Let’s play a game. Alessia Russo. Mary Earps. Lauren Hemp. What’s the link?
The answer could be many things: played for Manchester-based clubs, represented England at major tournaments, won a Euros. All correct.
But here we’re looking into a much more complex trend, one that saw Russo leave Manchester United for free last July, and could see Earps and Hemp follow suit this summer.
Word of Barcelona’s interest in Manchester City forward Hemp began circling just before deadline day. Enough to cause a brief social stir but nothing more. Planting seeds.
Curiosity in Hemp’s situation is unsurprising. We’re talking about a player with world-class pedigree, and one who has the luxury of controlling her own destiny with only six months remaining on her current deal.
Player contracts have been a longstanding issue in the women’s game. Only now are Women’s Super League clubs beginning to get a grip on the complexities of so-called ‘asset protection’.
Long-term agreements between club and player have been commonplace in the men’s game for decades but only recently, against the backdrop of uncapped commercial growth and increased player power, has the women’s game begun to adopt similar thinking.
But clubs getting smarter in their approach has sparked another intricacy: players getting wise too. Their value, as athletes, has risen exponentially with the explosion in popularity of the game and it has created a market – a shop window – which had previously never existed.
This new era of player commodity presents a complicated dynamic for clubs. Control has been lost. Players with commercial relevance and worth, who are under the influence of agents working to achieve the biggest and best deals, are altering the landscape. Let’s use Hemp as an example.
Interest from Spanish giants Barcelona gives the 23-year-old negotiating potential. It’s how the game is played – like chess. You make your move; we’ll make ours and eventually a stand-off is reached before one side is forced to concede.
In this case, the ball is in Hemp’s court. She’s the perfect age, an England international, whose talent would enhance the attacking output of any European big-hitter – Barca included.
So, Manchester City have a choice to make – offer Hemp what she believes she’s worth or risk losing her for free in the summer when her contract expires. Of course, deals are not solely brokered on the promise of money, but it helps. Money talks.
Manchester United are incidentally in the same position with Earps – another England international whose talent is attracting buyers all over Europe. At 30, the goalkeeper is older than Hemp, but a major force in the women’s game and beyond, and is also represented by new, ambitious agents.
United are backed into a corner. They have gone all in on Earps in attempt to tie her down to a new contract: the offer of the most lucrative deal they’ve ever presented a female player and the chance to be part of the new INEOS-backed regime, which will begin in earnest this summer. But there’s no guarantees that will be enough.
Suddenly, short-term contracts which used to serve the interests of clubs, giving them flexibility over play retention, appear short-sighted. The balance of power has shifted. Players have the backing of their own personal brands, and some are as valuable off the pitch as they are on it.
Earps sells shirts, even if Nike are six months late in agreeing to print them.
Now here comes the stand-off. The bit right before ‘checkmate’. If Manchester United can’t offer Earps what she wants – and that’s the promise of silverware as well as a rewarding contract – she’ll have to walk for free this summer. Hemp may well leave City for similar reasons, while goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck has already been convinced by the allure of Catalonia – she’ll leave for Barcelona for free in June.
Ultimately the project has to be more enticing than the opportunity to play top-tier football – we’re passed that. The negotiating table is now fiercer than ever and considerations far vaster.
The way the market is trending million-pound transfer fees and annual wages aren’t far away – what started out as a significant investment may well turn out to be a bargain down the line.
Players have earned their right to upsell – now they must use their power wisely.