Not many would disagree that women’s football has come on very strongly in recent years, and now has a fanbase all of it’s own, with people regularly turning up to watch Women’s Super League (WSL) games on a regular basis before the pandemic forced them to go behind closed doors. However, we have now reached a point where it needs the men’s game to help it advance further. With regards to this, the question many are asking is how to go about doing this. In this article, we will explore some of the ways that both can help each other, discussing some ideas for how to solve this dilemma.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, there is the financial side of the game. We all know how much wealth the men’s game has, but what about the women’s teams at the same clubs? In England, most clubs have a women’s team, but do they support them financially? The answer to this, in most cases, is no.
Liverpool Women are a good example of a badly-funded club. They won the WSL back in 2013 and 2014, but a lack of support in recent seasons has led to key players leaving and them struggling to replace them adequately enough to compete with the other teams in the WSL. As a result, they were relegated from the top division last year, after the women’s season was curtailed early due to the pandemic.
The fact that this happened the same year as the men’s team won the Premier League highlights the stark contrast in the treatment and support both had by those in charge at the club. This season, in the Women’s Championship, they were unable to seal an immediate return to the top flight.
In contrast, the team who were promoted this season, Leicester City Women, are an example of what can happen when the women’s team is supported. They were bought out by King Power last summer, who backed them financially and helped them to become fully professional. Their promotion to the WSL is a reward for the owners giving them time and money, and shows other clubs what is possible if they give their women’s teams greater attention.
Another team who have begun to take more notice of the women’s team is Burnley. Recently, new American chairman Alan Pace stated that he wanted the women’s team to climb the pyramid and reach the Championship, as well as eventually making it into the WSL. This attitude is what we need more of, with women’s football teams needing to be made welcome at their clubs, and not simply be an afterthought.
We have already mentioned how the women’s game is attracting more fans all the time, with plenty of teams now given opportunities to play at the highest level. However, we don’t want that to backfire, with the plans for a European Super League (ESL) this week being one way this could happen. The proposed league plans put forward by the 12 clubs involved included a women’s football version, presumably with the same competition format, although this was never confirmed in the league’s brief lifespan.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup viewing figures demonstrate the ever-increasing popularity of the women’s game. According to a FIFA report published afterwards, a total audience of 1.12bn tuned in to watch the games, with an average of 17.27m per match. The semi-final between England and the USA recorded the highest UK TV audience in 2019 (at the time), pulling in 11.7m viewers (around 47% of the UK population), whilst 263.62m unique viewers around the world saw at least one minute of the final between the Netherlands and the USA; a historic amount.
This led to an increase in the popularity of the domestic competitions, such as the WSL, with an average match attendance of 1468 in the 2019/2020 season, compared to just 972 for the previous edition; an astronomical increase. Therefore, women’s football has unquestionably benefitted from having coverage and being in the public eye.
The question now becomes; how do we capitalise on that, taking the women’s game to the next stage? This is not an easy question to answer. However, one thing we can do is have a greater focus on women’s football online, including social media, engaging more fans and bringing them everything they normally want and expect, but from the women’s game as well as the men’s. This would need the men’s team to help promote any content published about women’s football, as they have a greater influence on how people consume football, with a greater audience. Therefore, if women’s football can get a piece of that audience, that will be already be a good start.
There also needs to be more coverage of the women’s game, not just on TV and mainstream media, but also from football websites and digital media. There are hundreds of websites and blogs which look at the men’s game, but a lot less who focus on women’s football. If there is more focus on the women’s games, more people will get to know the players, teams, coaches, and the way they like to play, which will again help to increase the notice we give it.
The recent deal between the FA, BBC Sport and Sky Sports to broadcast the WSL will improve this, but everyone involved with the deal needs to ensure the league really engages with fans by making their coverage interesting and memorable, as the men’s game coverage is, and we hope that it is that it is not too long before people are chatting with the pub about that goal from Vivianne Miedema, or whether Aston Villa Women can stay up, just as we all do with men’s football. Having high-quality analysis in their coverage will also help with this, bringing the women’s game more in line with the men’s, especially for those with an interest in tactics, formations and other, deeper parts of football matches.
Internal club links
We have touched on how men’s and women’s teams at the same clubs can engage with each other, but it can still go a lot further.
Firstly, the two can work together more, on a daily basis, perhaps having joint training sessions at times. With different tactical ideas being thrown around the pitch from different voices, this may actually benefit both the men’s and women’s players, meaning they could go about different match situations in new ways, maybe potentially turning a draw into a win.
