Europe gets the women’s Champions League

IT WAS an astonishing occasion and a landmark for women’s football – 91,500 people watching the Champions League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This crowd owed as much to the enduring appeal of El Clásico as it did the appeal of the women’s game, but it also underlined the fact Barcelona are the best in the world right now.

When the two clubs met in the first leg, the crowd was just 3,318 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium. Clearly there was a lot of marketing around the second leg and despite the weather, it worked. The crowd of 91,500 even put the men’s Clásico – crowd of 86,422 – into the shade. If the rain had held off, they might have had even more people in the Camp Nou as they had sold 99,000 tickets!

Most of the Champions League quarter-finals had promising crowds. Apart from that Real-Barca first leg, the smallest attendances was the 5,018 that went to Arsenal versus Wolfsburg at the Emirates. What a pity the game, involving the only English club left in the competition, could only attract a sub-10,000 gate. By WSL standards, 5,000 was a very decent crowd, but switching to the Emirates should have attracted a much better turnout. Over the two legs, Arsenal’s answer to Wolfsburg’s high-octane approach – along with the way Chelsea were dismantled by Barca last season – reminded the WSL it still has some way to go, despite its preference for hiring big names.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain drew over 27,000 against Bayern, Juventus versus Lyon in Turin (the appointed venue for the final) was watched by 9,000-plus and Wolfsburg’s second leg win against the Gunners had a crowd of 11,000. 

Of course, the competition is the pinnacle of the club game, so it should be well supported, but it should not overlook the fact crowds are still not flocking to bread and butter league games. Barcelona Feminí usually play in front of less than 3,000 at their home games. They have won all 25 of their league fixtures, scoring an average of more than five per game and have conceded just seven goals.

The average crowd across the Women’s Super League is around 1,600 but France’s top division barely draws 1,000 per game, although Lyon have an average of 4,500. Germany is trailing at present and its average this season is 700 with Eintracht Frankfurt the best supported at 1,300. 

The WSL gets a lot of publicity, but general interest still seems lack lustre compared to the enthusiasm for the women’s national team. The Football Association’s ambition of 6,000 crowds for the WSL by 2024 looks a considerable ask at the moment and the pandemic may have put back that aspiration by a year or two. Hosting the European Championship this summer may provide a boost, but will the expected upsurge interest extend beyond internationals?

It is hard to see anyone stopping Barcelona from retaining the Champions League trophy they won so impressively last season. They have lost just one league game in three seasons and they are packed with star names, such as Alexia Putellas, the 28 year-old midfielder who fulfilled her dream as a young girl of playing for Barca. She’s also Spain’s most-capped player. Barca also have Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Jenni Hermoso (Spain), Irene Paredes (Spain), Lieke Martens (Netherlands), Aitana Bonmati (Spain) and Mapi León (Spain) in their squad.

Barcelona meet Wolfsburg  and Lyon and PSG provide an all-French tie in the semi-finals. These are four of the top five teams in Europe according to UEFA’s club co-efficients, so the quality couldn’t really be any higher. These should get the turnstiles clicking again.

The mystery of rising attendances at a non-league club

FOR AROUND 30 years, Hitchin Town’s attendances were remarkably consistent, rarely wavering from 350-400 people, sometimes dropping a little when things were not going so well on the pitch. The club’s image was one of an austere place where middle-aged men got their regular dose of live football, some occupying the same spot on the terrace or in the stand for many years. The fans were loyal, but ageing by the season. The crumbling wooden terracing, rusting corrugated metal and damp fibre board fencing did not entice younger fans. The perception was very much Top Field as a museum piece full of old boys.

Success has never been consistent at Hitchin, but since 2018, when the Canaries reached the first round of the FA Cup, the club has undergone something of a transformation off the pitch. On the field, the football has deteriorated but this doesn’t seem to have affected the mood of the club. Far from it, in fact, for the enthusiasm for the club seems to be on the rise in the market town of Hitchin.

It may just have something to do with economics, for Hitchin has become an upwardly mobile town where smashed advocado is consumed in the many – too many – cafes and bars and coffee (the new tin of beans barometer for the price of goods) can cost as much as £ 4 for a latte. House prices have become unrealistic and young people are being driven out of their home town, rather like nearby St. Albans. Hitchin has, since the 1980s, always been a dormitory town, but the pandemic has driven disposable income back into the local economy.

Part of that could well be a shift into supporting local entities such as a football club. More than ever, people are realising that attending matches at Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, among others, is a pastime of the wealthy and well-heeled. Taking a family to the Emirates is almost like splashing out on a budget-price holiday. The pandemic and the lack of spectator-permitted football may have got some people out of the habit. How many people feel comfortable being in a 60,000 crowd anymore or squeezing onto public transport?

