After the Lady Mayoress’s Show…

Arsenal WFC – FAWSL Champions 2018/19 – Professional sportswomen on a semi-professional backdrop.

TWO WEEKS is a long time in professional sport, or so it seems. Megan Rapinoe et al held aloft the Women’s World Cup trophy in France on July 7th, set it down on a first-class plane seat (probably) and began their cross-nation ‘celebrate-a-thon’, complete with multiple media commitments to address pay equality, gay rights and Mesut Ozil’s hair style. Meanwhile, the world kept spinning, and a whole host of British sporting successes lined up to push Women’s football back towards the shadows…

The England One Day Cricket team won arguably the most exciting final of anything, EVER! Then Lewis Hamilton sealed his record breaking sixth British Grand Prix. The Netball World Cup came and went with England’s Roses going one better than our football Lionesses, securing the Bronze Medal match – Tracey Neville clearly viewing a 3rd place playoff as less of a ‘nonsense match’ than brother Phil – okay that’s a cheap shot (love you, Phil 😉). And, in the same weekend, Irishman Shane Lowry won the British Open. A smorgasbord of terrific home-grown performances right on the back of France 2019. Typical, isn’t it?

Media talk towards the end of the Women’s World Cup focused on how to transfer the public support and goodwill generated by England into bums-on-seats on a Sunday afternoon in the domestic game. The BBC had already reported that the FA Women’s Super League average attendance was below 1,000 across eleven fully professional squads in 2018/19. So, it’s clear there’s a lot of work to do to win enough hearts and minds to fill lower league and non-league sized stadia that hold between 1,500 and 7,000 people.*

But no sooner had the World Cup ended The Times were reporting a crisis:

“…neither the FA nor the Premier League considers itself capable of expanding the appeal and commercial clout of the domestic women’s competition, the Super League (WSL) at present.”

Molly Hudson, July 8th, The Times

On the face of it, our two major footballing organisations in England appear reluctant to take long-term leadership for the growth of women’s football: the Premier League (presumably) because they won’t be able to convince a TV network to throw billions at them in cash; the FA because, well, their ‘MO’ isn’t actually running a league and, more likely, they won’t want the (three) lion’s share of the blame if the WSL can’t get more traction in terms of attendance figures. 

Seeking to profit through international tournament success and sold out stadia is surely the name of the game long-term for the FA, not subsidising a living wage for professional players – that’s the clubs’ problem.

For now, the next steps are defined as an ongoing feasibility study into the Premier League taking Women’s football on. The can has been kicked at least three years down the road and there’s no guarantee that the self-appointed “best league in the world” will want the responsibility when push comes to shove. 

The clubs themselves are gearing up to assume more control around direction of travel, although a cursory glance at the men’s game shows this approach hasn’t always proved to be the most inclusive strategy.

The BBC, clearly buoyed by the 11.7 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Lionesses take on the USA (a good chunk more than the eight million that saw England win a cricket world cup), have accentuated the positives and the possibles.

The corporation recently announced that they would be covering Euro 2021 exclusively, which is both unsurprising and comforting – they do a great job in terms of coverage, commentary and punditry.

Maybe for Euro 2021, however, they could provide a bit more historical context around the pioneers of the European women’s game – the great players, the great matches, etc. to invest it with a bit more heritage which has always been important in British sports culture. Somewhat overlooked during the World Cup, I started to wonder if we were in danger of the casual viewer thinking that Megan Rapinoe invented Women’s Football six weeks’ ago.

Birgit Prinz – German legend. Come on the ‘Beeb’, tell us about the greats…

Back at the FA, their 4-year plan includes a target to get average Super League attendances above 2,000 by 2021 – effectively doubling them to the size of a top tier non-league club. The FA’s marketing team are planning to “make the big games bigger”, with administrators scheduling some fixtures “at men’s stadiums” – they might want to rethink the wording there – starting with the Manchester derby at the Etihad on the opening weekend of the coming season.

Chelsea then announced their first FAWSL fixture against Tottenham Hotspur would be played at Stamford Bridge.  I thought I’d get some of that action for me and my kids – who wouldn’t want to see Fran Kirby and Erin Cuthbert tearing it up?

The tickets, it turned out, were free. While I understand the desire to try and get as many people as possible there, I have mixed feelings about free tickets for professional sport. Free for the kids sort of works… sort of… no, I’m struggling with this as well to be honest. I would happily pay a tenner for an adult ticket to the Bridge, and then expect prices for regular home games at Kingsmeadow to slide down to the advertised £6 – reflecting, for me, the value of each experience – nicer seat, better cup of tea, etc.

I also wonder how many of the 40,853 seats are likely to be filled. I’ve been seeing the words ‘sell out’ bandied around, but is that the case? Some context: if 15,000 fans show up, while that would treble Kingsmeadow’s capacity, likely be a club record, and be brilliant all at once; Stamford Bridge would still be more than half empty. Let’s hope someone has thought to crowd us all together for the photos because 15k in a 41k capacity won’t look great and may undermine the intended outcome.

