The women’s game with football consultant & agent, Nicole Allison

Nicole Allison, football agent, women’s football consultant and advisor, caught up with Sportageous to talk about women in football, the challenges of female athletes and her own unique career.

Her keen interest in football led her to pursue a career in sports management, and her experience working with Tottenham Hotspurs and alongside other athletes has led her to found her own women’s football consultancy NA Sport.

Nicole Allison
Nicole Allison. Source: Supplied

Zushan Hashmi: Let’s start off with a little bit about your story? How did you get involved in sports and football, in particular?

Nicole Allison: Growing up in Worcester in England, which is in the Midlands, I played football almost constantly with my dad and brother out on the patio.

Since football wasn’t a traditional sport for girls I had to go off and play netball and hockey and all these other more traditional female sports. And it always used to frustrate me. I played hockey as a code of backup. I was obviously very sporty, but hockey was then the route that I sort of got pushed down.

However, when the opportunity came around to play football (I was 14 or 15 years at the time), I jumped at it, I guess I was very fortunate.

The name, Dawn Scott, was instrumental really in my career because she started a Worcestershire county girls football team which I later joined at age 15.

If consumerism had a sex it would be female. You know, 70 to 80%of consumer purchase decisions are made by females across the world.  Economically, engaging and empowering women is so important and there are societal benefits too.

What are the economic and social benefits of this?

If consumerism had a sex it would be female. You know, 70 to 80%of consumer purchase decisions are made by females across the world.  Economically, engaging and empowering women is so important and there are societal benefits too.

Then there are the obvious physical benefits, if we have a nation, that’s more active and that’s playing more sport, then we are healthier as a nation, both physically and mentally.

Additionally, mental health and well-being is an important piece that is being talked about more and more, which is great. We need to raise awareness, but we also need to do a lot of research and a lot of learning about how to deal with mental health issues and then specifically related to sports and sportspeople. It is a fact that sport and exercise are great for tackling mental health problems.

Hence, we need to ensure that that’s something that we encourage throughout society and the nation. It’s not just about empowering women, it’s about empowering all sections of society and giving them equal opportunity and access to practice sports.

In your years of working within sports, what have been some of the biggest challenges that you have faced, personally?

I think the overriding challenge that most females will experience working in the sports industry is a subconscious bias that women don’t know as much as men about sport and therefore, their roles within sport are set to be something that’s more traditional.

In my opinion, females should work in leadership or commercial positions, and even operational positions in board roles at clubs to grow the space.

As a woman, you kind of don’t know where and how you can break that glass ceiling to get to the next level within that company. The opportunity for progression is something that I’ve always really struggled with. And I guess I’ve gotten frustrated since progression hasn’t been available to me as quickly as I would like.

Looking at my career, I’ve spent three years here, three years there and kind of then moved on and progressed along with my career and I have no regrets on that at all. Because if I would have just stayed at certain places, I would have still been exactly where I was four or five years ago. So I think as a female I was aware of that.

HR departments also need to look at how that career progression can be better, how they can support women, including black people and those from minority groups to get through into these sorts of leadership positions within sporting organisations. 

There’s always that time when you walk into a room and you’re the only female and you just know that they’re all thinking ‘this woman will not know as much as we do, so we don’t really need to listen to her’. And that gets frustrating.

I’ve experienced all of that. I’ve also worked with some fantastic male colleagues who have been mentors and role models for me throughout my career and have been real allies.

Sometimes, it isn’t just males that can be the problem, you also come across some women who have been in the industry a long time and maybe are a bit resistant to new players coming in.

Female athletes and female footballers have such incredible stories to tell such as juggling full-time work, being a parent, studying full-time, working on low contracts and some are not on any contracts at all!

Do you think enough is done in the UK for women’s sports?

I think we’re still in a development phase. It’s important that we don’t compare ourselves to men’s sports, particularly when looking at football.

And I think it’s dangerous sometimes when the women’s football league gets compared to men’s professional football and particularly the Premier League. This is because they’re under different platforms and they’ve had different levels of investment over a different number of years. 

There are however some significant movements in growth across all sports, 

Looking at football specifically because that’s my area of expertise, women’s football in this country [the UK] has grown so much in recent years, and there’s still a long way to go. Just because the Women’s Super League is professional, doesn’t mean that the sport isn’t still developing, we’re still professionalising. That’s the stage and the phase we’re in at the moment. 

The FA has put lots of investment in women’s football, there have been some fantastic people that work tirelessly. And I think there’s always the promise that we can do even better. And that includes diversity and inclusion in boardrooms and leadership positions across clubs. 

READ: Lois Heuchan of Charlton Athletic on her career & gender equality in football

How can women’s football rise up the ranks to find a better placing in the minds of sports fans and organisations?

I think the keyword here is about visibility. We need women’s football and other women’s sports to have greater visibility for the general public so that they can see what a fantastic product it is. They can see these fantastic role models and understand the stories that these athletes have.

