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.

 

 

Tea – best drink of the day, not a diplomatic issue

LOOSEN-up Lioness fans, Alex Morgan was merely poking fun, not hurling an insult to a nation. Football is a game that provokes such gestures of mockery, cricket thrives on “sledging” and players lift t-shirts to reveal messages after they score. It’s a product for the masses, a simple game that has no halfway measures in competitions like World Cups – win or lose. Emotions get out of control.

Celebrating goals and victories has been part of the game since it began – from gentlemanly handshakes to elaborate choreographed tableaux when a goal is scored. Some of the reactions to Morgan’s sipping tea gesture have been ridiculous, suggesting England should respond next time by re-enacting a school shooting. This is probably coming from the same people who parade a flag over their facebook image when a major incident takes place around the world. Conspicuous grieving like “pray for France” and all that.

USA’s Alex Morgan celebrates scoring her side’s second goal of the game during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Semi Final match at the Stade de Lyon. Photo: PA

Laughing at oneself is something that has characterised Englishness over the years, although it seems to be a trait that is disappearing as taking offence becomes a lifestyle choice. Indeed, there is currently a TV ad where the ubiquitous Olivia Coleman sums up Britain with the comment, “rather a lot of tea”. She may be right, after all, when anything went wrong, the immediate response used to be “let’s have a cup of tea”. It has taken the nation through many crises and major events.

Tea was always drunk at half-time in football matches – remember the photo of Spurs players arguing with Bill Nicholson in the early 1960s with tea cups in hand? – for decades, although it may have been replaced with more trendy and performance-inspiring fluids today.

Somehow, Britain has adopted tea as its own, even though it was a product that originates in China and latterly India. It was a symbol of empire and even today you can buy “Empire Blend” at places like Fortnam’s.

At football matches, we still queue for the “half-time cuppa” even though invariably, it is a flimsy plastic cup of brown-coloured water with no taste, that is so scorching that it removes a layer of skin from the roof of your mouth. We have never tried to find a better alternative. If tea is our drink, why do we sell such abysmally poor versions of it? Even in stores like John Lewis, tea is disappointing, watery and unsatisfying.

Some football clubs used to pride themselves in providing a decent cup of tea. For years, at non-league Hitchin Town, they served tea in catering cups. At one game in the 1960s, one of those cups landed in the back of the net, and the incident made the national news. Sadly, the cups have long disappeared, but they have not been forgotten. Somewhere, in Hitchin’s crumbling Top Field ground, there may be a box of white cups, stained with the tea of decades past!

Not everyone is upset by Alex Morgan’s display. Tea companies are actually quite pleased by the image of the US player – it is sure to be used at some point in advertising. At the end of the day, it is a very benign incident that obviously pricked the sensitivities of some fans. Yet sort of ribbing is part of the game and has always has been. Likewise, comments about teams and games have existed since the 1890s, although any criticism of the Women’s World Cup has been met with negative responses and claims of being unfair. We are, after all, in the age of the Disneynification of football!

We have to be careful not to become too sensitive to healthy rivalry and gentle teasing. Football is a tribal sport, the spectators are critics as well as viewers, the players interact with the fans, not only to let-off their own steam, but also to prod the crowd into action. We are not talking fighting or mobbing, but just an attempt to create an atmosphere that goes beyond “Mexican Waves” and counting down to kick-off. Sipping tea is hardly simulating an Orange Day parade (a la Gazza) or slipping in a fascist arm salute, it is either acknowledging that the English have long used “a cup of tea” to define their quaint habits, or as it has been suggested as Morgan tried to explain herself, a symbol of US independence. Get over it, you might say.

 

WWC has cast the Copa América into the shadows

IF YOU want evidence that the Women’s football has come of age, then look no further than the way it has overshadowed a string of other major sporting events that are currently in progress: the Copa América, the African Cup of Nations and the Cricket World Cup. The media are besotted with the FIFA Women’s World Cup, suddenly all sorts of “celebrities” are claiming lifelong interest in women’s football and some people are even saying they prefer it to the men’s game.

The Copa América has barely registered on most people’s radar, despite the fact it is hosted in Brazil and the likes of Lionel Messi are trying their best to raise public interest. Sadly for the publicists at CONMEBOL, the Women’s World Cup is far more compelling than a South American 12-team tournament, two of which (Japan and Qatar) were guests to make the meeting quorate.

