Women’s Super League is compelling but should ditch big stadia for now

THE BEST game of the international weekend was arguably Arsenal Women against their London rivals, Chelsea. The Women’s Super League (WSL) was back and the media coverage was intense and expectations higher than normal. Games were played at Tottenham’s gleaming new home, the Emirates, good old Goodison Park and Brighton’s Falmer Stadium, but these grounds didn’t really do the WSL justice.

For a start, the crowds seemed on the low side – maybe attributable to the pandemic – and the TV images revealed games being played in vast, empty arenas. The average was around 3,500 but in places like the 60,000-plus Emirates, even 8,000 looks like a tiny gathering. It’s easy to see why they play WSL games in these prestigious locations, it underlines the importance of the league and gives both players and fans a lift. But is it really necessary? 

Surely it is more advisable to have 3,500 in a modest but comfortable venue than a huge ground devoid of atmosphere? The same argument used to apply to both the FA Vase and FA Trophy before the introduction of Non-League Finals Day. Some would argue that just being at a prominent venue raises the profile.

The London derby attracted the biggest crowd, 8,705 to be precise, and the action was excellent. Arsenal hosted the WSL champions and were the better outfit against a very suspect defence. Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach, seemed a little fractious and uneasy before the game and afterwards she was complaining about the lack of VAR in the stadium.

It is slightly amusing to see the women’s game adopt some of the habits of the men’s game in the form of cliché-peppered interviews, but one aspect where the WSL is certainly not copying the men is in the spectator reaction to “taking the knee”. There was no jeering, no cynicism, just warm applause. Nevertheless, listening to post-match comments highlights that football remains, after all, a game of cliché and jargon no matter who is playing it.

The dynamics of the women’s game are also starting to look remarkably similar – in the past four seasons, the top three has been unchanged, although the order has jumped around. It’s all about Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, with Manchester United coming up behind them. In short, it is becoming almost as predictable as the Premier League, but then is that a surprise given the economic resources available at these clubs?

The quality of the Arsenal v Chelsea game demonstrated the WSL is on an upward trajectory in terms of technique, but it should be remembered these two clubs shop around the world for their talent. Across the two starting line-ups, there were 12 different nationalities, including Arsenal’s new signing from Aston Villa, Mana Iwabuchi, the 28 year-old Japanese forward who has won 81 caps for her country. 

Arsenal signed some other notable players in the summer, including Nikita Parris from Lyon, Simone Boye Sørensen of Bayern Munich and Tobin Heath, a two-time World Cup winner with the USA, from Manchester United. Chelsea acquired Dutch defender Aniek Nouwen from PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United’s Lauren James, the sister of England international Reece James.

One of the indicators of how the WSL, and women’s football in general, have progressed is public awareness. Increasingly, generalist fans are aware of some of the big names in the game, notably the England regulars like Steph Houghton and Fran Kirby and the American icon Megan Rapinoe. With the emergence of more women pundits, we have seen the rise of the excellent Alex Scott as well as Karen Carney and Eni Aluko. 

Gradually, the WSL will become part of the footballing diet of more fans and the top players will become as household as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. It will take time, and patience will be a prerequisite, but the foundation is now in place. 

Another decent World Cup or European Championship would reap multiple benefits, not least in attracting more men to women’s games, which may be the only way that crowds will grow substantially. With access to tickets at top clubs becoming so restricted these days, there is a marketing opportunity for excluded fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham to seek their entertainment at WSL games. The theory is similar to youth and development football at these clubs, but at present, too few die-hards extend their support of a club beyond the first team.

Arsenal were very much the better and more savvy side against Chelsea and they took the lead through Netherlands international Vivianne Miedema, who evaded Jessica Carter and shot past Ann-Katrin Berger, who should have done better in stopping the effort. Chelsea levelled just before the break through Erin Cuthbert’s low drive after being set-up by Melanie Leupolz.

Arsenal showed no sign of being deflated by that timely goal and in the 48th minute, Beth Mead ran through and sent a favoured left-foot shot past Berger to restore their lead. Mead was in good form and scored her second goal in the 60th minute, receiving the ball from Iwabuchi and rounding the keeper to stretch Arsenal’s advantage. It looked very offside and the presence of VAR would surely have confirmed that. Little wonder Emma Hayes complained that no technology at the ground felt as though they were being treated like “second class citizens”.

Chelsea were not finished yet and Denmark’s Pernille Harder, in the 63rd minute, produced a bullet header right out of the coaching manual to reduce the deficit. It wasn’t enough for Chelsea to save the game, and so Arsenal’s new coach, Jonas Eidevall, was able to enjoy a winning start to his WSL career. 

The meeting of Arsenal and Chelsea is always one of the WSL’s standard-bearer games, so the Gunners will feel as though they have gained, for a while at least, the upper hand on their rivals. But it is just matchday one, there’s a long way to go, and Manchester City also won 4-0 at Everton, reminding the London teams they are back in the saddle as they hunt down the silverware.


Women’s football – vulnerable in the post-crisis environment?

WOMENS professional football has been in the ascendancy over the past few years, certainly from the perspective of profile and public awareness. The prominent competitions such as the World Cup and European Championship have attracted mass media attention, while one-off events have seen big crowds attend local derbies in major stadiums.

The coronavirus stopped football in its tracks, creating an air of uncertainty and questions about sustainability. There are genuine and understandable fears that clubs, many of whom underpin the development of their womens teams at a loss, might reprioritise revenue towards their main sources of income, thus compromising the positive trajectory of the womens game?

Laura McAllister, a former Wales international and currently Professor of Public Policy and the Governance of Wales at Cardiff University, believes it would be short-sighted of clubs to sacrifice their womens teams. Those clubs that see the real value that womens football creates will maintain their investment, but there is a real possibility that the redirection of funds could happen. Some would say that football has become too greedy at the top level and over-focused on the elite end of the game,” she says. The dilemma facing football has been recognised by many people within the game, notably the players union, FIFPro, who called the pandemic an existential threat” to the womens game.

To see the full interview, go to Off the Pitch.

WSL freebie worked, now test if the public will pay

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.

Chelsea Women’s team group line up at the start of the match

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.


Photo: PA