The success of the Women’s World Cup held recently in Canada was a definite step forward for women’s football and could well herald the start of its growth. It also saw a strong World Cup showing from England, somewhat of a rarity in modern football. Malcolm Cox wonders whether the Women’s World Cup can revitalise the domestic game.
Women’s football in England has always been the poor relative to the men’s game and while this situation will undoubtedly continue, the 2015 Women’s World Cup showed us sceptical football fans what the game is all about.
Following a painful opening game defeat to France, the English ‘Lionesses’ regrouped, took disappointment on the chin and bounced back in stunning fashion. Despite the ‘Lionesses’ being outplayed for large periods of the quarter-final, they managed to do what their male counterparts have been unable to do in recent tournament finals – grind out a win through sheer determination, togetherness and hard work.
Had it not been for a calamitous, heartbreaking own goal by the otherwise imperious Laura Bassett, we could have been celebrating the nation’s first World Cup success since 1966. But did the exploits of the Lionesses in Canada gloss over the obvious cracks in the women’s domestic game? Or was this the rebirth of the game in the hearts of football fans up and down the country?
The domestic game is still chronically under-funded
If heart, determination, and teamwork paid the bills, the Women’s Super League (WSL) would be the richest sporting competition in the world. However, the reality of the domestic game in England involves low crowds, low wages and low levels of investment. However, even before the 2015 World Cup, women’s football was breaking new ground – in more ways than one.
For many years, the domestic game in England was little more than an opportunity for Arsenal Ladies to showboat their way to the domestic league championship. Thankfully, the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool have invested fortunes in their teams and their facilities – and the WSL has been reborn as a result. Even the mighty Chelsea have gotten in on the act.
Okay, so the average crowd in the WSL was less than 800 last season; however, this represented a 30 percent increase on the season before. And with the World Cup exploits of the English Lionesses still fresh in the memory, a further surge in crowd numbers is expected during the second half of the 2015 season.
Sponsorship and TV rights deals are fuelling the fledgling professional game
With the backing of the FA, women’s football in England is finally starting to reap the rewards of a commercial approach to the game. BT Sport is now showing live WSL matches every week – pumping much-needed funds into the coffers of smaller clubs such as Bristol Academy Women and Birmingham City Ladies. A deal has also been struck for coverage of WSL matches on BBC 5 Live Sports extra. Continental Tyres and the Yorkshire Building Society have backed women’s football in England to the tune of millions of pounds.
Every bit as passionate as their multi-millionaire counterparts in the Barclays Premier League, women footballers are now turning professional – and being rewarded handsomely for doing so. It was recently revealed that the USA’s star striker Alex Morgan earns nearly £2 million a year when endorsements and sponsorships are added to her salary. And while England captain Steph Houghton’s rumoured £65,000-a-year salary seems modest in comparison, it still represents a very respectable wage for a woman playing a hopelessly male-dominated sport in the home of the richest football league in the world.
So, where does the women’s game in England go from here? Well, it needs to harness the incredible exposure it has received this year. Around 2.5 million people stayed up to watch England’s semi-final with Japan during the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, the BBC revealed that 11 million viewers watched at least 15 minutes of the 2015 World Cup. This proves that there is an appetite for ‘doing football differently’, and the powers that be simply can’t afford to let this unprecedented opportunity slip through their fingers.
Despite concerns about their commitment to the long-term future of the game, the FA has already moved to promote women’s football by launching the ‘We Can Play’ campaign – aimed at enticing more people into playing on a regular basis. Indeed, the FA hopes to make women’s football the second most popular participation sport in England by 2018 – after the hugely dominant men’s game.
There are more than 5,000 women’s teams now registered in the UK, and around 2.9 million women play football regularly. If the people in charge of this burgeoning sport can’t capitalise on this incredible surge in popularity now, they probably never will.
Written by Malcolm Cox. Malcolm is a copywriter, blogger and journalist who specialises in sport, entertainment and politics. Malcolm writes extensively for football equipment retailer The Soccer Store on issues related to every level of the game.