Is women’s football closing on its first $1m transfer?

A week before she broke the women’s world transfer record on Feb. 14, Racheal Kundananji was trying to carry on her life as normal, knowing that talks were ongoing between her club, Madrid CFF, and NWSL expansion franchise Bay FC. She was out for dinner in Madrid when an urgent meeting popped up on her phone’s calendar; she headed back to her apartment immediately, but delays on the metro meant she arrived 15 minutes late.

When she logged on, she joined a video call that spanned three continents: herself in Europe; her agent, Chris Atkins, in Hong Kong; and Bay FC general manager Lucy Rushton in Santa Barbara, California, at a preseason camp. It was then that Rushton took a deep breath and told the 23-year-old Zambia international that her €735,000 ($787k) move to NWSL would set a new benchmark for women’s game. Kundananji simply smiled and said thank you.

Discussions between Atkins, Madrid CFF and Bay FC had been going on for roughly eight weeks. The initial fee — with another €75k ($80k) in potential add-ons — easily surpassed the previous record of €450k ($500k) that Chelsea had paid Levante on Jan. 26 to sign Colombia forward Mayra Ramírez.

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Kundananji’s move saw the record edge toward the seven-figure barrier, while Orlando Pride signed her Zambia teammate Barbra Banda from Chinese Super League team Shanghai Shengli for $740k on Tuesday. But when will the $1m benchmark be broken? Amid all the unknowns, there is one common view among the players, sporting directors and agents we spoke to: It won’t be long.

“I think this summer we’ll have a $1 million player,” one agent said.

“That [Kundananji] deal has blown the market wide open,” a source told ESPN.

“We’ll see more transfers in the $500k, $600k, $700k mark, but it will take a one special player of the right kind of profile and age to decide to go all-in on, likely in the next year,” another agent said.

“It’ll definitely happen in the next 12 months, likely from an American franchise,” one club source said.

The evolution of soccer’s transfer record

Given financial information about transfers is almost never revealed to the public, a lot of the records are apocryphal but part of football’s folklore. In the men’s game, Willie Groves’ £100 move from West Bromwich Albion to Aston Villa in 1893 was where it all began as he became the first player to transfer for a fee. In 1973, Barcelona paid Ajax six million guilders (roughly $2m) to sign Netherlands legend Johan Cruyff as the first deal to cost over $1m. By 2017, things had accelerated to the point where Brazil forward Neymar moved for the current men’s world record of €222m ($263m) from Barcelona to PSG.

According to Barbara Jacobs’ book “The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies,” the first time money was exchanged between clubs for a transfer in the women’s game was in 1918. The club were becoming the dominant force in the English game, and their owner Alfred Frankland was looking enviously at some of the players on Lancaster’s team. So, he brought in four of their players, including Molly Walker. Tim Tate’s “Girls With Balls: The Secret History of Women’s Football” reveals that he paid Walker’s expenses, found her a job and paid her 10 shillings (about £100 now) for every appearance. She scored the winner on her debut against Barrow-in-Furness on Good Friday, 1918.

Despite the huge interest in the sport in the early 20th century, women were banned from playing football from 1921 to 1970 in the UK. An FA Committee ruling at the time said: “[The] Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” Amid pressure, the FA finally lifted the ban in the UK in 1970. As it rebuilt from the ground up, the first reported professional league worldwide was the Women’s United Soccer Association, which was founded in 2000 (though there were fully professional teams in Italy in the 1970s.) The FA Women’s Premier League National Division started in 1991 and ran through to 2010 when the first iteration of the WSL came along, a semi-professional league that switched to fully professional in 2018.

When Rayo Vallecano paid Italian side Fiammamonza €235k ($290k) to sign Milene Domingues in 2002, it was a record transfer fee that remained unsurpassed until 2020. Domingues was the wife of Brazil men’s legend Ronaldo, who had just moved to Real Madrid, but she never made an appearance for Rayo as she was prevented from making her debut because rules at the time prohibited Spanish teams from using foreign players in competitive games.