We have criticised Liverpool for not giving their women’s team enough financial backing, but they did have a joint pre-season tour of the USA back in 2019, with both the men’s and women’s teams travelling on the same plane and getting to know each other, and this is one thing that clubs could do more of to really integrate the two halves of their club together.
Secondly, the two managers could work together more. As an example of one time this did happen, Everton Women reached the semi-final in last year’s FA Cup last September, beating Chelsea Women 2-1 (Chelsea had not lost since January 2019). Following this, women’s team manager Willie Kirk received congratulations from both men’s team manager Carlo Ancelotti and club director of football Marcel Brands, and there was a video call between the two managers ahead of the final, discussing many different things.
Ancelotti showed a genuine interest in Everton Women’s fortunes, telling Kirk he would be watching and supporting them the whole way, and this type of interaction between the men’s and women’s managers at the same clubs is something we would love to see more of in the future, again helping to increase the publicity the women’s game is receiving.
The final thing is to have more of the women’s matches at their club’s major stadiums. This has happened over the last couple of seasons, with big games moved to the men’s team’s stadiums, especially derbies (such as the North London, Arsenal-Chelsea and Birmingham derbies). Women’s Football Weekend, typically occurring in November during the men’s international break, has also helped with this, with the FA ensuring the focus is on the women’s game when the men are on an international break by moving those games to ensure better attendance and coverage.
However, some teams have gone further. Reading Women had been based at Adams Park, home of Championship side Wycombe Wanderers, from 2016 to 2020, but moved to the Madejski ahead of this season, with it becoming their new permanent home. Depending on whether they survive in the WSL this season, Birmingham City Women will be playing at St. Andrews permanently as of next season, having played at Damson Park, home of Solihull Moors, since 2014.
This is not something we are likely to see more of in the near future, but it is nice to see that some clubs are giving their women’s teams a bigger stadium and, potentially, once fans are allowed back, a better atmosphere to play in.
Breaking into the men’s game
The issue at hand is not just simply improving the women’s game, but also helping those in the women’s game to break into the men’s game too. There have been signs in the last year or so of this happening, with female referees and coaches taking part in or being linked with moves to men’s football.
Chelsea Women boss Emma Hayes is a classic example of a female coach at the top of the women’s game. Aside from the Champions League, which Chelsea are in the semi-finals of this year, she has won everything, and this has attracted attention from the some in the men’s game. When Glyn Hodges and assistant Nick Daws left AFC Wimbledon last season, there were rumours linking Hayes with the Plough Lane job. This season, and very recently, Forest Green Rovers sacked Mark Cooper, with owner Dale Vince saying he would be open to hiring a female manager, and was never afraid of breaking new ground in the game.
Whilst we have never had a female coach in English men’s football, it may not be too long before we get one. Hayes is unlikely to leave Chelsea anytime soon, as she has previously said she is very happy at Kingsmeadow, but there are plenty of other female managers who could see this as the start of more opportunities for them to experience the men’s game.
It is worth noting that we have seen men’s football managers moving into women’s football, with former Leeds United and Rotherham United boss Neil Redfearn a classic example. Many might have thought he had gone quiet after leaving the New York Stadium in 2016, but he actually ventured into the women’s game instead. Having been appointed as manager of Doncaster Belles in December 2017, he went on to manage Liverpool Women (then known as Liverpool Ladies) the season after, but left the club after just one game in charge. Since last summer, he has been the head coach of Women’s Championship side Sheffield United Women. If it is possible for men’s football bosses to move into women’s football, then, whilst it is obviously harder, is it possible that the opposite could happen some day?
It’s not just female managers who are being linked with moves into men’s football; referees are too. We know about Sian Massey-Ellis being a regular linesperson in the Premier League, but Rebecca Welch is one of England’s top referees, regularly taking charge of WSL games. On 5 April, she was appointed to take charge of the League Two fixture between Harrogate Town and Port Vale, taking place at Harrogate’s EnviroVent Stadium, and became the first female appointee for a game in the process.
This is another huge step in bringing the men’s and women’s games closer together, and will hopefully encourage more in women’s football that there is a way into the men’s game. They may bring a new approach to men’s football, something that has not been seen before, which would show the quality of the women’s game and possibly gain it more interest.
There are many different ways that men’s and women’s football can help each other, as has been established in this article. We have also suggested ways to improve the links between both, helping to increase the focus on the women’s game. There are certainly things we can take from this discussion going forward, such as the increase in coverage of women’s football, because, if we watch it more, we’ll talk about it more, and will want to see it live more. This is all it will take for women’s football to become a bigger part of our society.