WSL may never have a better chance for growth in 2019-20

WITH a number of Women’s Super League games set to be staged as freebie exhibitions at major stadiums, the 2019-20 season will get off to a high profile start and attempt to build on the interest generated in the Women’s World Cup.

There’s no denying that the World Cup was an enjoyable event and was far better than previous editions, but a little bit of hype got in the way of the true picture. The average attendance for the competition was 21,756 which was the lowest since 2003. The final attracted 57,900 to Lyon’s Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the third highest for a Women’s World Cup final.

What people have focused on, in judging public appetite, is the large TV audiences for the competition. England’s defeat at the hands of the US attracted 11.7 million people in the UK, while the final between the US and Netherlands drew 4.7 million. As a guide, these figures are good and encouraging but way-off the 27 million that saw England’s men lose to Croatia in the 2018 semi-final.

More women coaches

Women’s football in the UK has gathered momentum in terms of media coverage, its general profile and the eagerness of people and corporates to attach themselves to it. Phil Neville’s presence has helped raise awareness, but the fact a man was appointed as national team manager – one with no great credentials – is not necessarily a total positive. In the World Cup, only nine of the countries had a female in charge, including the US and the Netherlands . The figures make for better reading in the Women’s Super League (WSL), with eight out of 12 clubs employing a women as coach. In any developing segment of football, one of the signs of maturity is the home production of coaches and being able to steer away from constantly importing managerial talent.

Another important stage in the evolution of the women’s game is match attendances. Sadly, there is a possibility that women’s football may have plateaued as a spectator sport. All over Europe, gates have been falling in the major leagues. In constrast, there have been some headline crowds, such as the 60,000 that saw Atlético Madrid play Barcelona. The important figure here is the 27,000 that actually paid for a ticket, the rest were given free passes. The same scenario will apply to the WSL’s opening weekend fixtures – fans will accept a free ticket but are more reluctant to pay to see the game.

That said, the WSL has seen crowds stumble since 2015 and In 2018-19, the average was just 833. Chelsea (1,800) and Manchester City (1,400) generate the highest crowds in the WSL and interest is certainly on the rise at these clubs.

Lyon, Europe’s top team, play in front of just under 1,500 at their home games at the Groupama Training Center at Décines Chapieu, but they recently clinched the French title by beating Paris Saint-Germain in front of almost 26,000. PSG’s interest reflects how Europe’s big names are seeing women’s football not as a “nice to have” but as something of a necessity and a commercial opportunity.

Familiarity

Manchester United have now entered women’s football and Real Madrid, who long resisted the call to form a team, have finally started the process. Their fierce rivals, Barcelona, have reached the last eight of the Champions League for the past four years.

What we are seeing in women’s football an accelerated polarisation that took decades to develop in men’s football, mainly because the elite clubs have entered the market and have the resources to instantly create successful teams. The WSL is a good example, with the top three comprising the same three clubs for five years: Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Look across Europe and some familiar names prevail: Lyon, PSG, Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and of course, the aforementioned English trio.

At this early stage of professionalisation and media support, the domination of the “same old names” may not be good for the development of the women’s game. For most people, the WSL is something new and fresh, but if it merely starts to mirror the men’s league in terms of limited competitiveness, enthusiasm may get strangled before it has been able to take root.

However, this won’t prevent sponsors buying-in to the WSL – in fact, the more clubs like Arsenal, City, United and Chelsea are involved the more clout the league will have with broadcasters and commercial partners. Troubled UK bank Barclays has recently agreed a three-year deal with the WSL, which will not only act as a signal for the women’s game, but will be a positive PR move for the bank.

Audiences

The more money in the women’s game, the more chance female players have of getting a better pay deal, although calls for equality are premature and not really backed by the mathematics. The prize money for the men’s World Cup was the equivalent of £ 319 million versus the £ 24 million allocated to the women’s version – the disparity is huge and is being addressed. The prize money is generated by ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and advertising. At this point in time and the evolution of women’s football, the demand for men’s football is massively higher than the women’s game. The TV audience for the men’s World Cup in 2018 totalled 3.5 billion, three and a half times higher than the 2019 competition.

Interestingly, according to Forbes, when prize money is calculated as a percentage of the total revenue generated, women are actually paid more than men!

If you consider that the average attendance for the WSL is under 1,000 it is not unfair to compare the women’s game to step two of the non-league pyramid. If that is the case, they cannot complain about the media attention it attracts.

So 2019-20 represents a big opportunity for women’s football in the UK. With two World Cup semi-finals, a new sponsorship deal, greater attention being paid to wages and conditions and an obvious upturn in quality, the women’s game may never have a better chance to attract more people to matches. The England team will lure people for the big occasions, but the domestic game has to develop and draw-in more spectators and achieve the critical mass needed. The real litmus test will not be in the reaction to “curio” games held at Premier League grounds, but when fans have to pay to watch bread and butter league games.

 

 

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