The women’s game had to wait until 2020 to see the transfer record exceeded, when Chelsea spent £250k ($330k) to bring in Denmark midfielder Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg. That total was beaten two years later when Barcelona signed England’s Keira Walsh from Manchester City for £350k up front and £54k ($470k total) in add-ons, then topped by Ramírez and Kundananji in the space of a few months in 2024.

Most of the six-figure deals in women’s football have happened post-2020, as transfer fees were rare before then. Players’ contracts were short by today’s standards — most were between 12 and 24 months — so, if a club wanted to sign someone, they’d simply wait until the end of their contract and snap them up for nothing.

Some younger players did transfer for smaller sums — forward Fran Kirby moved from Reading to Chelsea in 2015 for a British record fee, believed to be around £80k ($124k), while Lyon signed centre-back Griedge Mbock for €100k ($130k) in 2015. “At that point it was only Lyon really buying players,” said one club source. “A team like Chelsea or Manchester City would buy bits and pieces that they had to, but Lyon were shopping in a different market. But now we have five or six clubs fishing in the same sea.”

One agent told ESPN: “Back then the market was nonexistent as the money involved wasn’t enough to incentivize you to do business.” But things have changed. In the 2024 January transfer window, several players were signed for over €200k ($215k).

Moving forward

The 27th edition of Deloitte’s Football Money League (their first edition with a standalone section on women’s football) predicts women’s elite sports will exceed €1.1 billion ($1.19bn) in revenue in 2024, with football contributing roughly half. They point to the upward trajectory in sponsorship and commercial revenue across Europe in the sport, increased attendance and growth in interest. But given the WSL, the top league in England has only been fully professionalised since 2018, we’re yet to see the transfer market mature. As one agent said: “No one truly knows what the market value is for players. The transfer market is in its infancy.”

Jennifer Haskel, knowledge and insights lead in Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, told ESPN: “Women’s football and women’s sport in general is so nascent in its growth phase, it has to be in a ‘test and learn’ culture. So trying new things — whether that be business models in terms of revenue streams, or alignment with different sponsors, or across the transfer market because that is in such a nascent phase — means the sport can adapt and be a bit more agile.”

Jenny Mitton, managing partner and women’s sport lead at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, says: “There was a lovely analogy I heard: the sport is a bit like a teenager. It’s something great, and you think you’ve fixed something great, but you have to deal with another growth spurt or another problem. It’s all about balance.”

The 2023 FIFA Global Transfer Report published in January details the growth in the women’s transfer market. In 2018 there were 694 transfers in the women’s game across 218 clubs, of which 22 moves involved a fee. By 2023, this figure had increased to 1,888 transfers across 623 clubs, with 147 featuring a fee. The amount spent on transfer fees was $561k in 2018, $3.3m in 2022, and $6.1m in 2023.

Those within the game expect to see this figure increase again in 2024, especially given the record spending in January — a total of $2.1m spent, up 165.5% on the previous winter transfer window, with 0.3% more deals being done — and that excludes the €400k ($436k) Bayern Munich agreed to pay to sign Wolfsburg’s Lena Oberdorf in the summer.

“What’s caused it? Well it’s an accumulation of things, but a World Cup can shift the market because of the exposure the game gets,” Bay FC’s Rushton told ESPN. “Look at those lightning rod moments like the 60,000 attendances at Women’s Super League matches — they’re the moments that impact transfers and wages.”

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Kundananji’s agent reveals her ‘shock’ in finding out world record fee

Football agent Chris Atkins explains why Bay FC paid a world record fee for Racheal Kundananji.

Where the money comes from

The Deloitte Football Money League illustrates the growth of the women’s game. In its study of 15 clubs in Europe’s top leagues (it did not include Australia, Japan, Sweden, Norway or the U.S.) the average revenue increased from €2.6m in 2021-22 to €4.3m in 2022-23. They say this was partly down to the “increased commercialisation of women’s clubs,” partnerships leveraging “the unique profile of the women’s team,” moving more matches to bigger stadiums and the subsequent “uptick in broadcast distributions.”

The report also noted, however, that women’s clubs “received contributions from their associated men’s clubs to help bridge the funding shortfall” — with the top 15 clubs in Europe “receiving average revenue contributions of €1.5m.” Barcelona Femeni topped the revenue charts with €13.4m for 2022-23, a year-on-year increase of 74%, with Manchester United second, Real Madrid third, Manchester City fourth, Arsenal fifth, and Chelsea sixth.

