For women’s football in England, 2019 was a record-breaking year in every sense. More women played the sport than ever before, the Women’s Super League attendance record was smashed on three separate occasions and the Lionesses secured record figures for those watching both in stadiums and at home on television.
The big question now is what does the future hold for women’s football in England? After such an impressive 2019, can the game continue to maintain it’s dramatic climb in popularity? The answer looks to be an unequivocal yes. We’ve only been treated to a glimpse of what girls’ football can be in this country.
PARTICIPATION IN WOMEN’S FOOTBALL
Every year, the Football Association release figures for the number of women who are regularly playing the sport and every year, that number increases. But nothing before has compared to the spike we saw in 2019.
According to the FA report, 2.63m women in England over the age of 16 played football last year. That’s up from 1.7m in 2018, a rise of nearly a million in a single calendar year. For some idea of the speed at which women’s football has grown over an extended period of time, in 1993 there were just 10,400 women playing the sport.
There are multiple reasons behind the explosion in female participation. Many grassroots clubs are now running women’s sections alongside their long-standing male sections, creating a greater number of opportunities for girls to take up football. With this increase in clubs comes an increase in competitive leagues and improved coaching standards. This in turn incentives more females to play the sport.
The FA themselves have invested heavily in the women’s game. In 2017, they set out an ambitious target of doubling female participation across football by 2020. In playing terms, that meant increasing the number of registered teams from 6,000 to 12,000. The latest figures show that they are well on course to achieving that number by the end of this year.
INCREASED OPPORTUNITIES FOR GIRLS TO PLAY FOOTBALL
As part of the FA’s ‘Gameplan for Growth’ document, the association identified one of the key areas that could boost participation as getting more girls to take up the game at a young age. Encouraging and nurturing a lifelong love of football in school-aged girls would create a steady stream of talent who would continue playing the sport once they reached adulthood.
To achieve this aim, the FA launched their SSE Wildcat Centres, a network of 200 girls’ football clubs which were run in association with grassroots and professional sides for the purpose of providing free training to girls on a weekly basis.
Initially, the FA wanted 200 Wildcat Centres spread around England. So successful was the scheme that by 2019, there 1,250 running across the country.
Football coaching academies have been keen to seize on the benefits of running girls’ football programmes too. We Make Footballers are one of the south’s leading coaching schools with their weekly sessions across the country open to girls of all abilities.
With increasing numbers of girls signing up to We Make Footballers for professional coaching in a fun and safe environment, many of the franchises are planning on launching girls-only sessions over the course of 2020.
At this moment in time, specialist girls’ football academies seem significant because they are uncommon. With the growth of the women’s game in England, over the coming years they will become seen as normal a part of the football fabric in this country as boys’ academies.
THE WOMEN’S SUPER LEAGUE
The FA introduced the Women’s Super League in 2011. Originally played through the summer months, it switched to mirror men’s football as a winter league for the 2017-18 season and in 2018-19, it became fully professional.
Although early days, the move to professionalism looks like it could be one of the most significant moments in the development of women’s football in England. Standards have already risen markedly.
The prospect of being paid to pay the sport for a living meanwhile will no doubt entice many more girls into taking up football from a young age in the hopes of eventually becoming good enough to have a football career.
In order to partake in the WSL, the 12 members of the league must all offer their players a minimum of a 16-week contract and form a youth academy. These youth academies are designed to nurture the next generation of England stars, which will continue to drive standards up over the course of the next five years.
The WSL attendance record was broken three times over the course of 2019; firstly when 5,265 saw Arsenal crowned 2018-19 champions with a 4-0 win away at Brighton’s Amex Stadium in April.
The first ever women’s Manchester Derby between City and United then attracted 31,213 to the Etihad Stadium on the opening day of the 2019-20 season. That record stood until November when 38,262 attended the North London Derby at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
All three of those records were set in stadiums belonging to Premier League clubs – and women’s teams playing at the homes of their male counterparts looks like it will become a more frequent occurrence in the coming years.
The idea of ‘double headers’ has even been raised in the future; whereby a women’s match would take place at the same stadium on the same day as the corresponding men’s match. You might buy a ticket for Chelsea v Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium and get to see the women’s teams face off at 2pm before the men do likewise at 4pm.
Speaking of Chelsea, they too set an attendance record in 2019 for the most fans to watch a WSL game at a women’s home ground. 4,790 supporters were at Kingsmeadow for the Blues’ 1-0 win over Manchester United in November.
Cheap ticket prices, the chance to watch some of the world’s best talents and the accessibility of players – women’s teams are famous for signing autographs and posing for selfies with fans after the final whistle – are making women’s football in England a popular draw. Attendance figures will keep rising as a result.
INCREASED MEDIA COVERAGE
One of the most notable aspects of the Lionesses’ run to the World Cup semi finals last summer was the media coverage afforded to Phil Neville and his side. England didn’t just make back page headlines with their World Cup exploits in France last summer – they were front page news too, turning the like of Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White into household names in the process.
In terms of the WSL, matches are now broadcast live on BT Sport, by the BBC via their red button service and online. The 2018 FA Cup Final was shown in the primetime 5.30pm slot by the BBC for the first time and the 2019 final saw over two million people tune in to watch Manchester City beat West Ham United 3-0 live from Wembley.
As the game grows, so will the coverage it receives. Combined with record sponsorship agreements – Barclays signed a three-year deal to sponsor the WSL for a cool £10m starting with this season – you can expect to see women’s football in England receiving even greater levels of media interest.
THE SUCCESS OF THE LIONESSES
England have made the semi finals of the last three major tournaments; the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the 2017 European Championships in the Netherlands and last year’s World Cup just the other side of the English Channel.
The success of the Lionesses under Mark Sampson and then Phil Neville has had a huge bearing on the popularity of the sport. A quick look at the numbers will tell you that. In the summer, 6.1 million viewers tuned in to watch England take on Scotland in their opening World Cup group game. On the same day, Gareth Southgate’s men drew an audience of just 1.2 million for their UEFA Nations League game with Switzerland.
In November, the Lionesses hosted Germany in an international friendly at Wembley. More people turned up to watch England women under the arch than did for the men in their Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro five days later.
Another stated aim of the FA’s ‘Gameplan for Growth’ was that England should be in contention to lift the 2023 World Cup. If so much excitement can be generated through a succession of semi final defeats, imagine what winning a major international tournament could do for women’s football in England
Which brings us nicely onto the best opportunity that girls’ football in England has ever had to grow the game. The 2021 European Championships are to be held in this country, with the continent’s finest stars set to grace Premier League arenas like the Amex, St Mary’s and Bramall Lane.
England will go into the competition as one of the favourites with a real shot of winning it. Imagine Houghton, Jordan Nobbs or whoever else happens to be England captain by then lifting the trophy in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley. An entire country inspired and a whole new generation of girls wanting to take up the sport as a result. Never has the future of women’s football in England looked so bright.