How Women’s Football is beginning to grow within the UK

There seems to be no doubt that the development of women’s football in the UK is beginning to head in the right direction…

For a start, during England’s World Cup Semi-final against the USA the peak audience on the BBC reached a reported 11.5 million.

Opening day of Women’s Super League (WSL) attendance figures

The momentum of the World Cup in France was certainly carried on as demonstrated by the record attendance at the first ever Manchester derby this past weekend in the WSL at the Etihad Stadium. It was revealed that 31,213 attended Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Manchester United.

This is significantly more than the previous attendance record that was set during Arsenal’s league win over Brighton, in which 5,265 visited the Amex Stadium towards the end of the 2018/19 season.

Chelsea Football Club went a step further in trying to capitalise on the recent exposure of women’s football by offering free tickets for their opening day game at Stamford Bridge, a game they won 1-0 against their London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in front of 24,000. Meanwhile Bristol City played out a 0-0 draw in front of just over 3,000 against Brighton at Ashton Gate.

Millie Bright, the England and Chelsea centre back, said that “it was not just about the football but a fun day out for the family with fun activities such as face painting and fire engines and police cars to try out.”

Bright however went on to say that “while it was great that more and more people were coming to games, it is a business and fans should be buying tickets with occasional promotional offers.”

The fact  more people chose to watch the match in Manchester at £7 per ticket over the free tickets given out for the game in London shows that the fans are prepared to pay for the day out.

Expansion of the Women’s Super League

The games taking place at high profile men’s grounds such as the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge shows that the Women’s Super League are already trying to improve on the average attendance of games from last season, which averaged 900.

The number of teams in the league also stands at the largest that it has been in the WSL era, at 12 teams. This is one more than last season, where just Yeovil Town were relegated from the last campaign. The addition of high profile clubs such as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur to the league can only enhance the profile further.  The new £10 million sponsorship deal that the league now has with Barclays this season will also go along way towards helping with this.

Initial discussions are already reported to be on going to arrange double headers with the men’s games on the same day – following the successful Six Nations rugby model.  In addition, WSL games played at the men’s clubs grounds have already encouraged a wider audiences.

A further Super League match is already set to take place at Tottenham’s new stadium between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur later this year, while Manchester United and Liverpool have also recently announced that they would be interested in hosting women’s football at Old Trafford and Anfield respectively. The problems however with this approach are maintaining the engagement of the newfound family audience. The accessibility of getting to the stadiums where regular WSL matches are played remains a challenge.

The regular WSL grounds are sometimes quite a few miles away from the club’s traditional origin.  For instance Arsenal play at Borhamwood (12.2 miles from the Emirates) and perhaps the most challenging is that Manchester United play at Leigh Sports Village, which does not have access to a train station nearby. In the past also the clubs official websites for the women’s teams have proved challenging to navigate in terms of buying tickets and providing up to date information.

All this shows is that the game is still very much a work in progress, however the potential for growth certainly over this upcoming season is very much there.

Extended media coverage and the role of social media

Adrian Farina of VISA, a key sponsor, added at the recent Growing Women’s Football networking event that the media has a role in promoting increased players salary, wider audiences and improving the take up of the game.

Media publications and broadcasters are starting to embrace this responsibility in promoting the sport.  This includes the Daily Telegraph who have released a new editorial initiative this year to help raise the profile of women’s sport, (TWS).

Broadcasters such as the BBC will continue to show England International matches such as qualifiers for the Euros and friendlies.  In addition there is also a Women’s Football Show on BBC Four that provides highlights of the Women’s Super League on Sunday evening and focuses on the topical issues affecting the league.

BT Sport is also going to be showing at least 30 live matches throughout the season, their most yet!  Finally talkSPORT 2 has also launched a new radio show that is dedicated to Women’s football airing every Monday between 6-7pm, hosted by talkSPORT broadcaster Faye Carruthers.

The promotion provided by these media outlets and publications will certainly begin to address bridging the gap between the men and women’s game. It will also promote the stars of the women’s game and will begin to encourage people to follow them on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

What more needs to be done?

It appears that the right actions are being put in place post the World Cup. The key question remains whether or not the bounce from a successful tournament in France can be maintained.

The success of the England team in Canada back in 2015 did not have quite the desired impact on the sport. This may have been due to the subsequent player, manager scandal involving the then England Manager Mark Sampson. An alternative factor could have been the fact the World Cup took place on another continent in Canada, North America.

The promotion of events outside major international tournaments within the game certainly needs to be maintained such as the Women’s Champions League competition and increasing the media coverage of the domestic game. More support from the Premier or Football Leagues could also help with this.

The inclusion of more female pundits within the game is also needed. Former Arsenal defender, Alex Scott being on BBC’s and Sky’s coverage of football is a good start in addressing this.

Finally, by showing more games on free to air TV and making the game more accessible to youngsters results in encouraging increased participation and popularity at schools and clubs.

Overall following on from the 2019 World Cup, women’s football is taking significant steps forward and hopefully by the time the SheBelieves Cup in March 2020 and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo later that year come around, more improvements and developments will be on the way!

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