But looking at these top clubs, each revenue model was different: €8.5m ($9.2m) of Barcelona’s €13.4m ($14.81m) was from commercial (such as merchandise sales, corporate partnerships), a trend similar with Manchester United and Manchester City. But at Arsenal, 58% of their €5.3m ($5.86m) revenue was from matchday, and 46% of Chelsea’s €4.1m ($4.53m) was from broadcast revenue — aided by them reaching the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League that season.

“I think that’s the beauty of the women’s game, there isn’t one single business that’s dominating these top clubs,” Haskel says. “But there’s an opportunity for growth in all three categories there [matchday, broadcast and commercial]. I do think the women’s market doesn’t necessarily have to follow the men’s game and should create their own identity. The diversity of business models is important to growth and a good thing for the market.”

Mitton has seen a seismic shift in sponsorship investment in the women’s game since the lightning rod moment of England winning the Euros in 2022.

“Women’s football is attracting new brands to the space,” she says. “Look at a brand like Lego coming in with the Euros, Starling Bank making the first play in women’s sport, and look at Charlotte Tilbury signing up with F1 for the F1 Academy. We’ve got this long-term investment, which is brilliant, but also brands with new money coming in, which signals future growth. It’s slow and steady but this isn’t a spurt; this is an indication of the direction of travel we’re going in.”

This has all contributed to the increased spending on transfers. As Haskel says: “You’re seeing revenues increasing, which allows these clubs to participate more in the transfer market, attracting top-tier talent and hopefully increasing some of those contract lengths to be able to make a more consistent, sustainable squad.”

The top five transfers of 2022-23 saw the highest fees paid by four clubs in Europe – Jill Roord from Wolfsburg to Manchester City (€350k/$382k); Kyra Cooney-Cross from Hammarby to Arsenal (€350k/$373k); Lindsey Horan from Portland Thorns to Lyon (€300k/$329k); Geyse from Barcelona to Manchester United (€300k/$326k) — and one in the U.S. as Scarlett Camberos moved from Club America to Angel City (€285k/$308k).

And it’s in the NWSL where expansion teams such as Angel City and Bay FC have changed the landscape.

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Why Racheal Kundananji ‘fell in love’ with Bay FC 

Zambia and Bay FC striker Racheal Kundananji speaks about Bay FC and explains the appeal of playing in the NWSL.

The NWSL turns the transfer landscape on its head

The salary cap in the NWSL sits at $2.75m (up from $1.2m last year). The recent cross-distributor rights deal has brought an influx of investment to the league with the agreements worth in the region of $60m a season. Then you have the expansion franchises in Angel City and Bay FC, the latter bankrolled to the tune of $125m by investors Sixth Street Partners, which covered their $53m expansion fee, a tenfold increase from 2020.

A Sportico study in October 2023 valued Angel City at $180m, with an estimated revenue of $31m for the 2023 season, $11m of that from sponsors. Elsewhere, you’re seeing businesswoman Michele Kang’s ambitious plans for Washington Spirit and their ability to tempt Champions League-winning manager Jonatan Giraldez Costas from Barcelona.

“In America, there’s such huge investment in the space. They are getting big investments coming in, buying in clubs,” Mitton says. “The UK is not too far behind, but [the NWSL has] quite an aggressive growth plan. So they’re looking at sustainability now, but after two years, they’re looking to grow really aggressively. And the sign of them bringing in players shows they’re really investing in the product. They’re there to make money, and they’re in it for the long haul.”

Sources told ESPN that clubs in Europe are keeping a close eye on developments in the NWSL and their spending power. “The American clubs are outliers, to be perfectly honest, as they’ve never really been involved in the market before as they usually traded. We knew they’d go out and make a big splash,” one senior source at a top European team said. “It’s about supply and demand. There are only so many players who were available and fitted the profile. Also with a player like Rachael [Kundananji], her transfer value isn’t going to go down.”

