She’s only just passed her A-levels, but a Sussex footballer is embarking on a business venture with a childhood friend that the pair hope will help transform women’s football in the UK.
Jade Simmons, who plays for Crawley Wasps, now has a triple challenge ahead of her as she endeavours to combine playing with a university career – while helping business brain Ashley Brown turn a vision into a reality that they hope might entice more females into the sport.
Brown, 28, a business management consultant from Loxwood, near Horsham, has joined forces with Simmons, a science-oriented student from nearby Billingshurst, to establish Soccerella, which aims to provide multi-pronged services for women’s football.
It’s an idea he has been fine-tuning since returning from the United States, where he spent much of his childhood, but one that took on a serious complexion when he realised how comparitively neglected women’s football was in this country.
With a tiny team and modest rented accommodation, but with an imagination and ideas to spare, Soccerella hopes to go where few British businesses have dared venture – into a world where women’s football is king (or should that be queen?).
Their store, near the Sussex-Surrey border, and online market place open for business tomorrow.
It was on his return from a winter ski break in Switzerland that Brown’s thoughts on what was missing from the women’s game began to crystallise.
He explained: “When I came back, about a month before the Women’s World Cup, I remember having the thought, ‘Why isn’t the sizeable market being correctly served?
“The women – and girls – appeared to be treated as if they were boys or men, in terms of how they are supplied.”
- Based at Smithbrook Kilns, Cranleigh, Surrey
- Core team of four: Ashley Brown, Jade Simmons, Em Webster and Sam Cliffe – plus prestige “brand ambassador” Lily Agg
- Aims to sell women’s-fit playing and training kit online and in the Cranleigh shop
- Plans to provide marketing, nutritional and coaching materials to grassroots clubs
- “Ambassadors” will help spread the message and provide practical support
- An “#OurOctober” event will encourage clubs at all levels to market a specific game at potential new supporters
A former amateur footballer himself, he began to realise how much the perception of female football in the UK still suffered, and how it was creating a vicious circle that was a potential bar to youngsters taking up the game.
He said: “In the US, women’s football has a completely different perception. Football is one of the most attractive women’s sports in the US. Women and girls are encouraged to play. The organisation is huge from about six or seven onwards.”
Simmons agrees, having experienced at first hand the challenges of developing her playing career in a male-dominated sport that still often views women players with suspicion, or at least, less respect.
“The only women’s pair of boots I have ever had have come from the United States, when somebody brought them back off holiday,” she said.
If you play in a shirt that is baggy and drops down to your knees, it is going to affect your confidence levels – Jade Simmons, Soccerella
In fact, the 18-year-old’s research into the subject revealed not only a shortage of specifically tailored boots for females in the UK – particularly at the grassroots end of the scale – but also the cost of having to make do.
“I found how wearing men’s football boots doesn’t support in the right way,” she said. “Women’s feet tend to be narrower and [the boots] need to be tighter. Wearing some of the newer models, with not much material, is not the best.
“I know a lot of women with narrow feet who sometimes wear several layers of socks. And there’s the size range. Some professional players have to go to children’s boots.”And it’s not just boots that are an issue.
Training wear and even playing kit are rarely tailored for women, they say.
“Whenever a women’s team buys their kit, in 95% of cases they are buying men’s-fit kit,” said Brown. “It means women playing in something that isn’t very flattering and doesn’t boost confidence.
“We spoke to Women in Sport (an organisation dedicated to raising the profile and opportunities for female participation in sport), and they talked about the effect of visual appearance – that it was a deterrent to getting girls into sport.
“They don’t like the outfits. They don’t feel good.”
Simmons says the importance of how a female looks and feels in what they wear should not be under-estimated.
“Comfort is important,” she insists. “If you play in a shirt that is baggy and drops down to your knees, it is going to affect your confidence levels.”
Simmons and Brown believe the signals sent by having to play in thinly-disguised men’s kit are putting off potential players.
Simmons says the realisation that not even the kit was designed with women in mind could deter girls from taking up the sport. And with most strips purchased by managers or coaches who tend to be male, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
She said: “It didn’t stop me wanting to play, but… even something as simple as the colour of the kit might put people off wanting to play in it.”
Soccerella is already a registered supplier of “team wear”, and hopes, by demonstrating the demand in women’s football, to persuade manufacturers to provide a range of kits tailored specifically for women and girls.
The pair also hope to spread the word among other suppliers and encourage them to invest in developing products specifically for female players, and they have pledged to stock every available variation of women’s kit online and in their shop, a small unit in a business and retail complex near Cranleigh, in Surrey.
But it may be as much the other services that they propose to offer that provide women’s football with a springboard from which to cash in on post-World Cup interest at grassroots level.
Soccerella hopes to provide a host of resources – from nutritional advice to coaching expertise – to aid hard-pressed clubs, schools and youth groups trying to offer football at the base of the game’s pyramid.
The economics may not yet be finalised, but Brown hopes that tapping into the goodwill of players, coaches and other experts will provide the platform from which their service can grow.
Brown explained: “There are four of us – five now, with Lily (Agg, the Millwall player who has agreed to become Soccerella’s brand ambassador). We are trying to build a network across the game and give that network the opportunity to suport its development and believe in what we are trying to do.
“Initially, we are going to be working collaboratively (with people volunteering their time), but in the future, who knows?”
He added: “In an ideal world, everybody should be paid for their expertise, but [the fact that they are not] is the nature of where the game is. The more sponsor money that comes in, the more products that are feeding directly into the women’s game, naturally, the more money will be in the women’s game to pay them.”
The pair point out that many resources – such as marketing materials and nutritional advice – may well have an initial cost but can then be distributed with negligible further expense.
Brown describes it as an “asset-light” business, operating away from expensive city-centre premises, and with a whole lot of goodwill among its staff of four and so-called ambassadors, who will take their knowledge of the game into communities to ease administrative burdens, help with marketing and coaching and possibly even sponsor coaches to gain higher qualifications.
“We have a great team who are able to contribute without having to take too much in return, and are taking a share in the business,” he explained.
“As it develops, we can build investment into the business. But for now we have a solid foundation, which allows us to kick-start what we are doing and ask the questions, ‘Is it real? Are players interested? Will people respond?’.
“Once we know the answers to those questions, that is where we have the foundation from which you grow your business.”
Brown and Simmons also believe they can keep marketing costs down by exploiting the potential of social media, and have made a shrewd signing in Brighton-based Super League player Lily Agg as the “face of Soccerella”, whose status they hope will help develop new business opportunities.
But while they are determined to learn from the experience of the men’s game, whose popularity and earning potential has soared in recent decades, they are eager to accentuate the differences.
Simmons says: “It is different from the men’s game, and for a lot of people that has become a negative. But I don’t understand that. It is still a good quality, even lower down.”