Coverage and reputation improved
25 September ~ The England Women's national side played its first fixture since the Olympics last Wednesday, seeing off Croatia 3-0 to top their qualifying group and secure a place at Euro 2013 with an unbeaten record. It is hoped that the increased awareness of the women's game after a string of impressively attended Great Britain games at London 2012, coupled with an England side which is arguably the most competitive in its history, will help achieve the long sought after increase in interest and gates around the country.
The Croatia game, at Walsall's stadium, attracted a crowd of 5,821. Thursday's Independent felt the need to prefix the gate as "just 5,821", despite the fact that recent home games are the most highly attended matches in this country since England hosted the European Championship in 2005.
Given the novelty factor of the Olympics it is unrealistic to expect those kind of viewing figures to be matched but it does suggest that interest is there. Performances such as the 1-0 Wembley win over Brazil should also do much to command respect in a game that has historically struggled to achieve it: as Sir Bobby Charlton commented: "I was sceptical of women's football. That was a mistake. Women's football used to be ridiculed but not any more."
Despite gates still falling well short of those seen at the lower end of the men's game, the FA Women's Super League (WSL) has benefitted from a move to summer. The average attendance last season was 550 with four of the eight clubs breaking their record attendance, leading to a 604 per cent rise in the number of fans coming through the turnstiles compared to when the league was played in winter.
Hope Powell's Great Britain side, made up of English and Scottish players, played to at least 24,000 fans in each of their four games, including over 70,000 against Brazil. Even before then England attracted an average of 4,500 fans to their first three Euro 2013 qualifying fixtures.
At the end of August 1,500 people were at Skelmersdale to see Liverpool face Everton in the WSL. Allowing for the fact this was a derby match it was still a significant increase on the usual numbers. The issue will be to maintain interest in the game once the positive memories of Great Britain's campaign have died down. Liverpool's next home game against Birmingham was witnessed by 143.
Speaking in the aftermath of the defeat to Canada in the Olympic quarter-final, Powell noted that "People are now aware that women's football does exist and that it is a fantastic product". Perhaps the word product is key: it is all very well being high quality but it won't be a success unless it can find an audience.
ESPN holds the rights to highlights and six live WSL matches per season, including this Sunday's possible title clincher for Arsenal against Doncaster. The Olympics, television presence and a move to a summer league away from clashes with the men's game are positive steps towards a more successful future for women's football in England. The challenge now is to sustain it. Matt Ramsay