How should women's football capitalise on popularity?

18 Nov 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

The Barclay’s FA Women’s Super League has once again seen attendance records fall as huge crowds turned up to what the FA had billed ‘Women’s Football Weekend’.

During the men’s international break, women’s club football has a chance to gain a bigger share of the media coverage as well as the attention of fans, and clubs have taken advantage of that by staging matches in large-capacity stadiums. So far this season, WSL matches have taken place at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, while an earlier Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium drew a crowd of over 31,000, setting a then attendance record.

That was smashed this weekend when 38,262 fans showed up to the North London derby, just over a week after Wembley saw a record crowd for an England women’s international. The enduring popularity of women’s football in the wake of a successful Women’s World Cup, however, now raises questions about how the sport should capitalise and build on that clear interest.

“This is the million dollar question,” says Chris Allen, Director of Campaigns, Pitch Marketing Group - which has worked with the likes of the FA and WSL broadcaster BT Sport on women’s football campaigns this year.

“Even mature sports like athletics, or to a lesser extent rugby, struggle to convert the hysteria and momentum of international competitions into year-round fans. They continue to have massive viewing and attendance spikes every four years but struggle to maintain high levels of engagement in between – and bear in mind these are established sports that are embedded in our culture and have been marketed for much longer than women’s football has.”

Record attendance levels show that hosting games during men’s international break is working, but those opportunities come few and far between. According to Allen, however, more dialogue between organisers is a logical next step in order to work out a schedule which better accommodates the women’s game.

“The FA should start to consider how they can better work in conjunction with the Premier League to schedule more games that do not directly clash with men’s fixtures. Since moving back to a winter season attendances have actually dropped – no doubt due to the competition with the men’s game. 

“Eventually I’d love to see The FA and Premier League working together to host back-to-back men’s and women’s games – a structure that the ECB have already implemented with notable success for England Men’s and Women’s cricket matches.”

Meanwhile Vinai Venkatesham, Managing Director of the 2018/19 FA WSL champions Arsenal has seen his side the pre-eminant WSL side, a rising power of the growing women’s game with the biggest digital in the league.

“This summer, Arsenal Women played at Emirates Stadium against Bayern Munich as part of the Emirates Cup, with an attendance of 28,500,” he said, speaking of the summer’s pre-season tournament which featured the women’s team playing just hours before a men’s side featuring Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. 

“We will consider playing more women’s matches at Emirates Stadium in the future,” he said, “but need to balance giving up our home advantage at Borehamwood and growing attendances at Borehamwood.”

It must be remembered that women’s football remains a sport in itself, one where results matter and trophies are handed out. But football is also a sport that engenders a particular passion from a club’s fans, and one that women’s teams can tap into, according to Allen.

“The FA’s approach of targeting fans of the men’s teams with a message of ‘if you love your club you love the whole club’ is a good way to tap into fans’ tribal mindset,” he said. “There is still a lot more to be done by clubs across the board on this front, but if others can take a leaf out of Man City’s and, more recently, Chelsea’s book, who run joint men’s and women’s marketing campaigns which promote their clubs as one, then we’ll be making real progress. 

“It has already proven successful with City and Chelsea averaging attendances of 1,864 and 1,409 respectively last season – by far and away the largest in the WSL. By contrast the WSL average attendance last season was 833.”

The parity of esteem doesn’t just come from clubs and organisers, though, it also includes other interested parties - both partners and broadcasters - who are investing and championing women’s football in an unprecedented way.

“We recently signed a partnership deal with Mastercard that is focussed solely on our women’s team,” said Venkatesham. The banking brand - Arsenal Women’s first major official partner - also signed deals with Lyon’s women’s side as well as big-name figures like Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg. “Several of our other commercial partners including adidas, Visit Rwanda and Vitality fully recognise the potential and we are working with them on many projects to move the women’s game forward,” he continued.

Others, like BT Sport who recently launched The Red Lioness campaign to boost the profile of the game, are embarking on women’s football only campaigns to grow the game without leaning on men’s football for leverage.

Allen said: “The Red Lioness Pledge asks pubs and clubs around the UK to commit to screening all women’s football matches live, from the FA WSL through to internationals featuring England’s Lionesses, as well as creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for women’s football fans.

Whilst this is not directly driving fans into stadia, this move to ensure women’s football is positioned on the same level as the men’s game, signals truly positive progress and is a milestone for the consumption of sport in this country.”