This may have diverted football fans away from £ 50 tickets to the more manageable and accessible non-league game. Admittedly, the quality of football leaves a lot to be desired, but then how many times have we come away from a major stadium event disappointed? 

Hitchin Town’s attendances are quite unexplainable, averaging 480 this season for league games, despite their form. Interestingly, the impressive figures have come in 2022, where the average is well over 500. Even Monday night matches have attracted decent crowds.

One reason could be the growing interest in the club among younger people. The demographics have certainly changed, boosted by a more inclusive attitude at the club. In the past, the club hosted special days for the armed forces/services (part of the game’s obsession with the military) and women, but this has broadened to include a rainbow laces day which shows a definite transformation of mindset. Demonstrating this level of awareness is very good to attract younger audiences and marks any club as being modern, forward-thinking and keen to embrace all sectors of the community. Non-league football has long needed more women to ensure there’s less testosterone around and the influence of people like Kate Dellar, whose tireless energy has been very influential, is very evident. Not sure about the plethora of dogs at matches, but then my idea of a decent canine is a Dachshund, any thing bigger just gets in the way.

Hitchin Town is virtually unrecognisable from the club of the 1990s and early 2000s and this bodes well for the future. If the club can attract such attendances when the team is struggling, then even moderate success could be rewarded with four figure crowds. At the special “pay what you want” game against Rushall Olympic (a much-needed 2-0 win to ease relegation worries), there were over 600 people present. This does make you wonder what lower admission prices might deliver – at present, non-league football is still too expensive at some clubs and the success of flexible entrance fees shows that other people think that way too.

Non-League Football: A boom in the making

FROM the evidence of the first month or so of the non-league season, fans are clamouring for live football, regardless of the quality of the product on offer.

Non-league football is seeing an increase in demand, even though clubs are operating with restricted ground capacities. This has meant some clubs have missed out on the uptick in interest.

At Step 3, the highest level of the non-league game that currently permits crowds, the Southern League Premier Central has experienced a 10% increase in crowds, with 15 of the 22 clubs enjoying higher crowds. Five clubs – Redditch (+139%), Kings Lynn (+68%), Coalville (+67%), Rushall Olympic (+55%) and Hitchin (+52%) – have seen crowds jump by more than 50%. At the same time, those clubs that are restricted to 600 people and had higher crowds have suffered a little. Bromsgrove, for example, are down by 40% while Tamworth have fallen by 32%.

There’s no doubt people are discovering their neighbourhood non-league club for the first time, while others who have been regulars at Football League and Premier League clubs have sought refuge with their Step 3 or 4 outfit. Some that have never ventured through the rusty turnstiles of their local club have been pleasantly surprised and indeed, delighted, by the warmth of the welcome.

This really could be non-league’s big opportunity to grab a slice of the market and to present itself as the real alternative to a vulnerable matchday experience. Consider what will happen when football at the higher levels is given the go-ahead to open the grounds once more. Will people be so willing to live and breathe alongside 25,000 other people in a relatively confined space? How about a 500 crowd, plenty of space and a short ride home? In the age of covid-19, the convenience and cost of the non-league game suddenly seems a very compelling proposition.

Can this spark a boom in the non-league game? Let’s hope so, because clubs at this level have had a rough time, but equally, it would be prudent to use the pandemic to closely examine if non-league clubs have the right business model, one that can be sustainable, value-driven and inclusive. The financial structure of so many clubs leaves them very exposed when something goes wrong. Furthermore, football has never needed its audience as badly as it has during the past 12 months, so it really is time to make the fans part of the decision-making processes at non-league clubs. A clear line has to be drawn between football at the higher levels and the game outside the Football League, one that differentiates between full-time and part-time and develops financial restrictions that can protect the future of a club, along with its integrity.

The way the pandemic has been managed suggests we may be heading for more restrictions in Britain and football at all levels may be closed once more. More many people, it is a case of take advantage of watching live football while you can. Wear your mask, keep your distance, respect people’s space and enjoy. 

Non-league football’s governing bodies, historically so fragmented, should be working together to capitalise on the opportunities the pandemic can deliver to them – the chance to secure football-hungry local audiences too often distracted by the Premier League club nearby. With so much negativity surrounding the Premier and Football League, with huge chasms developing between the rich and poor, and money driving behaviours of the top clubs, non-league really can become the game of the people in a new golden age for the small time. If it wants to.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA