Has women’s football made the breakthrough into the wider sporting consciousness?

Powered by increasing professionalism, higher standards of play, big-name players and success on the national and domestic stage, women’s football has well and truly piqued the interest of the UK public. Improved mainstream media coverage, better visibility on social media and encouraging viewing figures have followed, inspiring a great deal of positivity about the sport’s future.

Casey Stoney has witnessed the changes first-hand. The 35-year-old won 130 England caps and captained the Lionesses, before being awarded an MBE for her services to the game.

“The women’s game has grown significantly in this country in recent years,” she wrote in an open letter upon joining Phil Neville’s backroom staff in February. “That is something we should all be very proud of.”

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The FA launched its four-year plan, ‘The Gameplan for Growth’, in March 2017, with head of women’s football Baroness Sue Campbell announcing ambitious aims across the board. Just over a year on and the green shoots are visible.

“In many ways women’s football is healthier than it’s ever been before,” says Tom Garry, journalist and co-author of the Women’s Football Yearbook. “In England, the number of women and girls playing the game has never been higher. The number of teams registering to play on a regular basis continues to rise. At the elite end, the coaching provisions, facilities and things like strength and conditioning are rising exponentially. It’s fantastic to see.”

The health of the game was further boosted by the recent decision of one of the world’s biggest clubs to end a 13-year hiatus and apply for a professional women’s side. Manchester United announced in March that they aim to join the second tier next season; with fellow latecomers Southampton also making a bid, there’s a good chance all 20 current top-flight men’s clubs will have a female equivalent next term.

United scrapped their women’s side in 2005 but have continued to run a flourishing academy. Their decision to bow to public pressure is “a huge moment” according to Garry, even if the application to join the second division is arguably unambitious.

“There’s nothing wrong with the fact that public pressure probably has had an impact on Manchester United’s decision,” says Helen Rowe-Willcocks, editor of The Women’s Football Magazine. “Every club – no matter how big or small – who has made an application or vowed to improve their women’s sides is equally important.”

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“Having another football superpower on board can only increase the profile of the game and improve the credibility of its image,” agrees Lucy Piggott, a women in sport researcher at the University of Chichester. “This is particularly because of the resources that Manchester United have to put into the women’s team, both from a performance and a marketing and promotional perspective.”

If accepted, United will become part of another significant step in the development of the game. The FA is looking to bring an end to what Rowe-Willcocks terms a “confused state” by restructuring the women’s football pyramid. From the 2018-19 season, the top two divisions will be expanded and renamed the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship.

Garry, who covers women’s football for BBC Sport, views the latter’s oversubscription – there have been 15 applications for nine available places – as hugely encouraging. And as well as prompting new sides to join the system, Piggott believes the restructuring will help reduce the gap between the top sides and the rest.

“It ensures a consistent level of professionalisation within the top tier in particular,” she says. “It should raise the overall standards and expectations of clubs competing in the women’s game. In turn, this should continue to increase the standard of playing and improve the experience for fans.”

While this levelling of the playing field is welcome, it’s still the elite end of the spectrum which is doing the most to attract interest in women’s football. England are currently ranked second in the world, ahead of traditional powerhouse Germany and behind only the USA.

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The Lionesses’ run to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup and 2017 European Championship attracted plenty of attention: 2.4 million people stayed up late to watch the agonising defeat by Japan on the BBC, while 4 million saw the loss to the Netherlands on Channel 4 last summer. WSL 1 viewing figures on BT Sport have also seen an increase over the last year: from 46,000 to 103,000 peak viewers.

The Mark Sampson controversy and subsequent appointment of Phil Neville as England boss drew media attention and put women’s football firmly in the news cycle, even if it was largely for negative reasons. On the pitch, players like Toni Duggan, Jill Scott and Steph Houghton are beginning to become household names. Marketing campaigns such as last summer’s ‘Salute’ have also been successful in raising the game’s profile.

Progress hasn’t been entirely linear, however, and the FA’s Gameplan for Growth has run into obstacles. WSL 1 attendances have dropped by 11% this year from the previous campaign – a problem Campbell attributes to the switch to a winter calendar.

The scheduling of domestic games is far from ideal and a source of “big frustration” according to Garry. March’s Continental Cup Final between Arsenal and Manchester City was played on a Wednesday night at Wycombe’s Adams Park in front of just 2,136 people. With BT Sport prioritising the men’s Champions League, it was shown instead on the WSL’s Facebook page. Garry says the calendar is getting better, but “at some clubs, stadiums and venues, women’s football is a bit of an afterthought.”

The discrepancy between international football – 25,603 fans flocked to St Mary’s for England versus Wales in April – and domestic competition is a concern. As is the poor treatment of many teams compared to their male counterparts. Sunderland’s women’s side were kicked off their Academy of Light training ground by the club in September, with junior and development sides deemed more important.

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“There are so many clubs where the women aren’t allowed to be in sight of the men,” explains Garry. “They’re seen as a second-class citizens at some clubs.”

“The men’s game is still largely seen as the gold standard and the women’s game as an inferior version of that,” Piggott adds.

And while the viewing figures show there’s a market to be exploited, commercial investment in the sport is still lacking. Stadiums are a key factor, with Manchester City the only club who own a separate women’s ground, and the FA have so far failed to attract an appropriate title sponsor for next season’s rebranded Super League. Money is scarce. BT Sport pay a “very token amount” to broadcast WSL 1, says Garry, who believes “the infrastructure, marketing and commercialism [are] really lagging behind.”

“At a club level, women’s football in this country is not yet sustainable as a full-time sport,” he continues. “The FA are asking teams to run their women’s football operations at a loss in the short-term in the hope of trying to fast-track growth in the long-term. At the moment there are no professional women’s sports at any level in the country who run a profit without support from a men’s affiliate.”

But despite these lingering issues, the overall outlook is positive. The FA say they’re on track to double the number of players and fans in women’s football by 2020. Meanwhile, England’s bid to host the 2021 European Championship stands a good chance of success up against Austria and Hungary.

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And while there have been previous false dawns as far as a lift-off for women’s football in England is concerned – Garry points to the hosting of the 2005 Euros and the London Olympics in 2012 – the game is now clearly forging its own path. Frustration remains at the speed of progress in many areas, but Piggott argues that comparisons with the men’s game are unhelpful and reductive.

“It needs more time to develop and should be given space by the media and fans,” she explains. “It has such a short history of professionalisation and huge change will not be seen overnight. It will likely take a generation of players who develop through a professionalised system of an academy within a professional club to see real change.”

Rowe-Willcocks agrees. “It’s definitely still a growing sport,” she says. “Like many sports it still has a long way to go, but it does seem to be going in the right direction towards being better respected.”

For all the hard work involved in trying to increase participation, improve facilities and market domestic games better, the biggest possible difference-maker would be something much simpler but harder to guarantee: an England World Cup win in France this summer.

“It’s a glass-half-full situation,” Garry says with regard to both aspects. “But there’s still a lot to do.”

Has women’s football made the breakthrough into the wider sporting consciousness?
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