We are now firmly post the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and people are talking ‘legacy’. The tournament broke TV viewing records across the globe, attracting the highest live telly audience of 2019 in the UK for England’s semi-final against USA with a staggering 11.7 million people tuning in - proving that there’s an appetite for watching women play the beautiful game. An appetite that English footballing authorities are keen to whet in would-be women’s football fans across the nation.
At the moment in the Women’s Super League - Europe’s only fully-professional women’s division - average attendances are growing, but not as fast as might be hoped. So, how will the popularity of our Lionesses translate to rising crowd figures at women’s matches up and down the country?
One understandable tactic is the introduction of ‘double headers’. This is when a women’s match is played on the same day, at the same stadium, as their club’s men’s match. The idea is that existing fans, the majority of them male, will stay on, or arrive earlier, to watch the women’s team play too – they’ll make a day of it.
Now, I like watching women’s football, but have never followed the men’s game, (having previously assumed football was just for men). That may be an unusual statement but it’s not an altogether radical one, and it’s definitely one that new fans of the women’s team I support would echo: most of them female and, like myself, relatively new to football.
It’s not news that the experience at top level women’s matches is different to men’s matches. The players are known for being more stoic, less diva-like, than their diving male counterparts; crowds are smaller; fans are less threatening, more inclusive. Whole families attend, and footballers in the top leagues are accessible, in an atmosphere that is profoundly unlike the kind of hetero-normative, bloke-heavy one that dominates the men’s premier league and means that no player there has come out as gay. In fact, there are a good many openly gay female players, and fans, and the mood is more relaxed for it. I can’t think of a better place than the terraces at a women’s football match for cheesy chips and a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon: I like my quotient of sporting tradition to come with a healthy dose of non-conformity.
Women’s football, after all, is not men’s football. The moment a woman in a team of other women kicks a ball on a pitch she turns her gender-assigned role upside-down. She may not intend to do that – she may well intend simply to shoot, tackle, dribble or pass – but, like it or not, women footballers are unselfconsciously breaking away from the traditionally assigned passive gender role that women the world over are conditioned to play out. And women-watching-women-play-football are seeing a version of themselves far-removed from the non-assertive, looks-obsessed, demure, self-effacing, deferring, indecisive, decorations that women are overwhelmingly shown how to be. Instead they are seeing powerful, resilient, space-taking, team-players who will very publicly throw themselves on the line to get what they want. Once witnessed by keen new female fans, those upset apples are never going to line up neatly in the applecart of gender stereotypes again.
In fact, Helen Pankhurst, great granddaughter of Suffragette leader Emmeline, watched a women’s match in December 2018 for the first time ever (Lewes v Manchester United), and roundly declared to TV cameras that ‘women’s Football Is Feminism in Action’ (I’ve capitalised some of her words to make a new acronym for FIFA… which, naturally, I hope they’ll one day adopt).
There is a danger in looking at women’s football through the lens of the men’s game. And there are other ways to develop this chilled but brilliantly, inherently disruptive sport. The women’s match day is a world removed from the men’s, and so it needs to be allowed to grow on its own terms.
Experimenting with ‘double-header’ games will be interesting. But in testing this approach, we need to be watching if it inadvertently deters existing fans of the women’s game by throwing them in the deep end of a packed, all-seater stadium, surrounded by other people who only half want to be there. We need to ask them afterwards about their experience and not just count the numbers. The potential issue isn’t playing the match at the club’s (men’s) main stadium - that’s great. It’s the risk of mixing two quite different matchday experiences and one swamping the other. And the other risk is that in chasing existing (predominantly male) football fans, resources are diverted from the fast-growing audience of ‘women who were never previously into football’.
Of course as an Englishwoman I wanted our Lionesses to bring it home, but I can’t help revelling in the success of a US team with a certain Megan Rapinoe at the helm. The co-captain won an even bigger platform for her message, and has used it well to espouse the true values of the women’s game: collaboration, inclusivity, and a collective responsibility to change the world in the face of huge socio-cultural obstacles. This hard-earnt, ability and willingness to disrupt may just be the answer to growing the women’s game: invite feminists and activists. Because not only do feminists wear pink, they also watch football. And, hallelujah, they do it in their own sweet way.