The club reports that, as part of this new, exciting partnership with the non-league club and social media giants, Hashtag United, the side will become known as Hashtag United FC Women.
Currently, AFC Basildon compete in the FA Women’s National League Division One South East, and the newly merged club will continue to do so for the forthcoming 2020/21 season after the merger was ratified by the FA.
Hashtag United FC Women talks exclusively to TalkingWoSo.com
In a deal represents a long-term pledge to support women’s football – strengthened after the success of last year’s World Cup – by introducing a women’s team at Hashtag United, CEO Spencer Owen, told TalkingWoSo.com, “Our goal at Hashtag United has always been to grow the club at a controlled and steady rate with a view of being inclusive and representational for all.”
He continued: “I think the Women’s World Cup in 2019 was a big watershed moment for women’s football as more and more people started to take notice and appreciate that the game is not reserved for one gender, it’s for all and to be watched and played by everyone and anyone who wants to.
“We want to represent that sentiment wherever possible and so it became important to me that we added a women’s team to our set up as soon as realistically possible.”
The merger: two become one
Hashtag United’s footballing journey has been a short one having joined the tenth tier of men’s football in 2018. However, as the club had already started to build a reputation in the local area – to accompany their already global online presence – Owen felt the time to expand was now.
“I felt the time was right to give our amazing fan base some more heroes to get behind and make sure it was clear that we aren’t just about one singular team (or gender) at Hashtag,” he says. “It’s a family that we are growing and will continue to grow.”
Once the decision had been made, and the idea of bringing an established team under Hashtag’s ownership identified as the most likely scenario, to ensure continued support long-term, he put the wheels in motion to identity a suitable club for a potential merger. And while he admits to being overwhelmed by the amount of interest he received, AFC Basildon was immediately considered the perfect match.
“AFC Basildon stood out from the rest right away as a team that are not only very local to us but are also the most successful women’s team in the county. Upon meeting the committee there, I felt we were on the same page in terms of what we want to achieve. They’ve done a fantastic job in getting the club to where it is and now we want to see what we can do working together.”
A sentiment echoed by Hashtag United FC Women Manager and Director of Football, Jason Stephens, who said, “Hashtag was the first [of three potential clubs] as a committee we met and it was clear by the end of the meeting we were a perfect fit for each other. For me, my knowledge of the Hashtag brand was limited so it wasn’t the brand that sold me. Meeting Spencer [Owen], his vision for women’s football, character and drive stood out and once he explained the Hashtag story, we were all sold.”
It’s no secret that in women’s football, there isn’t an abundance of money. Every year we witness clubs fold due financial difficulties, while few can lay claim to being awash with cash. Especially in the FA Women’s National League, the third and fourth-tiers of women’s football. Instead, most clubs operate on a strict budget, planning from one year to the next, often left frustrated by being unable to implement a long-term vision for their club. Something that Stephens says factored heavily into the Essex side’s decision to seek a merger.
“This [short and long-term sustainability] was one of our driving factors to merge with a men’s club. We were only planning season to season, like so many women’s clubs. We realised we had two choices: stay as we are and accept the fact we are only ever going to compete at tier four and plan season to season or seek a merger which will enable us to plan.” He adds “Hashtag [United] have provided us with a platform to plan for three years,” explains Stephens.
And while the clubs CEO speaks confidently about the good times he feels that lay ahead on the pitch, Owen emphasised his immediate focus is on the sustainability of the football club.
“First and foremost it [his ambition] is to be sustainable and around for the long haul. Yes, we want to achieve success on the pitch and we have surrounded ourselves with people who we feel are best placed to deliver that. But for me personally, ahead of promotions and titles, in the short-term is building a long-term future for our club and fans,” he said.
In the longer-term, Owen hopes to bring both clubs together, to ply their trade at the same venue. And although he admits this isn’t feasible at this moment in time – understandable for a club still very much in its infancy and an ambition that even the biggest clubs in women’s football haven’t realised – he hopes the deal is seen as a signal of intent.
“We hope by committing to the growth of our club we can reassure our players, staff, volunteers, supporters, and future supporters, that we will continue to do what we do in giving people a thoroughly enjoyable football experience, whether they play for us, work with us, support us or watch us online.”
For the players
Besides the financial security the new alignment brings – a huge comfort in the current climate filled with uncertainty due to the ongoing global pandemic – they now find themselves as a part of the Hashtag United brand. A brand that offers far greater exposure than the women’s branch of this newly-formed family, or its players, have ever experienced.
With over 1 million followers across its social media platforms and more than 100 million views on their content, the Hashtag United brand dwarfs many football clubs at a significantly higher level. And with it, it brings the potential to attract new sponsors, as well as introduce a new audience to women’s football. Not just in Essex or England, but globally.
The levels of exposure make for an exciting prospect and will undoubtedly benefit the club, however, both Owen and Stephens were keen to highlight the benefits the players will also experience, “We have no doubt in our ability to offer unprecedented levels of exposure to players in all of our teams compared to clubs at a similar level or, in some cases, at significantly higher levels.” Owen began. “I can pretty much guarantee that thanks to the amazing support we have from fans and partners, when you consider all of the benefits of playing for Hashtag, there’s no better experience outside of full-time professional football. This is something we have proven with the men’s team and we hope we can do so again with our women’s sides.”
For Stephens, a University lecturer for International Football Business hoping to encourage more females to get into the game, whether through playing on a Sunday afternoon or football business management, he also expressed the importance of developing players as a club and how the merger could benefit them.
He said, “We knew as a club we can’t provide a weekly wage. However, the merger with Hashtag will hopefully provide our players with an invaluable opportunity to be exposed across huge social media platforms.
“Our ethos is not just about achieving team results but about providing a platform for our players to develop and we will take pride in seeing our players reach higher levels, knowing we played about in their journey.”