Voices: Women’s football is a smash hit with the fans. Why can’t the industry keep up?

·4-min read

Growing up as a Manchester United fan, I came to understand the game, and its magnetic culture, through the lens and language of men. I loved going to Old Trafford but acknowledged that casual misogyny would be a facet of the day. I prided myself on becoming one of the “lads”, repressing my own antipathy in the process.

As the drummer and only woman in my band Sports Team, I found parallels. I became adept at minimising my gender in order to fit in and be taken seriously as a woman in an industry dominated by men. The long-term impact on your psyche is powerful. As a woman, you feel you may inhabit but not own these spaces. This was the tacit “rule” that shaped my perception of the social world and how I navigated through it.

Moments like the recent women’s FA Cup final collapsed this notion. I watched my team walk onto the pitch at a sold-out Wembley and sobbed for my childhood self as I had when I watched the Lionesses last summer; with joy, and envy at what felt like the limitless possibilities now open to the next generation.

Placing the women’s game on a stage of this scale reflects a clear statement of value. The match’s record-breaking attendance comes weeks after Arsenal broke the domestic club record, selling out the 60,000-capacity Emirates. This succession of broken records exemplifies the level of demand and support the game once again possesses (it’s worth noting here that the Dick Kerr ladies’ team drew crowds of more than 50,000 in the 1920s, before the FA ban).

Although late to the party setting up a professional women’s side, Manchester United’s investment across just five years has been truly impressive. As a fan, I’ve seen evidence of meaningful commitment from the club, with large-scale marketing campaigns and huge events hosted at the “men’s” ground, Old Trafford.

Yet, as United Women played another momentous tie, battling for the top spot in the league in their final home game against rivals Manchester City, the stage was diminished to Leigh Sports Village. The fixture sold out the 12,000-capacity ground on the outskirts of the city weeks ahead of the game, and despite drawing crowds six times its size last week, there has been no venue upgrade.

The club has indicated that while there were ambitions to host the match at Old Trafford, “public events” in the city precluded this. Though perhaps beyond United’s control, it is hard to imagine such challenges stopping a home fixture for the men. Clearly, within the hierarchy of public events, women’s football languishes.

This decision is another example of lukewarm support for the women’s game, typified by the farce surrounding Women’s World Cup TV rights. Just two months ahead of the tournament, Fifa threatens a TV blackout across many European countries as broadcasters drag their heels on securing a deal, the likes of which would be tied up years in advance of a men’s major tournament.

There is a yawning gap between the demand of fans and the structures that orchestrate football. The momentum of the game has reached a point that cannot be halted. It feels increasingly incongruous to watch superstars like Alessia Russo and Leah Galton owning the stage at Wembley one week, only to be relegated to the backyard of the Sports Village the next. Therefore, the excitement generated by last week’s final must be tempered by the need to hold organisations to account.

Yet the cultural magnetism of the women’s game multiplies by the day, and the pace of progress is dizzying. I grew up believing fundamental rules about the world that are no longer relevant.

Although United suffered a gutting defeat last Sunday at the boot of the prolific Sam Kerr, looking at a young girl sitting nearby on my row, my heart was lifted. Her journey through football fandom will be so markedly different from my own. The world that I had to repress parts of my identity to participate in has burst open to the next generation of young people.

In my career in music change is afoot, albeit at a slower pace. I still inhabit a space that feels dominated by a largely homogenous group of men, but the closer I live to women’s sport the bolder I feel in these spaces. This reflection buoyed me as I headed to the station last Sunday among the last of the fans. I felt a sensation, novel to someone who grew up in post-New Labour Britain, of hope and excitement for what might come next.

If we continue to challenge tokenism, and embed commitment to the game, the potential is boundless. Using sport as a vehicle, we can move toward a future where every girl can own their own space, in the beautiful game and beyond.

Alex Greenwood is the drummer for the band Sports Team