Voices: Now the Lionesses have won, English football has to put its money where its mouth is

·4-min read

The success of the Lionesses in this year’s Women’s Euros has been hailed as a “seminal moment” in football. It had a profound effect on many people, particularly women, who spoke of their emotional response to the victory on social media over the weekend.

Women are used to being seen as secondary to or less valuable than men, and we know this is how women’s football has been viewed in this country for the best part of a century. The victories of the Lionesses throughout the tournament, smashing viewing numbers and attendance records, scoring audaciously brilliant goals, tell us that we are at a turning point in the game and maybe even society.

But several issues still need to be addressed. These were raised, among others, by BBC pundits Ian Wright and Alex Scott, both giants of the English game.

Why were many of the games for an international event played at smaller venues, like Manchester City’s Academy Stadium (capacity 7,000) or Brentford’s Community Stadium (17,000)? Did it not show a fundamental lack of ambition?

Alex Scott told viewers that back in 2018, when the organisation of the tournament was in its early stages, clubs had been “begged” to host games during the tournament, but had said no because “they couldn’t see the vision”.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer here, but to capitalise on this huge occasion we’re going to need help from the game’s male gatekeepers. It’s true that even in the last four years the women’s game has progressed considerably, and perhaps this will be the real catalyst for change. But I tend to take a more cynical view.

We have seen other big tournaments and spikes in interest before, but we haven’t seen a huge jump in attendances at Women’s Super League matches. In November 2019, after an enormously successful World Cup, attendances at WSL matches averaged 4,112, a figure boosted by tokenistic big-ticket matches, in which women’s teams were given the opportunity to play at their men’s teams’ spiritual homes. It was an improvement on the previous season but still short of a sold-out Emirates Stadium, week in, week out.

Women do not have an innate lack of ability or athletic prowess compared with men, and to suggest otherwise is laughable. But the women’s game is still comparatively young – it is 50 years behind the men’s – and the talent pool needs nurturing. Until 2017 there were no requirements on clubs to offer players professional contracts, and many still had day jobs. Surely, as Wright pointed out, people will want to see these England stars play in the domestic league after their huge win.

The age-old excuse of “women can’t fill stadiums” has been used to underpin some pretty staggering inequalities in the game – a lack of sponsorship, disproportionately low prize money and their wages, which are only a tiny fraction of what their male counterparts earn.

And if you take the argument at face value, it makes sense. Of course you can’t justify paying women the same as male players if only tiny numbers want to see them play – it’s a simple case of supply and demand, right?

Wrong. There are practical reasons why women’s games have failed to attract huge numbers. For a start, the grounds the women’s teams play in simply don’t have the allure of their male counterparts’ stadia. Many of these places are not well served by public transport, making them difficult to get to if you don’t have a car, and don’t even have capacity above a few thousand if you can actually get there.

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The women’s game is an increasingly popular option for families, who feel it is a more welcoming environment than men’s football, and also because of the spiralling costs of attending top-tier men’s games. Women can fill stadiums: this has been proven quite comprehensively by the 87,192 (a tournament record) who filled Wembley Stadium on Sunday. And we will fill plenty more, if – and this is a big “if” – we are given the opportunity to do so and the platform to showcase our considerable talents.

There are relatively low-risk ways of doing this: making a concerted effort to plan league matches in such a way that women’s teams could play before the men’s, for example, an approach used in the Rugby Six Nations, with some success.

If men’s clubs really want to prove a commitment to the women’s game and reap the financial rewards of the “one-club” approach, and the whole other market this allows them to access, they’re going to have to put their money where their mouths are. It is high time that they did.

Jen Offord is a producer and presenter of the Standard Issue Podcast and the author of The Year Of The Robin

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