Golden Girls: The Rise of Women's Football

Golden Girls: The Rise of Women's Football

July 2019 | Sport

After booming television audiences and an incredibly successful World Cup, the gender barrier at to the top of the world's most popular sport is breaking down.

Another World Cup has concluded and with it another trophy for the USA. The US Women's National Team have extended their reign as Soccer world champions for another four years. They were the favourites going into the tournament and proved to be the best team throughout despite a pair of close games in the knock out stages against England and hosts France. Golden Boot winner Megan Rapinoe has emerged as the breakout star of the competition both for her brilliance on the field, as well as her activism off it.

The real winner of the tournament has been Women's Football in general. It is the first time that the Women's game has achieved a profile equivalent to the Men's game in Europe and South America. Never before has Women's football been a topic of newspaper headlines and public conversation across the continent, with interest levels far in excess of anything seen outside of last year's Men's World Cup. The leading stars of the tournament, as well as the missing Ada Hegerberg, are being recognised as global stars of the game for the first time, with the profile to match.

This has been backed up by viewing figures. Television audience records for the sport have been smashed everywhere - with the progress of women's national teams becoming a matter of public interest in the global footballing powerhouses of England, France, Germany, Italy and Brazil. FIFA expect final cumulative television figures to number over a billion. England's semi-final against the USA is the most watched event of the year on British television, with the 11.7 million watching the match far exceeding the 6.3 million who saw last month's all English Men's Champions League final. That would have been an unthinkable statistic four years ago.

FIFA has been here before. Twenty years ago, 90,000 fans watched the US Women's National Team win their second World Cup on home turf in Pasadena, California backed by a domestic television audience that peaked at 40 million. The team became instant superstars, sparking a soccer boom that led to the creation of a fully professional women's league two years later. Soccer became the leading sport for young American women almost overnight, and has maintained this position ever since. The current period of US dominance is a direct result of that final and the public interest it generated. It is still the only country where the women's team have a domestic profile equal to or higher than the men.

Now the Europeans are starting to catch up. In the last few years, each of the top European domestic Women's leagues has seen their attendance records smashed. Previously amateur or semi-pro big name teams are turning fully professional. Local derbies between the elite clubs and other top games are now being played at the largest stadiums. Traditionally, even the best attended women's teams only get 4 figure gates for the run of the mill league games. As such, they play their fixtures in smaller local stadiums typically used for the reserve or youth fixtures of their clubs rather than the iconic global stadia that host senior men's fixtures.

This is changing for one-off games. Last season, Atletico Madrid's Women's team played their home league fixture against Barcelona to a near full house in their 60,000 capacity Wanda Metropolitano. Chelsea, Lyon and Juventus all played women's matches to packed audiences in their home grounds last season. Tickets for all these fixtures were substantially discounted or given away for free just to get a reasonable crowd. However, these games in the top stadia look likely to become regular events, allowing ticket prices to rise to match the new demand in future seasons. Just this week it was announced that opening day derby fixtures in the English Women's Super League (WSL) will be taking place at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium (against Manchester United) and Chelsea's Stamford Bridge (against Tottenham Hotspur). Spurs will also be playing a Women's North London Derby at their new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in November.

The mere fact that Manchester United Women and Tottenham Hotspur Women are playing local derbies at all is itself the most significant indicator of the changing status of the women's game. Both teams were only promoted into the WSL this year. The two aforementioned local derbies will be their first ever top-flight fixtures. This may sound remarkable given the position of both clubs at the very pinnacle of the Men's game but is a consequence of the amateur nature of English Women's football until the last few years. Manchester United only founded their women's team last year to cash in on the rising popularity of Women's football, while until last month, Tottenham Hotspur Ladies were an amateur side owned and operated independently from the more famous men's team. Now both teams are fully professional divisions of their wider club, as are the other 10 clubs in the Women's Super League. It has even been reported that the Premier League are in talks about taking over management of the Women's league.

There is still a significant gap between the financial might and popular interest of the women's and men's games. The US National Team is the only one where the women are better than their male counterparts in both sporting and commercial terms. This is led to protests over the lack of equal pay, despite the relative on-the-pitch performances meriting it. Norway, another country where the women are more successful than the men, has already taken that step. Other national teams will follow in time. It will be harder to close the gap at club level, simply because many top clubs can't really afford the extortionate amounts they're paying their senior men's teams, without having to pay the same amounts to the women too. The dominant Lyon side have achieved their place at the top of the European club pyramid by paying more than their counterparts. Ada Hegerberg supposedly earns €400k per year, which is a lot, but still less than Gareth Bale's weekly salary. It will be a long time before any real parity can be achieved, but the increased professionalism and audience levels mean that it is now a realistic prospect.

Written by Alan Chatfield