Women’s Football Has Seen a Decade of Progress but There Is Much More to Do
Women’s football has come a very long way in a decade. Ten years ago there existed an indifference towards the few women who chose to persevere in what many viewed a novel and headstrong manner to play the men’s game – because, let’s face it, that is what “the people’s game” actually meant. Now, Chelsea’s Fran Kirby can post photos on social media of her dog sitting in front of a Bentley. It may be a loaned Bentley (the gap hasn’t closed that much) but the England forward does have numerous sponsorship deals, with Nike and Swarovski among others.
If the Noughties was the decade in which players such as Alex Scott edged from washing the shirts and shorts of the Arsenal men’s team towards the possibility of scraping a living from football, then this last decade has been the one that has provided respect and with it professionalism, sponsorship, support and the chance to make a modest living out of the game.
Delayed by a year because of the economic downturn, the Women’s Super League was launched in 2011 with eight teams and not without controversy as 16 teams applied for places. By 2014 it was expanded to include a second tier of 10 teams, with Doncaster Belles relegated to make way for the revamped Manchester City.
In 2017 the Football Association switched the leagues from a summer to a winter schedule to match the men’s calendar, while launching its four-year Gameplan for Growth strategy. By the launch of the 2018-19 season, a full-time professional top tier and semi-professional second division was in place. The changes have been rapid. And they have been forced. The casualties, and there have been many, have been necessary according to the FA’s head of women’s football, Sue Campbell.
“Yes it’s tough on them but, unfortunately, whenever you create these kind of step changes there are casualties,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live in May 2018. “Others have stepped up to the mark. It has to be a commitment from the club to step up and move forward together with us.”
There is an element of truth to that. It could be argued players and staff of teams such as Sunderland and Watford were let down by the lack of ambition and commitment of their clubs as much as the FA. On the other hand Donny Belles, Yeovil, and others who have been long-time investors in the women’s game but were unable to compete with the increased financial demands of the FA, have been sacrificed.
In the meantime, amid all that upheaval, attendances have stagnated. From an average of 728 in 2014 they climbed to 1,128 by 2016 but then dipped as the winter switch took its toll, eventually averaging 996 for the first fully professional season.
Where domestically audiences have stood still, interest has been driven internationally. Viewing figures for the Lionesses at international competitions have steadily climbed. For the 2011 World Cup in Germany a peak match average viewing figure of 1.7m was reached. The 2013 Euros were a bit of a blip, a 1.3m peak match average was prevented from climbing further when England crashed out of their group with one point (ending Hope Powell’s tenure). By 2015 the World Cup in Canada saw a peak of 2.4m watching England’s semi-final defeat to Japan. At the 2017 Euros 4m watched their exit to the Netherlands (a 66% increase on 2015).
Last year, though, felt like a turning point. After a decade, or two even, of somewhat steady growth women’s football took a leap forward. A massive 11.7m watched England’s defeat by USA at the World Cup, a 192.5% increase on their 2017 Netherlands exit.
By mid-November domestic WSL attendances, boosted by big games, were averaging 4,112 (and 1,425 with the showpiece games at Stamford Bridge, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and elsewhere removed from the equation). The close to £20m investment by Barclays in the top division and grassroots football was the pinnacle of a host of sponsorship deals for clubs, the national team and players.
There is a real optimism in women’s football. The media, the FA, commercial partners, clubs and fans are, broadly speaking, on the same page. There is an ideological belief in the importance of building the game, perhaps a result of the way attitudes have changed around women, women’s bodies and women’s rights more widely, but that is coupled with a much cruder realisation that there are real longer‑term financial and image benefits to backing the women’s game.
Not everything is rosy. The gap between the haves of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United and the have-nots is growing. Lyon face a similar scenario in France, where their investment is almost punished by teams unwilling to play catch-up.
And, while attitudes generally have changed dramatically, there is still a long way to go – within organisations but also more generally in society. The first comment on Twitter in response to Megan Rapinoe being named the 2019 Guardian Footballer of the Year was: “Sure, I agree. Still not watching women’s football though.” Another said: “Lol. Hypocrite look in the mirror and start with yourself. You obnoxious P.O.S.”
Almost every comment on Facebook was negative. There is a vocal minority who are not content to just ignore what they don’t like but feel compelled for some unknown reason to shout it. They find their fuel in the bodies that perpetuate the inequity – the clubs that forced Spanish footballers to strike, Fifa’s decision to let a $370m gap in World Cup prize money grow by $10m despite a doubling of the women’s fund to $60m, US Soccer’s equal-pay dispute with their most successful ever senior team.
There is still so much to do. Women’s football should be swimming with the tide but, unfortunately, there is still much for which to be fought. Here’s hoping this decade sees that change.
The Guardian Sport