In England we are at saturation point. Premier League football across the weekend, Monday and Friday night football, European football, coverage of the lower leagues and European leagues. On any day, of any week, your chances of being able to watch live football are high.
It makes finding a space for women’s football extremely difficult and that has been a problem facing the Football Association since the women’s season switched from summer to winter for the 2017-18 season.
The importance of finding space in a crowded marketplace is shown in Mexico. When the Liga MX Femenil launched in July 2017 the Mexican Football Federation saw a gap on Monday nights, so Mondays became the night for women’s football. As a result the league exploded on to the scene. With 16 teams in its maiden year, 307,202 fans attended across 112 matches, an average of 2,743 per match. A further 104,804 then watched the six play-off games, with 28,995 and 32,466 going to the two-leg final. By contrast, across the 110-game WSL season in 2018-19, the league’s first fully professional term, around 108,000 fans attended.
With no room for women’s football in the weekly sporting diary the FA has had to think outside the box.
First there was the decision to broadcast the opening-day Manchester derby at the Etihad at 3pm on a Saturday, busting the broadcast blackout that exists between 2.45pm and 5.15pm to protect lower-league attendances.
Now we have the inaugural Women’s Football Weekend. Like Non-League Day it takes advantage of a weekend clear of Premier League football during a men’s international break.
To add to the occasion there has been careful scheduling: a north London derby, a Merseyside derby and Manchester United v Chelsea are the highlights. Four games will be played at the clubs’ main stadiums.
With Tottenham having faced criticism for not hosting the women’s team for one of their stadium test events, a closer relationship between the men’s and women’s teams and the decision to hold the first north London derby of the WSL era at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium are welcome.
Spurs are keeping their cards close to their chests on ticket sales, but the added pull of the new stadium experience, a half-time talk from the back-to-back World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis and the visit of Arsenal could easily see the game at the 62,000-capacity ground (a significant upgrade on Tottenham’s usual home at Barnet) break the 31,213 attendance record set by Manchester City at the Etihad in September. Before that the record was 5,265 at the Amex when Arsenal clinched the league title last season.
The Guardian understands Liverpool are hoping to welcome 15-20,000 fans to Anfield, where a struggling Liverpool play this season’s surprise package, Everton.
Brighton will host Birmingham at the Amex and Reading play Bristol City at the Madejski to complete the big-ground quartet. Manchester City play West Ham at home and there are fixtures across the Championship and below preparing to play their part in attracting new fans.
At the top the ambition will likely be to break the 62,921 total attendance set in week one.
These showpiece fixtures are not for kicks. They have a purpose: to drive a new audience towards the game, and it is working.
Coupled with the effects of England’s run to a World Cup semi-final and concerted efforts to drive international attendances (the record England home crowd of 77,768 at Wembley followed an impressive 29,238 at the Riverside) domestic attendances have risen.
There has been a 313% increase on last season’s match average. If you exclude the outlier games at men’s stadiums there has still been a 45% increase. The starting point may have been low – an average of 996 per game in 2018-19 – but the growth is still significant.
In the Championship attendances have dipped to an average of 440, but with the promotion of Manchester United and Tottenham, the league’s biggest crowd-pullers, this was somewhat expected. That 20% dip is still a 41% increase on the 2017-18 season.
Maintaining and improving this growth will be crucial to the continuing investment in the game and it is welcome that people are buying in.