Was This A Game-Changer For Women’s Football?

Date published: Monday 24th August 2015 1:17

Was This A Game-Changer For Women's Football?

Well, that was fun while it lasted. After watching them receive a fairly robust shoeing by Germany at Wembley last year, you feared for England at the Women’s World Cup. Reaching the semi-final and being knocked out by the holders through a freak last-minute goal having outplayed them for long spells, then, is very far from a disgrace.
If nothing else this tournament, largely due to England’s success, has been probably the most successful ever in terms of widespread interest, at least in this country. Last Saturday, when England beat hosts Canada, 1.6million watched a game that ended at 2.30am, a time when it seemed half the people in the UK were out, asleep or bitching about Kanye West’s Glastonbury set then frantically denying they were racist. If they’d signed that daft petition (and a similar one against Jay-Z a few years ago) then, well, you do wonder.
It has undoubtedly been popular, despite some rather curious complaints about the allegedly excessive coverage given to the tournament, even though most of it has been hidden on a TV station that is being moved completely online next year. Brian Glanville, the doyen of the press box, recently grumbled in his World Soccer column that it was ‘bewildering’ that BBC 5Live broadcast the win over Norway, also recalling that he ‘once suggested – doubtless a hanging offence today – that it (women’s football) should be played behind closed doors by consenting adults.’ Now, Glanville has been a colossus of football reporting for well over half a century, but we can probably chalk this one up as the sort of thing an elderly relative says round the Christmas dinner table. Cough, pass the parsnips, politely change the subject.
Still, those complaints aside the response largely seems to have been positive. According to the BBC, 10.7million have watched at least one game for a minimum of 15 minutes, 15 of the 19 live games on TV have seen viewing figures ‘at or above timeslot’ (which is to say they’ve been at least as popular as the BBC would expect from anything else at that time), and their women’s football site has been read by 8.9million ‘unique users’ from the UK alone. These figures were all from before England’s semi-final, which you’d imagine will be the most popular game thus far.
“The feedback has been phenomenal,” says Jacqui Oatley, the BBC’s lead presenter for the tournament. “It’s not only been from regular women’s football watchers, rather from football fans and others turning a mere passing interest into genuine enthusiasm.
“I’ve covered several major women’s tournaments over the past 11 years and this is the first time that the feedback and debate has been about tactics, players and teams rather than ‘oh, those girls can actually play’. That feels like an overdue breakthrough, although the tide started to turn at London 2012 when people were exposed en masse to the quality of the global women’s game.”
Obviously the trick now is to ensure that women’s football doesn’t just become another version of those sports that a Brit wins an Olympic medal at, gets put on a stamp and then nobody gives a flying one for the next four years.
Greg Dyke, football’s head honcho and professional own-horn tooter, at least sounded pretty genuine when outlining the steps the FA would be taking to harness the goodwill and popularity brought about by the tournament in this piece in the Daily Telegraph, including their ‘We Can Play’ initiative to get more girls playing the game. Even if some of that piece does see him plug said own horn next to a big Marshall amp and turn it up to 11, stopping just short of Sepp Blatter’s claim that he is the ‘godfather’ of the women’s game, he seems to mean it.
As well as this, organisations like Women In Sport are working to increase interest and participation (211,000 women aged 16 and over currently play football at least once a month), through things like ‘Soccercise’, basically a workout with a football, used as a way into the game for someone who’s never played before, or as training for those that have. Additionally, a big chunk of the sponsorship money recently committed to the FA Women’s Cup will be put towards a country-wide programme of girls-only football events, geared towards increasing participation.
Chief Executive of Women in Sport Ruth Holdaway said: “It is fantastic to see more media coverage of high profile women’s sport events like the Women’s World Cup…the impact increased visibility has on making sport more normal for women and girls is incredibly significant.
“The FA have been running a Girls’ Football Festival programme since 2011. Since the World Cup started at the beginning of June, interest has rocketed and attendance has increased; a result of the England team’s performances as well as the considerable media coverage.”
Obviously another priority is to increase interest in the Women’s Super League, currently on hiatus during the World Cup. One current disadvantage that has is because of a relative lack of money in the game, the world’s biggest stars like Abby Wambach and Marta play elsewhere, but England’s success could change that too. Only one of the current squad, Portland Thorns’ Jodie Taylor, play outside of England, so the draw of the current squad might increase following this tournament. Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all have teams in the WSL, although slightly embarrassingly Manchester United do not. The FA Cup final between Chelsea and Notts County will be played at Wembley for the first time this year on August 1, and will again be broadcast on the BBC.
Of course the media, including this website, can do more too, and this is not supposed to be a preachy article designed to ‘bully’ anyone into watching women’s football; most of us have busy lives, and the choice of football all year round is often overwhelming. But hey, if you’ve enjoyed the World Cup this year, why not watch a bit more women’s football when it’s done?
“It’s important that the women’s game becomes self-sustaining in the long term rather than rely on hand-outs from the FA and clubs,” says Oatley. “People need to know where their local clubs are, when the matches are and how they can buy tickets. Engage with the approachable, accessible players post-match and buy shirts with their names on. Once the gates are up and more sponsors are on board, only then can we say that England’s success at this World Cup has been truly game-changing.”
Nick Miller

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