When Bay FC looked to build their roster, they had the chance to bring in players from other franchises through the expansion draft. There they traded cleverly to expand their allocation money pot, which led them to possess the financial muscle to bring in players from Europe. They signed striker Asisat Oshoala from Barcelona for $162k and defender Jen Beattie from Arsenal, while bolstering their squad with players from other franchises. And then came Kundananji.

“The expectation that comes with a fee like that is high, but do we think Racheal is a player that can manage that expectation? 100%,” Rushton said. “From a franchise point of view, we wanted to make a statement. We wanted to come in and show that we’re serious. We’ve been very serious from Day 1 about changing the game globally, both from an infrastructure and recruitment perspective, and that involves paying the necessary transfer fees to attract the best players. We want to have the best players here and we want to make NWSL a standout, competitive market.”

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Will the $1m mark be reached?

Having seen the women’s world transfer record broken three times in the past 18 months, with Banda’s deal to Orlando Pride this week coming a close second, we are seeing a seismic shift in the way deals are being done in the women’s game.

“Clubs are far more eager to get players on longer-term contracts,” said one source. Another source said minimum-fee release clauses are becoming more prevalent in the English WSL, while they had been compulsory for some time in Spain’s Liga F due to labour laws. These fees are set at a point that placates player, agent and club, but they can lead to unexpected departures — like when Manchester City triggered a £200k ($253k) clause to sign 20-year-old midfielder Laura Blindkilde Brown from Aston Villa in January.

Not all clauses are the same; some are only permitted to be triggered outside transfer windows, which explains why Bayern waited until February to secure Oberdorf’s signature from Wolfsburg. The Germany international’s move is symptomatic of the current landscape. As one of the world’s best players, and aged just 22, she was being chased by several of the other top clubs in Europe before Bayern made their move, with many seeing that release clause as undervaluing her.

“Bayern have got an absolute steal,” one source at a top European club told ESPN. “The day before she moved, you could sign her for €400,000 [$436,000]. The day after Bayern agreed to the move, she’s worth comfortably triple that, or even more.”

Such major transfers will trigger further business. “Wolfsburg have that money to spend so it will spur the market on,” added the same source.

There are plenty of other players like Oberdorf who signed contracts a couple of years ago with clauses included in their contracts that now look unbelievable value given the trajectory of fees elsewhere.

“There’ll be players in Spain who are easy pickings; they’ll be incredibly undervalued,” an agent said.

“Look at the men’s game,” a club source said. “When Barcelona put a [then-$71.5m] release clause into Luis Figo’s contract, no one thought anyone would get near it. As transfer fees rose, Real Madrid saw that number and thought it worth meeting [in 2000]. So I think over the next 12 months we’re going to see women’s players with release clauses in the region of €200k to €400k being snapped up. A couple of years ago, they were huge amounts, but not anymore. The dial has shifted.

“When we talk about women’s transfer fees in Europe, you’re still looking at Manchester City making a purchase, the same with Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Arsenal and in the big wide scheme of things, an investment of €300k [$325k] in a player isn’t big money for those teams.”

Top clubs are leading the race to sign players, but aren’t pressured to let their stars go either.

“If Chelsea were offered $1m for Sam Kerr, would they agree to let her go? Of course not,” said the same source. “They don’t need the money. But for other clubs like Levante or Madrid CFF, that money is so important.”

Who will be the first $1m player?

One name that is repeatedly mentioned is Barcelona’s 20-year-old forward Salma Paralluelo, widely regarded as one of the best young prospects in world football, who can play in any position across the front line.

Real Madrid’s Linda Caicedo is a possibility, while now Banda has already moved to NWSL, one source suggested it could be a player such as Tabitha Chawinga, who is on loan at Paris Saint-Germain from Wuhan Jianghan University.

For now, Kundananji stands as the biggest transfer in the history of the women’s game. But in a sport of few guarantees, one thing for sure: those in the industry expect to see it surpassed sooner rather than later.

“I think it’ll happen very soon,” Haskel said. “It’s going to be an exciting moment for women’s football when you see how much effort, how much backing, how much investment is starting to really be put into the talent side of the game.”

“Look, everyone will have their view on whether we spent too much, too little or got it spot on with Racheal,” Rushton said. “I don’t think the record will stay with us for long.”