This summer, we have been treated to a rarity. England doing very well at football. The women’s side, managed by Mark Sampson, made history and inspired everybody back home, as they reached the last four of the World Cup in Canada, surprising many people in the process.
They may have lost their opening group game to France, but got better and better as the tournament went on, winning a knockout stage match for the first time ever and then reaching the semi-finals for the first time ever. When they were there, they were undeservedly beaten by Japan because of an unfortunate own goal, but didn’t let it affect them. In the third place play-off match, the Lionesses beat Germany for the first time in 21 attempts to end up with bronze medals around their necks. No England side has done any better apart from the 1966 men’s squad.
Viewing figures for the World Cup showed a rapid rise in interest. Almost 11 million BBC viewers have watched a minimum 15 minutes of the coverage of the tournament. The BBC Sport website live text commentary of England against Canada brought in 600,000 browsers for a game that kicked off after midnight, a figure that eclipsed some of the England Under-21 male team’s statistics at the Euros.
When they arrived back in the UK, they were greeted by crowds of fans, who had all fallen in love with the Lionesses. A few days later, they were treated like royalty, by meeting err… royalty, as they ate breakfast with Prince William, then had lunch with Prime Minister David Cameron before enjoying the afternoon watching the tennis at Wimbledon. This is all deserved, but how much of an impact will their World Cup performance have long term?
Throughout their time in Canada, the Lionesses were inundated with tweets and messages, many saying good luck and well done, whilst others were from parents, saying how their daughters had been inspired to take up football because of the World Cup. That’s one of the most important things that needs to come out of this. To get more young girls, or just women in general, into football as the sport continues to grow. It is currently the fourth most popular in the UK, behind men’s football, rugby and cricket, but the hope is that it could become second in the next five years. The FA already has plans in place to continue to grow the women’s game. Events in Canada have simply provided stronger foundations to build on and drive one of their main objectives. The We Can Play campaign is designed to increase participation numbers and change perception by increasing awareness that football is a game for young girls and women. It hopes to canvas support from 100,000 girls and parents to grow the game even further.
Next up, is the impact that the World Cup heroics can have on the Women’s Super League, which re-started this weekend. Attendances were up 30% in 2014, with the average crowd 728 compared to 562 in 2013. Manchester City had the highest average league attendance at 949. Two-thirds of matches in the opening round of games this season in March brought in attendances of more than 1,000 and by the sixth round attendances were up 8% on the 2014 year-to-date average and 22% on the full-year average. The season concludes in early October. There should hopefully a further increase in attendances because of the World Cup, and early figures from this weekend suggest that there have been. But what remains to be seen is if this interest in the women’s game will remain big or if it is just post-tournament hype. Hopefully it’s the former. The Women’s FA Cup Final will be held at Wembley for the first time ever on August 1st between Chelsea and Notts County, and it has been greatly advertised. One great advantage of women’s football is that ticket prices are much lower, which is one big draw to some fans. As long as the sport doesn’t get over commercialised like the men’s game, this should stay the same.
The Lionesses may have made history, but will their impact be long-term as well as the current short-term? England’s female rugby team won the World Cup last year, and interest in the sport did grow for a short while afterwards and more girls got involved, but the appeal has slowly decreased. This could well happen with the female footballers as well, and is a very realistic possibility, but there are factors to suggest that this won’t be the case. Firstly, football is much more popular than rugby in general. There was much more media surrounding the Lionesses than there was surrounding the rugby players, despite the fact they actually did better. One of the things that I thought was very good about the women’s World Cup was that the BBC aired every single game, whilst they also have a weekly Women’s Super League programme, giving the sport more exposure. The Women’s Rugby World Cup was showed on Sky, meaning not everybody could watch it, and there’s no weekly highlights show for the Women’s Premiership in England.
There is no getting away from the fact work remains to be done to improve women’s football in England. It is what the Football Association is striving for in its campaign to grow the game. Some still stay away from the WSL, not because it is played by women but because the product needs to improve. There should be no problem with that. It is a conundrum for any sport – how do we improve to make more people watch? This is prime time for England after the World Cup and greater rewards pouring into the game should lead to greater investment – but with some top American female stars earning about $2m (£1.27m) a year through endorsements, they will not be attracted across the Atlantic. There is the chance of increased investment, but will it be enough to make the sort of superstars in England that the States have in Alex Morgan (who has 1.79 million Twitter followers) and Abby Wambach (493,000 Twitter followers) or even bring those personalities to England? And can the sport suddenly demand huge sums for coverage? Unlikely in both cases.
So it looks like it will be down to the FA to continue their tireless work and ride the wave of goodwill for the women’s game. It’s what the Lionesses deserve after such a superb World Cup, and I hope that the post-tournament hype turns into a permanent, increased interest in the sport. I know that I will definitely be going to watch some games in the future.