Never before have women been so interested in football. Anne Coddington thinks that clubs need to realise this quickly
“90% of males are happily married. To eleven men,” say the posters from Carling. Who’d have thought, then, that the fastest growing section of support was actually young women, and that we no longer stand out at football matches like the proverbial sore thumb. Though there’s plenty who still find us more than a minor irritant. “See you’ve brought the wife along,” is still a regular welcome, though that’s enlightened compared to the treatment handed out to female golden goal sellers venturing along the touchline with a modicum of confidence.
Underneath all this there’s a fear, an unspoken assumption that women are responsible both for the gentrification of football and for softening its rough edges. But accepting women fans – and others traditionally excluded – is one way in which all fans could protect what they hold most dear: that football remains a live spectator sport.
That women go to matches in significant numbers is now accepted fact. But they are still not portrayed as dyed-in-the-wool fans. Only last season the Carling Premiership kicked off the season with a ‘Get your kit off’ game in conjunction with the Sun, complete with sexy model putting on her football kit.
The only national initiative to date that has targeted women fans was organized by the FA in the run-up to Euro 96. Ads in the glossy magazines aimed at young women featured images of women as real football fans rather than bimboesque male accessories. The message was clear: being a female football fan doesn’t mean leaving your femininity or independence at home. But the problem with the FA’s campaign is that it was not part of any consistent strategy. After Euro 96 the FA’s attempt to broaden football’s audience was put on the back burner. Helen Willis, marketing and PR coordinator of Euro 96 explained the FA’s position thus: “In terms of advertising on behalf of individual clubs after the tournament, that is not part of our brief. We administer national events. It is down to individual clubs to then advertise themselves to new fans.”
But if the football authorities don’t take a lead and provide the support and infrastructure for reaching an unrepresented audience, then who else will? Some attempts have been made by lower division clubs to attract specifically women fans. Blackpool, for example, offers cut price tickets on Mothers’ Day. Some might say such initiatives smack of tokenism. But they do at least give a constituency previously excluded from football a foot in the door.
But these clubs tend to be the ones that don’t have the resources to promote themselves week in week out. What a difference it would make if the FA together with the Premier and Football Leagues were able to organize a campaign across the divisions they administer aimed at encouraging women to go to games.
Clubs can’t just assume that a natural constituency exists indefinitely by right, that the kids who are going to matches today will always sink their money into football rather than Nintendo games or the like, and that their kids will do likewise. While the income brought in by fans may no longer be as substantial as that from sponsorship or TV deals, it is still significant: their presence attracts club sponsors, and they buy merchandise and shares in the club.
Making new fans, of which the burgeoning female audience are a crucial part, means accepting that not all fans are the same, that they have different needs, emotional attachments, and degrees of loyalty. There are any number of examples of how this can be done. The football in the community scheme, for example, is a solid enough start, but just how seriously do most clubs take it? Just opening up the stadium facilities to a wider range of users would be a start. This could involve turning the club’s physiotherapy service into a public resource; there could be aerobics classes at the training round on a Saturday; why not have mother and baby groups in the executive boxes on weekdays? There should be open days for people not born into football-following families, so they can acquaint themselves with the club that exists in the heart of their locality.
New stadia are springing up based on the assumption that the audience for football is still growing. If all those seats are going to be filled, especially when the team isn’t near the top of the Premiership, clubs will have to reach out and bring in new faces, which involves accepting that there is no such thing as an identikit fan – we’re all different.
If this process did begin, women would move further into football’s frontline. We are a massive untapped but increasingly sympathetic audience, just waiting to be asked to play ball. But male fans need to make up their minds whether they want us aboard or not. There’s nothing wrong with a sense of history, but talk of football’s traditions often involves harking back to the days when a woman’s place was anywhere but the terraces.
From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month