While the Women’s World Cup has come on in leaps and bounds in the past four years and really generated considerable interest from a broad segment of the football audience, the  Copa América has the awkward format of an overblown tournament – eight teams from 12 going through to the second stage, and two of the four early departures were the guests, meaning that only two locals went out from the groups. On the evidence of the first phase, there appeared to be a lot of either disinterested, worn-out or sub-standard teams. A lot of players were in need of a rest given they have just come off a gruelling European season – between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, 57 of the 69 squad members earn their living in Europe. Is it a competition that nobody really fancies? The more our football schedules get packed, the greater the need to align the confederation competitions with the World Cup to reduce the number of qualifying structures.

Brazil vs. Argentina  Semi Final – Gabriel jesus celebrates his goal. Photo: PA

The Copa América was in desperate need of a big ticket game to bring it to life and they finally got it in the semi-finals, the classic Latino encounter of Brazil v Argentina in Belo Horizonte. On the whole, it has been a disappointing competition, from the lack lustre games to the poor scoring rate of 2.18 per game. Three of the four quarter-finals ended goalless and were decided on penalties. The crowds have also been below expectations, with a couple below 10,000 and five below 20,000. The biggest crowd so far did not involve the hosts, the 57,442 that turned-outt for Chile v Uruguay. The Brazil v Argentina semi attracted 55,947 – much more like it.

One of the reasons for the low attendances could be the pricing policy, with the cheapest seats for the group games coming in at the equivalent of € 40. CONMEBOL have shot themselves in both feet by rejecting a call to bring down prices – the result is that utilisation rates have been about 40% of stadium capacities. Even Brazil’s opener against Bolivia only attracted 46,000 in a 70,000 arena in São Paulo. There may still be something of a hangover from the last time Brazil opened the doors to the world. That said, the game generated a record of R$ 22.5 million in receipts, that’s about € 5.2 million, which should make the organisers happy. There has been criticism that CONMEBOL are more interest in balance sheet issues than seeing the stadiums vibrant and packed to the rafters. But it could also be that Brazilian sports fans have had too much of a good thing. After the World Cup in 2014, they had the Olympics in 2016 and now the Copa América.

So far, the crowds cannot be too happy with the fare on offer. Argentina’s Lionel Messi, on whose shoulders the hopes of a nation rested, has complained about the quality of the pitches, but one of the reasons why the games are so staccato is the high number of fouls. This just makes for scruffy, unsatisfying matches.

There’s another factor as to why the quality is sub-standard and that has much to do with the 2018 World Cup. Transition. Consider that the last teams left standing were Uruguay and Brazil who were both eliminated at the quarter-final stage. Columbia and Argentina went out in the round of 16 and Peru failed to get out of their group. In other words, one year on, most of these nations should be in the process of rebuilding for the next World Cup in 2022. The Copa may not be an immediate priority, although Messi is desperate to win something in the light blue and white stripes. It is the major disappointment of his career and frankly, he’s probably run out of time.

As for Brazil, were always anxious to avoid another seizure at home after the World Cup disaster in the semi-finals of 2014. This is only the fifth time that Brazil has hosted the Copa América/South American Championship and on every previous occasion they have been crowned champions.

The other semi-final is between Chile and Peru. Chile, winners in 2015 and 2016, have failed to score in their past two games, while Peru have only scored in one of their four. Furthermore, Peru have won just once on their way to the semi-final. The impression is that you don’t need to work too hard to reach the last four in this format.

As it stands, the Copa América has failed to capture the imagination of international football fans the way the Women’s World Cup has created a new type of tournament audience (but please, do away with kick-off countdown and other games for the proles). In theory, the South American regional competition is the second most important confederation bunfight after the European Championship, but the rows and rows of empty seats, the tepid performances, the high rate of fouls and low scoring ratio and lack of outstanding talent is worrying. The summer will probably end with people talking about players like USA’s Megan Rapinoe, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White of England and the Netherlands’ Sherida Spitse. The close season (is there such a thing?) of 2019 may yet be looked upon as a turning point in the history of the game.