You know, we’ve got some amazing stories of footballers, particularly the parents, those that have been pregnant two, three times maybe throughout their career and they’ve still managed to get back to full fitness and get into their team and then international.

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We’ve even got a player over here, Farah Williams who’s been in the England staff for many years, and she had a period when she was homeless. You know, there are some incredible stories, but we just don’t know about them. 

So visibility is the keyword and we need Football Associations and clubs to work very hard with other stakeholders to ensure that the visibility is there. Women’s football has had visibility every four years with the World Cup and also the European Championships starting to get a little bigger.

We need to ensure that domestic leagues within each country still have a lot of visibility, have good coverage within different media platforms and are given that airtime they deserve.

Nicole Allison

Tell me a little bit about your work with sports organisations and the lack of gender representation within many of these businesses?

There’s a kind of difference between ticking a box to say that you’ve got gender diversity in representation on a board and then there’s actual change and culture within the organisation that exists to ensure equality and to ensure everybody has a voice. 

This needs to be a real change. And these business decisions need to be made properly by a diverse board that represents the society or the market that your business is within.

The Football League has certainly gotten much better ever since I left, especially with Debbie Jevans being on the board and being interim CEO for a period.

There are changes happening here in the UK, but it’s important to ensure we have procedures in place to check and challenge that because even though you might have one or two women on a board of a club or an organisation, they still need to be in a position where their influence is from the top-down culture and it’s not just there to tick a box.

READ: Jade Pennock of Sheffield United on US football and returning to England

It shouldn’t just be purely about gender. I mean, that’s so important, but it’s also about skillsets and being right for the job. Which is why I’m sort of against quotas because I feel like there’s a potential there that it harms a woman’s ability to actually do the job. And focuses on the fact that she’s a woman. We need to look at the opportunities we’re giving all people. 

And so far, opportunities have really been for the same group of people and that is generally white men. So we need to ensure that opportunity is equal. 

What was it like working for Tottenham Hotspur LFC? And what did your roles involve both as commercial and general manager?

I’m a huge Tottenham fan and have been a season ticket holder for 20 years. So when I moved to London in 2011, I started looking at where the Tottenham Hotspur ladies would base, so I could watch them play. At the time they were really sort of nowhere in the women’s football pyramid.

Gradually they started performing very well. They won the quadruple in the 16-17 season and saw themselves get promoted into the second tier of women’s football, which is called the Championship. At the time it was called the WSL 2, but it later rebranded to be the FA Women’s Championship.

And I knew from my research in the sporting industry that as soon as a club gets promoted into the Women’s Championship, there are business criteria that they have to meet that have been stipulated by the FA to play in that league.

So it intrigued me where Tottenham ladies were in terms of these criteria. Did they meet them? Where did they train? What was the ground, and did that meet criteria that the FA deemed acceptable?

I got in in touch with a marketing manager at Tottenham who had also done quite a bit of work on the women’s team; helping them be part of the club’s website and organising the event that when they played at White Hart Lane. I spoke with her and discovered there was an obvious need for some help. So that’s kind of how it started.

The girls had to train hard, finish at 10 or 11pm, some of them had two-and-a-half hour trips back home, then had to go to work, come back and then do it the next day. They’re trained three times a week, and sometimes they trained on a Saturday and played games on a Sunday too.

And I think it was that respect and admiration that I had for those players which then led me to where I am now in terms of running my own agency because I wanted to make a greater impact and difference and support players, clubs and organisations that wanted to develop their women’s football pathway.

Commercially, we needed to make sure that that value was never lost, we needed to ensure that we integrated with the club and that you know we could be part of that commercial team. We need to figure out the audiences we want to speak to.

That’s developed really nicely. And it shows the importance of being one club and being one brand. That’s a key point.

For the General Manager role within women’s football here in England, you need to have a strategy and a plan that you all can get on board with. You should know the direction that you’re all going in as a club.

You need to have very clear roles and responsibilities on who is going to deliver that strategy and you need to come back to it every month or every quarter to ensure that you are on track, to ensure you are working towards that strategy.

You’ve got heads of women’s football now in different clubs encouraging clubs to bring in their own money and become self-sustainable.

There’s always that time when you walk into a room and you’re the only female and you just know that they’re all thinking this woman will not know as much as we do, so we don’t really need to listen to her. And that gets frustrating.

With the success of the women’s FIFA World Cup, has women’s sport seen a change in its fortunes?

The World Cup last summer was a fantastic success for several reasons. 

TV audiences were fantastic across all different countries and particularly here in the UK, we had over 11 million people watching the semi-final against the US, which was a huge figure for us and beat many other sporting events across last year.

This shows the commercial potential particularly. So, any brands, companies and organisations looking at getting involved in women’s football when they hear figures such as 1 billion people watching a tournament promises huge potential.

