The England captain Leah Williamson was shouting down the microphone. She could not hear herself speak over the roar of 87,192 people at Wembley. They had just witnessed history as England defeated Germany to be crowned European champions.
She issued a rallying cry: “We’ve got people at games and we want them to come to the WSL (Women’s Super League). The legacy of this team is winners and that is the start of a journey.”
A record-breaking 2022-23 Women’s Super League season followed. Numbers for attendance, broadcast views and social media followings all increased after England’s European Championship success. On the international stage, the appetite to see these new stars grew as the Lionesses twice sold out Wembley, for games against the US and Brazil.
Brands of all types wanted a piece of the action. Any Lioness would do as long as they had that association. In just one year, the Euros has, in some ways, had a hugely beneficial impact on the domestic game. But in other ways – even as Sarina Wiegman’s side stand on the brink of winning the Women’s World Cup for the first time – nothing has changed at all.
The England team’s talks with the Football Association (FA) regarding performance-related bonuses and commercial deals that began before the Euros, have ground to a halt, while an England women’s goalkeeper shirt is still not available to purchase. There are major concerns about the inconsistent standards of infrastructure, facilities and professionalisation across the WSL and Women’s Championship (WC). Since the Euros, the discrepancy between the elite game’s shiny surface and its underbelly is even starker.
Here is the state of affairs:
At some clubs, players have to pay for their own food when on site
Some players with boot deals give their spares to other WSL players
Women’s elite footballers do not have a centralised pension provision
Short contract lengths cause players anxiety
Some Championship clubs have “awful” facilities
“We don’t want to get to a point where we are successwashing,” says Fern Whelan, former England international and the Professional Football Association’s (PFA) women’s football equality, diversity and inclusion executive.
“We’re talking about the success of the Euros, broadcasting, the fan base, increasing participation. Well, we’re going to get all these girls to play, we want them to get into a professional league and what does a professional league look like? For some of the teams, it would be a hell of a shock. It looks all rosy from the outside, but when you go on the inside, it’s not where it needs to be.
“There’s a danger the women’s game will run before it can walk. The game does not lack ambition. It’s about getting the basics right for the players before we start throwing big-money salaries and talking about how great the game has become. We have to be careful we’re not papering over the cracks. We’re still not there within the elite club level, let alone the Championship and pyramid below.”
The state of women’s football at grassroots level
The state of women’s football at semi-professional level
The Fan-Led Review of Football Governance conducted in 2021, recommended women’s football should undertake its own review. After the success of the Euros, the government launched one in September 2022, chaired by England legend Karen Carney.
“The professional environment… is the area where reforms are most urgently needed,” wrote Carney in this summer’s published report.
The review provides thorough recommendations for what should come next, but this article focuses on what has changed in the professional game one year on. A mural of Chelsea winger Guro Reiten adorns Portobello Road in London. The caption reads: ‘The champions of a record-breaking season.’
After last summer’s tournament, the FA knew it had a golden opportunity to capture the momentum generated by the England senior team’s success. It had two priorities: attendances and TV audiences. It was widely communicated to clubs that there was a desire to break records.
Before the tournament, the FA was profiling WSL players, not just Lionesses, and the clubs they play for. The message was: the WSL has more European Championship players than any other league and fans will be able to see them in action in the domestic league after the competition ends.
“The big focus was to drive more people through the turnstiles,” Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game, tells The Athletic. On the inside, the governing body and clubs felt the pressure to seize the moment. They did, rightly shouted about the records and the media reported on them.
Arsenal broke the WSL attendance record (47,367) at the Emirates against Tottenham Hotspur on September 24, and for a women’s club match in England (60,000) at their Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg. The WSL season average attendance rose by 170 per cent from 1,931 to 5,222, compared to the previous season.
All clubs (except Leicester City) broke a club or stadium attendance record, albeit the benchmark was low. Average attendances in the Women’s Championship also increased by 175 per cent, from 553 season to 968, while Sheffield United broke the Championship attendance record with a crowd of 11,137.
