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Chelsea’s Sam Kerr signing could start a women’s soccer arms race

For the price of one crap men’s player, you can have the best women’s soccer team in the whole world.

Photo of Sam Kerr holding a Chelsea uniform with her name on it the back and Stamford Bridge in the background.

Sam Kerr signed for Chelsea on Wednesday, which is a big deal in and of itself. She has been the world’s most prolific scorer over the past three years, netting 105 goals in 127 appearances since the start of 2017.

Kerr will also be the most expensive player ever signed by an English club. She made just over $300,000 from the Chicago Red Stars and Perth Glory in 2019, and the Red Stars were prepared to give her a six-figure raise to stick around under the league’s new financial rules. Her deal at Chelsea is reportedly in excess of $400,000, which is about the same as what Olympique Lyonnais pays Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg.

We should take a moment to appreciate what she has done. Those of us who are familiar with Kerr and people who have never heard of her can get equal enjoyment out of a mixtape, so here’s six minutes of Kerr balling out.

But Kerr’s signing is about a lot more than just one of the world’s best players signing for a new club. Chelsea has an opportunity to build the biggest women’s sports brand in the world, and if they’re smart, Kerr’s signing will only be the beginning of a huge push forward for the sport.

I’m going to take a wild guess about the future: Chelsea signed Kerr because it believes it can change the hierarchy of women’s football.

From a pure footballing perspective, Kerr could be the difference between Chelsea facing a difficult scrap with the teams at the top of the FA WSL and winning the league comfortably. The Blues sit on top of the table at the moment, and they’re managing that without a superstar striker. But Kerr and Chelsea’s goals are long term.

The Blues didn’t qualify for the UEFA Champions League this season, but Kerr has her sights set on that competition. It is, for better or worse, one of the very few competitions on which female footballers are judged. Kerr’s record-setting performances in NWSL — which is stronger top-to-bottom than any European competition — didn’t impress awards voters. The league is apparently irrelevant in the eyes of the international soccer community, as evidenced by both Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd being named the best players in the world by FIFA during seasons in which they performed poorly for their clubs.

Australia struggled at the World Cup, robbing Kerr of a shot at any big individual awards. There won’t be another World Cup for four years, and the Matildas can’t go sign better players to help her out. For Kerr to prove to the world outside of the United States and Australia that she’s the best striker in the world, she needs to conquer the Champions League.

We know Kerr cares about accolades, and from the outside she seemingly had better options. Among English clubs, Arsenal and Manchester City have had more success in the Champions League. Elsewhere in Europe, Wolfsburg, Barcelona and PSG all could be one or two players away from having a shot at beating Lyon this season. One reason why she might have chosen Chelsea is that the club convinced her that they are willing to take their investment in women’s soccer to the next level.

There’s no reason why Lyon has to be the biggest women’s club in the world, nor why they should continue to be completely unchallenged by the world’s biggest men’s clubs. I would like you to just sit with this sentence and think about it for a minute:

The highest paid women’s footballers in the world make a club salary of around $400,000 per year.

To a club like Chelsea, that’s pocket change. The Blues are probably paying Danny Drinkwater more than that this year to piss off to Burnley, to say nothing of the £35 million transfer fee to sign him in the first place. Chelsea could sign 10 Sam Kerrs and not notice where the money went. Her salary is a rounding error to Chelsea. The same would be true for Arsenal, City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Lyon is currently 28th in revenue in men’s soccer, according to the Deloitte Money League report, with revenue roughly on par with Brighton and Hove Albion, who spent over £50 million in the transfer market this summer. At least a dozen English teams could viably have women’s squads as good as Lyon’s.

Investment in women’s football would obviously be a move towards the future rather than to make money on right away. FA WSL attendance isn’t great, and sexism still permeates every facet of the game. But the league is starting to draw crowds of 20,000-plus for special events at big stadiums, and 77,768 showed up for a friendly between England and Germany at Wembley. This season’s title sponsorship with Barclays, worth more than £10 million over the next three seasons, was another big step forward.

Chelsea is also not just an English club, but a global one, that spends a lot of money and energy on marketing all around the world. More than a billion people watched the 2019 women’s World Cup, with viewership more than double the previous edition of the tournament. There is money to be made in women’s soccer, especially for the first clubs to get their branding right.

We can argue about exactly how much money there is to be made in women’s soccer, and where it tops out. Maybe you think the potential is actually pretty low. But Chelsea — and almost every big men’s club — has wasted hundred of millions of pounds on crap players who did nothing to help it win games or further its brand. I think we can all agree that having the most valuable women’s sports brand in the entire fucking world is more valuable to Chelsea than Danny Drinkwater. The Blues can have that in a year if they want. And once they have it, Chelsea could (and hopefully will) trigger an arms race among the clubs that have just as much spare cash lying around as they do.

Kerr signing for Chelsea will truly be significant if it’s just the start. No matter what, she’ll make a positive impact on the sport and club even if Chelsea doesn’t invest, scoring a lot of goals and maybe even win the Ballon d’Or. But Chelsea has an opportunity to do something much bigger than that for a relatively small amount of money.

I’m choosing to believe Kerr’s move to Chelsea is just one step in what will be a rapid progression for women’s club soccer.