At the tail end of one of the most action-packed FA WSL seasons ever, women’s football is getting its fair due. Manchester City Women turned in a stellar performance throughout the season, remaining undefeated right through the end. At the same time, last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada final drew in a record 750 million viewers worldwide. With an increase in viewer interest has come a corresponding increase in funding, sponsorships, and opportunities for female footballers around the world.
Women’s football isn’t a new thing. At one point, ladies’ football matches drew bigger crowds than the majority of men’s games. At the start of the 1920s, there were about 150 women’s teams in England alone. Women’s football really took off during World War One, when women stepped in to fill factory jobs. In 1920, the match between Dick Kerr’s Ladies and St Helen’s Ladies pulled a crowd of 53,000 spectators. Lily Parr was one of the early greats, making her name playing for the Dick Kerr’s Ladies Team based in Preston. The team went on to play overseas and was also notable for being the first to wear shorts.
However, the good times ended when the FA pulled the plug on the women’s sport in 1921, determining that it was “unsuitable” for females. It would be another 50 years before the sport was once more available to women on a national level. The FA ban on women’s football was lifted in 1971 after the Women’s Football Association was founded. Yet it’s really been in the past 15 years that we’ve seen a huge jump in the sport for women, with high-profile players like Mia Hamm helping spur it forward.
UEFA Women’s Football
Women’s football has grown in popularity across Europe, with competitions like the Women’s EURO and UEFA Women’s Champions League opening up doors to new audiences and footballers alike. According to UEFA research compiled in the 2014/2015 season, there were 1.208 million registered female players, with 750,000 of those being under the age of 18. The number of female players in Europe has grown five-fold since 1985, and there are now 51 countries with a women’s national league.
FA Women’s Super League
The FA Women’s Super League has seen a huge surge in popularity, both in terms of press coverage as well as audience attendance. Manchester City Women’s season was particularly exciting in 2016, helping spark this renewed interest. They played a professional game, and when they defeated Chelsea at the Academy Stadium in September it set off a new league record in terms of home ground attendance. Over 4,000 fans turned out for the match. Attendance numbers grew overall this year, from an average attendance of 1,076 in 2015 to 1,128 in 2016. Attendance figures grew for the WSL 2 as well, at a rate of 30 percent from 2015’s figures. The highest increase in attendance was experienced by Oxford United, whose crowds were boosted by 85 percent.
To match the increase in audience numbers and give the WSL teams the chance to recover while still playing UEFA Champions League matches, there will be a new FA calendar next year. Instead of summer games, the league will be played at the same time as the traditional men’s football calendar. This takes place between September and May. The Women’s Super League will have its own one-off Spring Series this spring, running from February to May. This offers the teams and players the chance to gain even more exposure, to hopefully smash new attendance records next year. The FA WSL aims to double attendance figures by 2020, with the assistance of broadcast partners BBC and BT Sport.
Media coverage has long been an important component in the popularity of football, and with BBC and BT Sport broadcasting the FA WSL matches this has helped spark renewed interest in the sport for women. Channel 4 began providing regular women’s football coverage in 1989, and organisations like Sport England are focusing on providing greater outreach to get more women out on the pitch. They’ve pledged £30 million on the effort by 2017, creating interest in Manchester and beyond.
Along with an increase in television and newspaper coverage has come an increase in sponsorships for women’s teams. In 2015, energy firm SSE became the official sponsor for the Women’s FA Cup. They signed a four-year title deal, which began with the sponsorship of the 2015 Final match between Chelsea and Notts County. The final was held at Wembley Stadium, showcasing just how large women’s football has become. SSE’s sponsorship deal includes a commitment to further investment in encouraging girls to take up the sport, with girls-only football programmes held across the nation.
With an increase in sponsorships, viewership, and players, the sport is on the rise and organisers look set to meet their goals of boosting audience figures by the end of the decade.