As for TV audiences, 50 million tuned in to watch the WSL last season, eight million of whom do not watch the men’s game. The average viewership of the WSL went up by 53 per cent on Sky Sports, and 1.35 million people – the highest peak recorded for any WSL match – tuned in to watch Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur on BBC One. You get the picture.
The Euros undoubtedly helped raise the visibility of the WSL and when asked if it had the desired impact, Simmons replies: “Yes, definitely.”
Yet, for every record, there is a drawback. What about all those people who bought tickets but did not turn up? Arsenal sold 52,000 tickets for that north London derby, so where were the other 4,500 people? The FA issued around 85,000 tickets for the FA Cup final. The attendance of 77,390 broke the world record for a women’s domestic match but what happened to the other 8,000?
Big strides have been made, with every club (apart from West Ham) playing at least one fixture at their ‘main’ stadium last year. But following the bumper figures at those venues, there was the comedown of returning to the regular home-grounds for the women’s teams.
Take that Arsenal record of 47,367 from September. When they returned to Meadow Park for their next match, against West Ham United, that figure plummeted to 3,238. Or Chelsea’s 38,350 against Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge, which was followed by a crowd of 1,184 fans for their 3-2 win against Reading at Kingsmeadow. Even despite the success of the Euros, Spurs were not able to better their 2019 record attendance of 38,262. Just under 17,000 fewer fans turned up for their game against Manchester United in February this year.
The Reiten mural speaks the truth. It has been a record-breaking season in terms of attendance and viewing figures. But another WSL record was broken: the first time a game started and was then abandoned six minutes in because of a frozen pitch. It looked like a tinpot product on TV and summed up the gaping holes in the infrastructure of women’s football.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes called for undersoil heating, highlighting the complications of third-party stadiums, while the farce shed light on the issue of fans being short-changed by unsuitable broadcast slots. Liverpool supporters got up at 3am on the Saturday to travel to Kingsmeadow, south-west London. On Sundays, WSL fans are expected to travel home after 8.30pm following a 6.45pm kick-off. And that’s having waited 45 minutes to queue for the toilet or get a cup of tea because the infrastructure is not in place to accommodate them.
The government review rued a “lack of scheduling consistency” and said a possible 3pm Saturday slot could “drive new audience growth”.
When asked about the success-washing statement, Simmons tond The Athletic: “We’re on a journey… a growth trajectory. We’re not finished. We’ve only been fully professional since 2018, had commercial partners since 2019, a new TV deal is two years in. It’s going to take time.
“This WSL season has been the most competitive… the title went to the wire and one of three or four clubs could have gone down. There are lots of interesting battles.”
The FA achieved the goals it set, although some argue it could have been more ambitious – its target was to reach a WSL season average attendance of 6,000 by 2024.
“There’s nothing wrong with setting a growth target and going after it,” says Simmons when asked about the FA’s priorities. “Increasing attendances is important for matchday revenues, fan experience and how the product looks on TV.”
It is, but at the same time, attention has been taken away from the fundamentals. There are other numbers to discuss.
“While the Lionesses are admirably succeeding consistently on the pitch, real challenges remain within the domestic pyramid,” read the government review. “Some of the most compelling evidence heard by the review came from current and former players, who painted a picture of a game that is striving for success, but struggling to offer a working environment that fully protects and supports those working in it.”
“There is a lack of consistency in terms of infrastructure and facilities across the WSL and WC that need to be addressed,” says Marie-Christine Bouchier, player representative and head of women’s football at the PFA.
The WSL has 12 professional teams but the WC is a hybrid — some semi-professional, others professional. The minimum contact time is lower and players work multiple jobs to support themselves financially. More on that below.
“We need to be mindful about the standards and make sure players are protected in this journey because it’s fast-paced for them too,” says Bouchier. “If we’ve got the expectation of players winning tournaments, they’re going to have the support systems in place to enable them to continue doing that.”
- The Athletic report