Potential Of Women’s Football Knows No Bounds
April 3, 2019
If ever an image was needed to illustrate the untapped potential of women’s football, it came on March 17, 2019 as a world record crowd of over 60,000 fans packed the Wanda Metropolitano. This wasn’t an isolated case either. Just two weeks earlier, San Mames had hosted over 48,000 fans for a women’s match between Athletic Club and Atletico Madrid. And then the week after Juventus sold-out Allianz Stadium for a game against Fiorentina.
Women’s football is having a moment right now. Of course, that could be attributed to the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off in just a few months, but there’s something more to the movement being felt right across the sport. For decades, the women’s game has been undersold. Its stars have been treated with contempt, its fans with derision. Something is changing, though.
Tickets for this summer’s Women’s World Cup have been sold at record pace, with seats for the final disappearing within a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, new sponsorship deals are being struck across the women’s game on a near-weekly basis. Just last month, Barclays became the first ever title sponsor of the Women’s Super League. That specific deal is worth £10 million, more than the men’s Scottish Premiership gets for its naming rights.
And yet despite this it feels that English football as a whole could, and should, be doing more. While European clubs, like Athletic Club, Atletico Madrid and Juventus, are giving their women’s teams the same platform as the men, giving their matches just as big a marketing push, English women’s sides, like Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, have to make do with distinctly second class surroundings.
Until this season Man Utd, the most valuable football club on the planet, didn’t even have a women’s team. Now, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men’s side are afforded the luxuries of Old Trafford, the club’s women’s outfit has to play at the 12,000-capacity Leigh Sports Village. It’s certainly not the worst venue, but it does very little to showcase Man Utd’s women’s team.
Perhaps United, and other English clubs, could follow the precedent set by Boca Juniors who have taken to hosting women’s games before men’s games. This removes barriers that might prevent football fans from following a women’s side. Some European clubs have even given away free tickets to women’s fixtures. Surely that could be an option for English clubs given their plentiful resources and TV billions?
“Why not? Let’s blow away the rest of Europe,” said England women’s national team head coach Phil Neville when posed with the possibility of giving away free tickets. Neville is also an advocate of playing games in bigger and better stadiums, putting women’s football front and centre so it simply can’t be ignored as has been the case in the past.
“What I would say is that some of the big teams in England now have got to open their big stadiums and fill it. I think our game in this country is at a far better place than what it is in Spain and Italy. I think now, if Man United win the league, or Arsenal… throw open your stadium, open it up. Champions League game for Chelsea. Why not play it at Stamford Bridge? Get 30 or 40,000.”
Of course, some may argue that the women’s game should look to build its own audience, its own fanbase, rather than tapping into the men’s game. There is some weight argument that women’s football shouldn’t have to rely on charity to grow and develop, but merely giving it a platform surely doesn’t count as charity. It’s just equality.
This summer’s Women’s World Cup has the potential to be a real watershed for the women’s game, but only if the opportunity is capitalised on. England will be one of the frontrunners in France and so it’s entirely possible that the fervour generated by Gareth Southgate’s men’s team last summer could be matched by Neville’s women’s side this.
Generally speaking, English football is so powerful it could make a success of pretty much anything it lent a hand to. So why hasn’t it done more to boost the women’s game? European clubs have set the example, now it’s time to follow it.
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Author: Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven is a football writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow, Scotland. He was written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Eurosport, Bleacher Report, Four Four Two, The Scotsman and others. He is also a football shirt aficionado and still maintains to this day that Dennis Bergkamp didn’t mean it