How we do it: We will this achieve this by (1) taking a female-centred approach, (2) empowering females to contribute; and (3) supporting partners that promote the game

The final (important!) question was “What do we do?” Or rather, what can we do to develop a better future for women’s football?

So I explored and had some conversations. It felt like it would be difficult to successfully attract sponsorship to women’s football without any prior experience in the field. Player salaries were largely non-existent except for a selected few — and even fewer were able to generate commercial revenues off-the-pitch. It felt like it was too soon to be able to sustainably support players. However, there were still thousands of women and girls playing the game at grassroots level — surely, this could be a potential area to contribute to?

It might be possible to impact grassroots through coaching, but it’s not easy to impact a lot people, and in any case it was a long way from my skillset. So I decided that a retail business could be an idea — players bought a lot of boots and kit.. What if we could promote women’s-fit boots which were better anatomically formed to female feet? However, it turned out that female players didn’t think this was an issue — they were happy with their current boots. Thus this wasn’t a problem. For kit, however, the girls had a lot to say! Finally, a problem we could solve!

What we do: A teamwear provider which offers female players choice in what they wear on the pitch, by promoting the women’s-fit kit collections of leading sportswear brands

Thus the birth of Soccerella.

She-fit kit: look good, feel good, play good

Once we knew what we were doing, we used our principles to push forward with the business.

Taking a female-centred approach

It turns out that while male players of all shapes and sizes are happy to show up on a Saturday and play in a standard one-size-fits-all “Unisex” XL kit (read: Men’s XL), females across the country were tired of showing up to play in unflattering kit. There were pictures all across the internet of female teams playing in oversized, long-sleeved kit — or ‘bedsheets’ as we affectionately termed them. However, female players were crying out for choice. And there was some really enlightening research that Women in Sport shared on what the ideal PE kit looked like for young girls (a study aimed at increasing female participation in sport at younger ages by understanding the barriers to participation). Unsurprisingly, it was well-fitting, yet comfortable, clothing that was preferred.

Empowering females to contribute

Early on, I met Lily Agg at the local FA football festival. At the time, Lily was balancing full-time studies in sports education alongside being a footballer at Millwall in WSL2. She was keen to contribute how she could — and we started with a photoshoot to highlight the difference of “she-fit kit”. As we marketed those, she remained involved, helping to bring in some initial sales — and continued to be a loyal contributor over the following nine months, until she completed her studies.

At that point, Lily moved into full-time work at a distinguished academic institution in the south of England. Shortly, however, there was the opportunity for Lily to join the business full-time in a dual-career — combining full-time football with a business that would work to her schedule. Thus Lily joined Bristol City in WSL1 during the 2017 Spring Series, took over the business, and became the driver of growth.

Supporting partners that promote the game

As we were to focus on women’s football, we researched all of the sportswear brands that offered women’s-fit kits, and then we set out to bring them together under one roof (or, more specifically, website — since it turned out a roof was more expensive to rent than the business could afford!). This made it possible for a ‘green’ team to select from ~10 different green women’s-fit kits. At the height of the business, we generated ~£100k per year in sales — which probably represented sales of ~2,000 kits to ~100 teams. The teams loved the kit, with frequent feedback that they loved the fit and their new appearance.

The power of the network: redefining ‘What we do’

During the Soccerella journey, it became clear that it was not a business that could achieve the appropriate scale. However, what it had achieved was that it helped to develop a large network in women’s football. During the years of business, we interacted with teams, leagues, The FA, journalists, managers and coaches.

In fact, it was this network which contributed to Lily being offered a trial at 4-time Champion’s League champions 1. FFC Frankfurt of Germany. When Lily finished the trial with the offer of a playing contract, it had a huge impact on both of our careers. Lily became the first Englishwoman to play in the Frauen-Bundesliga, an achievement later featured by the BBC. The experience provided a clear signal that the professional game in England was growing, and I could play a role in its development.

Shortly afterwards, I was introduced to Lucy Quinn, a promising attacker that had rapidly accelerated from the WPL to WSL1, and had made a big impact along the way. Once I was able to success promote her profile to a number of full-time setups in England and abroad, it only reinforced my conviction.

The concept retained the founding principles of Soccerella — the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ remained the same - it was simply ‘what we do’ that had evolved.

The next week, I informed my previous employer of my intentions; and, in the months that followed, also took the steps to shut down Soccerella.

ignite: Distilling it down to a single word

The idea to work with players had been there since 2015. Following the principle of being female-focused, the idea was to create a player agency dedicated to women’s football, which could offer a level of service commensurate with the elite level of the players represented. Importantly, we wanted to ensure that this reliance would not be diluted by an attachment to (or financial reliance on) male players (who would often be better paid, even when they were significantly further down the footballing pyramid).

The ambition of the agency would be to work with players to support them on the three key aspects of their career: (1) their professional playing career; (2) commercial opportunities; and (3) preparing for their future career, in terms of education, jobs, etc.

We set out to to work with talented players hungry to push themselves. In turn, we aspire to be the agency that provides our players with the brightest opportunities to light up their careers and reach the next level. We feel a burning passion for our work. And we aim to spark the attention and excitement of the football world with the work we do, and how we do it. We distilled the concept down to a single word:

ignite /ɪɡˈnʌɪt/

Talent development by Soccerella.

Imagined in 2015, ignited in 2017 🔥