As Women’s Football Flourishes, Those Inside Can’t Idly Watch It Bloom
March 26, 2019
There is a certain segment of the football-loving population that insists that women playing the sport do not deserve to be paid as much as men.
While some love to construct flimsy arguments based on the belief that women simply aren’t as talented as their male counterparts, others base their reasoning on quantifiable statistics: women’s teams just do not attract as many fans as the men. If they’re not bringing in as much money, why should they deserve equal pay?
Recent events have struck a solid blow to this argument. On March 17, 60,739 fans filled Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium to watch the women’s side take on Barcelona. A week later, 39,000 flocked to Allianz Stadium, where they saw Juventus Women extend their lead over second-place Fiorentina. The March 20 UEFA Women’s Champions League quarterfinal, pitting last year’s champions, Lyon, against the team they beat in the title match, Wolfsburg, drew a record 17,840 spectators. And back in September, over 21,000 disappointed fans watched their Portland Thorns fall to North Carolina Courage, while in May, an impressive crowd of over 50,000 saw Tigres clinch the Liga MX Femenil title—setting the record the crowd at the Metropolitano just broke.
Truth be told, these numbers are unlikely to sway those who are convinced the women’s game is unable to attract consistent crowds, and thus is not worthy of investment. After all, attendance at the Allianz was free for all. Nearly half the crowd in Madrid purchased tickets for €10 or less. As for the games in North America, both were battles for a trophy, which naturally attracts more fans.
On the other hand, a match between Club Leon Feminil and Chivas Femenil drew 25,000 fans a mere month after the league played its first game. More than 20,000 came to see Real Sociedad host Athletic Bilbao in February, remarkable as although the latter is the most successful club in the competition’s history, neither side are title contenders this season. The Thorns average nearly 20,000 fans during league play, barely 1,000 less than their male counterparts, the Portland Timbers, with whom they share a stadium. On the whole, attendance for the US National Women’s Soccer League increased 18.5% from 2017 to 2018.
Yet other statistics remain troubling. The Thorns can fill their stadium, but the NWSL average attendance hovers around 6,000. Last May, 45,423 gathered to watch Chelsea beat Arsenal in the women’s FA Cup final, yet England’s FA WSL averaged less than 1,000 per match in the 2017/18 season. And while it’s difficult to find reliable attendance figures for Division 1 Féminine or Frauen-Bundesliga, when playing domestically, Lyon might attract around 7,000 for a match against PSG, but far less than 1,000 when playing struggling Menz; Wolfsburg averaged 1,689 fans last season, but the average across the league was a paltry 846.
Leaving aside the blatantly misogynistic views many still hold toward the women’s game, a number of factors might explain such low attendance. For example, in England and France, women’s football, which had previously attracted decent crowds, was banned for decades before being reinstated in the 1970s; the Frauen-Bundesliga began in 1990. In England, constant changes to the system, which include licensing fees that force out existing teams that cannot attract such an investment and a shift from a summer to a winter schedule, may discourage fans from becoming attached to a side.
Similarly, in the US, since the success of the 1999 national side, the Women’s United Soccer Association and the Women’s Professional Soccer league have both folded. The NWSL played its inaugural season in 2013; in seven short years, two teams have folded, one has changed cities, and one, Sky Blue FC, was so severely mismanaged that its own supporters group group revolted, demanding changes in the organization’s leadership. Combine the less-established history of women’s football with the fear that the side will fold, and it’s not surprising that many fans have commitment issues.
However, the fact remains that women’s football can fill stadiums with thousands of cheering fans. What many fail to realize is that, given the ups and downs in the game’s history, women’s leagues and clubs need to pour significant resources into attracting new fans. As journalist Bea Redondo notes, “It’s about getting people to know about [the game], and getting people excited, beyond the usual social media push.”
Though social media doesn’t hurt—the Thorns, for example, have excellent accounts, along with a unique hashtag that draws the community together—inviting fans to meet-and-greets with the players, organising merchandise giveaways, and giving fans that can’t attend a match access to games all help create interest, which leads to loyalty.
This season, for the first time, Australian fans have almost the same access to the W-League as the A-League, and fans in the US and the UK can tune in as well. The NWSL site livestreams games both within the US and without. Women’s Champions League matches are also streamed (alas, many are geo-blocked). While it may seem strange to assert that watching on TV or online will help consistently boost attendance (particularly as many contend that broadcasting live games keep people out of stadiums), in this day and age, when people watch something they’re excited about, they’re almost certain to start talking about it on social media. This catches others’ attention. In turn, they start following a club, which then announces a special promotion, which attracts the new fan—who then shows up at the stadium.
There’s no denying that there’s still a lot of work to be done to increase the appeal of women’s football worldwide. Not only will clubs need to invest in infrastructure, staff, and players, but they’ll need to exert time and effort elevating their side in the consciousness of potential fans. Currently, too many rely upon the grassroots efforts of committed fans and supporters’ clubs. It is not the players themselves who are unable to attract the fans, but those in charge of marketing the clubs.
But as these recent record-setting attendance numbers demonstrate, it’s a combination of diligence and creativity that will bring people through the gates. Considering we’re less than three months away from the 2019 World Cup, there’s no better time than now for women’s clubs to launch campaigns that capture curiosity, then foster commitment.
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Author: Kirsten Schlewitz
Kirsten Schlewitz is the co-founder and editrix-in-chief of Unusual Efforts, where her writers have inspired her to become passionate about women’s football. She has written for various publications and guested on a number of podcasts, offering her expertise on Serie A, Bundesliga, and the role of politics in football. Living in Belgrade, Serbia, she is currently working on a book about the history of Red Star.