There were a couple of negatives in terms of some ticketing last summer when I went to the World Cup myself and there were some issues with the whole ticketing process which needs to improve for future tournaments.

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We don’t just want a big tournament and big audience numbers every four years. We need to create strategies to ensure that we build the same interest in the domestic leagues and competitions within those countries in the World Cup. So there’s lots of work still to be done.

NA Sport Website image
Visit Nicole Allison’s consultany - NA Sport to find out more!

How has the pandemic impacted this? And what does it mean for the future of women’s football and sports in general?

The pandemics impacted everything, obviously, across the board and women’s football is no different. Budgets have definitely reduced across pretty much every club. Places are looking at contracting fewer players so they have smaller squads, to save money in that respect.

So, it’s tough at the moment and loads more of the costs have come in for the clubs to actually deal with the testing and deal with cleaning and all of those kinds of costs associated with the pandemic that previously would have come through other sources such as your stadium or your playing budget or staff budget as well so it’s a difficult time for sure.

But we have to be optimistic, we have to look at the future and we need leadership. I think we need people within governing bodies and associations to be leading and showing us that women’s football isn’t just going to get left behind.

You also work as an FA intermediary and agent. Can you tell us about some of the players you work with and what does your role involve?

I never thought that being an intermediary was something that I wanted to do. I didn’t really know enough about it. To be honest, it hadn’t been a part of my sports business education either. But when I worked at Spurs as General Manager, the most rewarding part of that job was definitely getting to know the players and building a rapport with them and supporting them. That was what I enjoyed the most.

Female athletes and female footballers have such incredible stories to tell because they’re juggling full-time work, being a parent, studying full time, working on low contracts and some are not on any contracts at all.  No medical support, no maternity support or legislation within the contracts to support maternity leave exist.

There are lots and lots of areas that people don’t really think about when they’re thinking about female professional footballers. And it all sounds great when we’re talking about women’s football becoming professional, but we have to remember that it is still a developing sport.

Contracts and rules and regulations are in place, but definitely need to be constantly reviewed, questioned and critiqued so we can improve their standards. 

For me specifically, I like to work with players keen on building their career once they retire from playing football. So the players I work with are very keen on developing their career when they’ve retired.

Unless you are one of the few female football superstars, is it easy for women in football to make a living solely off their footballing careers?

I can talk of England and the WSL gave that that’s where my fundamental experience lies, but I guess the gap is existent. We’ve got top clubs now in the WSL, that are linked to big Premier League sort of giants and that has helped with investment into the clubs. 

To professionalise a women’s football team and facilities, resource personnel, technical staff, administrative staff, fitness coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and psychologists are obviously a huge kind of investment. And so the funding doesn’t go to the players directly.

Obviously your income also depends on where you live in in England. The clubs that are around the London area, one can earn significantly more, be able to live on their own, or get on the property ladder

If you’re on a salary in a different area of England, you know, North or South of the Midlands, then your salary might go a bit further. So it really depends on where you are and your contracts. It’s also what clubs can offer to support the player, medical insurances and so on.

So it’s a tough question. There’s still a long way to go for us to say that every professional female football player can live comfortably off what they earn just from playing football. 

READ: Macey Fraser on New Zealand Women’s Football & the U-17 World Cup

Tell me a little bit about the work you do with your consultancy, and what you’ll be working on post-COVID-19

I run NA sport, and I do three key things. One is consultancy. One is teaching or lecturing. I work across different sports universities providing guest lectures, or kind of more permanent lecturing around sport and football business specifically, and now even more so women’s football.

And then the third thing is representing players and developing support networks for these players. And a large part of that is also a kind of mentoring for players and students.

It’s a support network, that I still provide those players and also students that are looking to get involved and work in the game. So, those are the three key things in consultancy that I specifically kind of work on.  

I also went to Saudi Arabia in February this year to deliver some women’s football development workshops, the first that they’ve ever had. I met with 25 incredible females that are working or involved in football in Saudi Arabia.

This involved playing, studying physiotherapy or strength and conditioning, coaching at university or working in the administrative department of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. And there’s genuine commitment to develop women’s sport and women’s football.

So, that was a fascinating project and hopefully post COVID, things will continue to build on that momentum for women’s football in all countries across the world. 

What do you say to young women who want to get involved in sport, whether within management or even as athletes?

I think a key thing would be network and back yourself. So don’t be afraid to reach out to people to educate yourself more on different roles within the industry. 

If you’re an athlete at the end of your career and you’re thinking about what life after football or sport means for you, then I would definitely encourage you to speak to somebody from a dual career aspect. It could be your agent or just any experienced individual. You just need to have a plan for transition. That’s really important. So that would be my key advice.

You can follow Nicole Allison on Instagram and LinkedIn and visit the NA  website here.
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The curation of the article was supported by Sarah Fatima You can follow her here on Linkedin.

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