By Ella Jerman
Women’s football in England is in the midst of a revolution.
After years of institutional neglect and a lack of investment, elite women’s football has finally grown, in the eyes of many, into a recognisable and highly marketable entity.
This year has witnessed the introduction of England’s first fully-professional women’s top division and more televised coverage than ever – not to mention the world’s biggest football brand, Manchester United, belatedly forming their first women’s team.
On top of that, investing in women’s football is no longer deemed financial suicide.Embed from Getty Images
In March, Barclays agreed a multi-million three-year deal with the Women’s Super League – a contract which followed two weeks’ worth of announcements which saw Nike launch bespoke women’s kits for its countries.
We also saw Lucozade and Gatorade announcing deals with the Lionesses and Manchester City respectively.
With interest growing and sponsors investing, there seems to be little that can get in the way of the growth of the women’s game, so why, in a country where all signs are pointing in the right direction, are the numbers still so low for regular domestic fixtures
Where are the crowds?
On March 17, Atlético Madrid broke the 99-year-old world-record attendance for a domestic women’s game with 60,739 supporters at the Wanda Metropolitano – an achievement that prompted copycat movements across the continent, with Juventus welcoming a sell-out crowd of 39,000 to the Allianz stadium to watch them take on title rivals Fiorentina just one week later.
While England are the trailblazing nation when it comes to commercialisation, it is the European clubs who are leading the way with attendance figures.
With the exception of the FA Cup final, which has drawn crowds of over 45,000 to Wembley, women’s football attendances in England seem to plateau at around the 2,000 mark – it’s now time for that to change.
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“No one cares” is a refrain we often hear in women’s football and unless we act now, we’re never going to have a chance of silencing the doubters.
The women’s game has certainly profited from increased media coverage over the past season, but the truth is, it hasn’t gone far enough.
Yes, you can now watch FA Women’s Super League matches on a variety of platforms, but only if you go looking for it.Embed from Getty Images
Are people really aware they can watch top-flight women’s football on the BBC red button when they sit down in front of the television on a Sunday?
Are people aware that matches are streamed live on Facebook if they are not already following the right accounts?
Recent viewing figures certainly suggest there is an appetite and audience for high-level women’s football.
The Lionesses’ semi-final defeat to Netherlands at the 2017 European Championships was the most viewed women’s game ever on UK television with a peak of 4m on Channel 4.
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Last August, the Lionesses’ World Cup qualifier against Wales attracted viewing figures of a peak 1.7m in the UK and the BBC will show every England match in the build-up to this summer’s World Cup in France.
But support needs to grow for women’s football at all levels if we want it to succeed.
The audience is out there, but we haven’t fully capitalised on its potential. So how do we do it?
What needs to be done?Embed from Getty Images
We need to reach a more diverse audience and turn those growing television numbers into gate receipts.
If England rugby can put on men’s and women’s Six Nations games back to back at Twickenham, why can’t football clubs follow suit?
International women’s football has hit the mainstream, but the visibility of women’s club football is lagging behind.
If we want to see the visibility of our domestic game grow, we need to do more than rely on our remote.
England Women boss Phil Neville wants to see clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal “throw open” their stadiums for women’s games. When asked if he would advocate following those overseas games by offering free tickets, he responded: “Why not?”
Neville is right. This is a challenge to every club with a women’s team.
Double-headers can help open doors in women’s football. Put the product in people’s faces – in the places where they regularly enjoy the game – and we will soon see fans coming back for more.
The issue is also a cultural one. You don’t need to spend long on social media to see that outdated assumptions about the quality and entertainment value of women’s football are not ceasing to exist, and such opinions are never going to disappear if clubs don’t start giving their men’s and women’s teams equal exposure, both on and off the pitch.
We’re gradually getting there. Manchester City are leading the way on social media, regularly promoting the success of their women’s team on the men’s channel, but we need better visibility of the players in action in order to inspire a long-awaited shift in attitudes.
The growth of women’s football in England in recent years is to be applauded but there is still a mountain to climb if we are going to make sustainable progress.
Double-headers are not the permanent solution, but they open the door for cultural change.
It’s time for clubs to be brave and throw open their stadiums to ensure a safe future for women’s sport.
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