Talk of ‘double headers’ is also doing the rounds, something that was undertaken at the 2015 World Cup in Canada – a country where people are used to attending a sporting event for hours on end – like baseball. So here we’re looking at two matches, back-to-back, men’s then women’s… or, um, women’s then men’s… hang on, how is that going to work?

I can’t imagine Sky or the Premier League are going to be too happy about two more teams, female or otherwise, scuffing up the pitch before their ‘Super Sunday’ offer. At the same time, will the regular season ticket holder hang around for another three hours to watch the women play? Or turn up three hours earlier and not go in the local pub / greasy spoon as usual. For me, the very notion of double headers raises questions on what the FA and the clubs think the fan-profile is for men’s and women’s football these days.

While it’s certainly worthwhile trying out ideas I can’t help but feel that these approaches are a bit gimmicky and somehow still seek validation for women’s football by association with the men’s game.

They also suggest that the administrators want things to move fast and achieve the right results – big crowds, lots of sponsorship, TV deals. But a quick look at the history of the men’s game shows how long it can take to get that juggernaut moving before it careers out of control.

Seventy years of FA led football before Match of the Day bowled in during 1964. At that point stadia were already full. It was largely a working man’s spectator sport – played at 3pm, every Saturday.

Men’s football in the 1950s, pretty popular and not a TV deal in sight.

Another thirty years of highlights on terrestrial (free to air) TV, Jimmy Hill, Brian Moore, John Motson and the annual FA Cup Final before the Premier League and Sky pushed it all to a new level.

Women’s football simply hasn’t had this kind of run up, even though the first FIFA approved Women’s World Cup came one year before the Premier League even kicked off.

And our national media ‘luuurve’ their Premier League, a noisy 24/7 affair which also starts a full month before the WSL, incidentally. I’m a fan of a League One club and if I hear more than five minutes of talk about lower league football on national radio each week, I nearly fall off my chair. Thank goodness for Mark Clemmit; you’re a national treasure ‘Clem, but that’s a tough gig.

What I do hear, and have heard my whole life, are the results of the top 92 English men’s clubs read out every week, just after full time. The women haven’t even had that. Although I’m led to believe it’s coming.

The BBC will, at the very least, continue to keep the Lionesses front and centre, although I wonder if it’s worth chucking the annual Algarve invitational and SheBelieves Cup into their mix? Hopefully producers of the FAWSL highlights show will develop their content as well to be more extensive, and maybe move it out of the mysterious world of the RED button and on to a main channel.

While I hope the national media will support women’s football more, is the domestic game as readily sellable as the international scene, yet? Probably not. Media interest, then, should not be a key indicator in defining the perceived success of women’s football. Certainly not in the short term. Find a way to get more people through the turnstiles. Find a way to get more females playing the game. The rest will follow. And there will be a nice international tournament every two years to give everyone a boost.

Clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have recently invested more in their women, catapulting them into achieving top-flight status at the expense of more established but – dare I say – less ‘fashionable’ women’s clubs – a trade-off that we will likely see more of in the quest for professionalism, competition and WSL marketability.

Doncaster Belles, for instance, were one of the powerhouses in women’s football through the nineties and noughties and yet, recently, decided to ply their trade in the third tier of the women’s game for financial reasons.

Some people, myself included, would love to see the Donny Belles earn their place back in the top flight, but that’s easier said than done when more Premier League and Championship supported clubs are in the market for players. I admire their ‘walk before you run again’ pragmatism. And, besides, no one can take all those honours away from them.

Ultimately the groundswell for women’s football is going to have to come from, well, the ground! That’s how it originally would have happened in the men’s game all those years ago, it wasn’t just instantly popular. Allegiances had to form, word had to get around. But there is hope.

Taking my young kids as an example, they simply don’t have the same preconceptions about football that I did. I can take them to a men’s or women’s football match, and they enjoy it in exactly the same way – granted they can watch AFC Wimbledon and Chelsea at the same stadium, so that does help.

The internet will continue to provide fantastic opportunities for engagement with the women’s game through formal media, social media, websites and bloggers. Hopefully local clubs will reach out more and offer coaching programmes through schools. More mixed and female-only leagues will emerge. Talented female players will see the sport as a viable career option. Parents will make different choices.

There’s going to be no quick remedy to expanding the reach and influence of women’s football no matter how much we want it – even after the best World Cup ever.

But keep talking about it, tell your friends, go to games, post on forums, read some of the excellent magazines out there, ring up phone-in shows, play on a Saturday morning, tell your friends.

Push the envelope. Make noise. Join in.

Keep the momentum going. Perhaps then it won’t feel quite so deflating if the UK has another sensational fortnight of sport on the international stage, immediately after our carnival has left town…

*There will be three exceptions to this capacity range in 2019/20 – Liverpool, Manchester United and Reading all offer over 7,000 capacity.

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