Women’s Football: Moving beyond the event

AT THE moment, there’s a lot of positives around women’s football. The World Cup is on the horizon, the European Championship was hugely successful and there’s growing interest in domestic football in many countries. In England, the game is on the crest of a wave after EURO 2022, but the big crowds witnessed at showpiece occasions are not truly representative of the momentum.

At the World Football Summit in Seville, building a sustainable model for women’s football was a recurring theme. Maggie Murphy of Lewes FC underlined the need to move beyond the idea of an “event” to greater appreciation of week-on-week league football. As the Women’s Super League got underway, there were big “event-type” crowds at Arsenal and Liverpool, but the fact is, both of these teams, in their own grounds would get much smaller attendances. At Chelsea, on a chilly September night, the current champions drew 2,842 people for a London derby with West Ham. This sort of crowd is more typical of WSL football than the big stadium “event” that resembles the atmosphere you find at the FA Cup final.

As Murphy said, post-EURO the appetite for the game has grown significantly, but there does seem to be a caveat in any discussion about the commercial opportunity. The FA, the media and the clubs have done a good job in raising awareness, but there should be no misunderstanding that in order to grow the game, domestic football has to become more popular. Nielsen conducted a survey before and after the European Championship and there was a notable rise in interest around women’s football.

Interestingly, Murphy explained that Lewes FC, a ground-breaking and innovative organisation – “we’re kind of a club with a personality” –  that has championed the idea of fan ownership and equality, is one of the most expensive clubs in women’s football in terms of admission prices. “We value the product and monetise it accordingly… we have to price appropriately to survive and thrive.”

There is no doubt this is an exciting time for women’s football, indeed sport as a whole. The big challenge is to convince investors, club owners and the financial sector that it is an attractive product. And at the moment, there is an opportunity as the feel good factor continues after the EURO 2022. Said Maggie Murphy: “The legacy is difficult to calculate. At Lewes we saw an increase in crowds and sponsor interest, but that fell off….In order to create a sustainable model, we have to be continually innovative.”

Slaves to the algorithm: Football should be anxious about its next audience

THERE ARE worrying signs about the direction football content seems to be heading. Everyone keeps talking about “snackable” material in the belief that younger generations cannot concentrate enough to absorb a 90-minute game or even the idea of extensive highlights. Nobody wants to admit that this could actually be a big problem, but the fact is obsession with technology is the cause and that it is not really a sign of healthy evolution.

At the World Football Summit (#WFS) in Seville, market professionals have been discussing the challenge of engaging Gen Z and millennials. This is a generation that, supposedly, has a shorter attention span. This may be true, but to a certain extent, the way football has grown and become inaccessible to people who want to actually attend games, they have no alternative but to watch football in other ways.

According to experts, Gen Z doesn’t watch TV and cannot be bothered to view entertainment on a passive basis. It will not sit and watch what’s offered by TV channels, it will select their visual and audio entertainment via media providers like Netflix, Amazon and Disney. And if they select something they don’t like, they move on. This choice is a progression from where we were 30 years ago, but if a football match on one of these channels is not pressing the right buttons for the Gen Z observer, do they do the same? – a rubbish match isn’t worth sticking with in the hope that “something might just happen”.

Too many companies are so fascinated by technology, they seem to forget you need to place decent and meaningful content on their platforms. There is an opinion that compelling means “behind the scenes” content which is largely anodyne and doesn’t truly inform the fan as its often heavily scripted. For example, the “All or nothing” series has become clichéd and formulaic. Post-match interviews are largely dire and pundits have become worse and worse. To quote Bruce Springstein, there’s “57 channels and nothing on”.

A football match is 90+ minutes, so “snackable” content will merely make the problem worse. It will portray the game as a series of highlights, but is all about nuance and split-second action. It is not a series of set-plays. The drama unfolds over 90 minutes.

Buying a ticket at a match is a painful experience these days. Clubs charge people membership fees to stand in a virtual queue, which doesn’t guarantee you will ever get a ticket for a major game. Crowds are healthy, but you are getting 40,000 Chelsea fans watching games in the flesh and the rest relying on TV, social media and Youtube. The vast majority of Chelsea fans never see them in person. Their relationship with the club is no more intimate than their relationship with an actor, a singer or a celebrity. They have the tools to access everything they need to know about the club, but there’s so much out there they cannot possibly focus too long on any one aspect. So, we return to the idea of snackable content that everyone feels they need to create in order to snare the young generations.

But what does this mean for the future of the game? When Gen Z becomes the mature generation and subsequent generations become even less focused, will football see a tail-off of stadium interest? It’s surely a possibility.