Friday, 12 April 2013

Will ladies' football ever be a truly popular national sport?

This weekend sees the beginning of the 3rd Women's Super League (WSL), the elite competition of ladies' football in the UK. Eight clubs now compete to be crowned the greatest in the country. With a competition specifically designed to raise the profile, standard and professionalism of the game now entering its 3rd season, has it started to yield the desired effects? 

In terms of money, it faces the dilemma of wanting to increase the finances involved, but simultaneously avoid a huge imbalance in the favour of larger clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. Consequently, clubs are currently only allowed 4 players on a salary of £20,000 or more. And, yes, that is an annual salary.

At the end of last year's WSL season, the BBC presented a Q&A with the FA Head of National Game, Kelly Smith (read it here, and its recent follow up video here). Inevitably the tone was positive, that progress was being made and that interest and support was up. Unquestionably, overall attendance has increased 10% and the highest attended individual match (5052 spectators at Arsenal vs Chelsea) was more than twice that of 2011, although it taking place at the Emirates may have benefited this somewhat as well.

Most sports across the UK have seen a significant swell in interest and participation post London 2012, and women's football is no exception. At the Olympics, interest was high, with an average attendance of 25000, including 70,000 seeing Team GB beat Brazil in the Group Stage, and 80,000 watched the USA beat Japan in the final, both at Wembley.

But is there a danger that it will be like many other Olympic sports, in that the general public don't really care about it unless there is a major tournament on, or it happens to be on TV? How many people go onto the BBC's Women's Football page specifically to look up results or get the latest club news? Who knows what the Cyprus Cup is, or whether beating Canada twice in a month is remotely significant or impressive?

Last weekend Rachel Yankey became England's most capped football player, joint with Peter Shilton, with 125 national team appearances. A huge congratulations to Rachel for such a feat, but I fear it will be looked upon a bit like players who play hundreds of times for minor nations in the men's game, becoming more of an obscure pub quiz trivia answer than an achievement inspiring awe and respect.

Women's football is hardly new in England, having been played (and popular) in the early 1900s, until what turned out to be a 50 year ban from 1921 stopped its genuine progression and growth in its tracks. And now that men's football is so utterly universal and financially significant, it will take a massive ongoing effort from all quarters for the ladies' game to get a real foothold in the market. The reality is also that a large percentage of the female population still strongly dislike football. Saturday night dates ending at 10.30pm for Match of the Day may have something to do with this, but until there is a wider enjoyment of the sport, it may be hard for the game to really grow and develop.

Although it is unfair to compare to the men's game, there are definitely positive signs that the game won't sink into a post-Olympics hangover and back into relative obscurity. Chelsea have just signed a Brazilian superstar for the new season, ESPN are continuing to provide significant WSL coverage, the BBC are showing some of the matches from this summer's European Championship and the FA WSL Cup has ongoing sponsorship from Continental, one of the biggest sponsors of major football tournaments in the last 20 years.

In terms of the national team, there are an awful lot of similarities to the men's side of thing (unfortunately). Looking ahead to this summer's European Championships in Sweden, we currently sit 7th in the FIFA rankings, not quite able to break into the very top levels, but always close enough to get our hopes up. Sadly, we appear to be similarly afflicted by major tournament woes. At the Olympics, Team GB won all 3 group games, including beating Brazil, only to tamely limp out 2-0 to Canada in the Quarters. At the 2011 World Cup, we again won our group, including a victory over eventual champions Japan, only to lose in the first knockout round, on penalties, having conceded an 88th minute equaliser. They are still England after all.

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