CHELSEA and Tottenham opened their Women’s Super League (WSL) campaigns in front of 24,500 people at Stamford Bridge, although the game itself was best described as enjoyable but occasionally lack-lustre.
Chelsea tried their best to create a carnival event in London SW6, employing performers on stilts, introducing some pyro and also installing a somewhat unnecessary DJ who was desperately trying to drive engagement. They were also selling popcorn and candy floss (??). The audience was not your average football crowd, there were legions of very young people, a large percentage of women and family parties. Half-and-half scarves, those quintessential souvenirs for the tourist, were changing hands vigorously all along Fulham Road.
Bad language and anger was not to be heard among the crowd, a definite positive, but with that went the usual animal spirit of a football crowd. It was still football, but not as we know it and most people were probably watching their first WSL game.
That almost 25,000 turned up was very impressive, but the gate receipts were a big round zero – all tickets were free and although it was rumoured Chelsea had sold out, there were significant gaps around the stadium.
The regular Chelsea Women’s watchers were very enthused and delighted with the 1-0 win, a victory secured by an excellent well-taken goal from Beth England, but much of the game felt a little flat. Both teams looked a leaden-footed in the second half and it was possible the sun had a lot to do with that. Chelsea usually play at Kingston and in front of a couple of thousand, so the tenfold increase in the audience may also have caused the teams to develop a little stage fright.
Where does WSL football go from this frenetic weekend of big crowds and increased media coverage? One wonders if Chelsea could/would/should play more games at Stamford Bridge and that doesn’t mean admission charges are a necessity. The gate might have been zero, but Chelsea would have made good money from all the other facilities around the ground. Even if you factor-in the novelty aspect of a women’s game at the Bridge, WSL football can provide a way for youngsters and financially excluded fans to get to Stamford Bridge more often, given the 40,000 capacity and the huge demand for first-team tickets.
But Chelsea also have to find out if public appetite is such that they could charge for games at Stamford Bridge. They might be pleasantly surprised, for the Manchester derby attracted 31,000 to the Etihad and there was a price on the ticket.
This could be the WSL’s time, they may never get a better chance to move the women’s game up a gear. Two successful World Cup campaigns, the emergence of personalities and the mood of the time has certainly created more awareness of women’s football. However, it is worth noting that already the WSL has developed into a two-speed league, with clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal dominating and Manchester United and Tottenham in the ascendancy. It is not inconceivable that we shall see the “big six” of the Premier becoming the same half dozen that preside over the WSL.
At the moment, the FA and the WSL are developing a product that is very different from the men’s version. It is the same sport, but the way it is played, the way it is watched and the way the crowd interact is very unlike what we have always known as football. By the end of 2019-20, we shall have a better idea of the true potential of the women’s game and its spectator appeal.