What women’s football needs to ensure sustainable growth

womens football

From multi-million-pound sponsorship deals and Nike’s kit unveilings, to record-breaking domestic sell-outs and creative use of social media, the build-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in Paris has seen a concerted effort to put Women’s football in the public eye.

While awareness is growing, there are still many issues that need to be resolved so the game does not have to rely on tent-pole events to sustain itself between World Cups. To discuss the challenges that women’s football will need to overcome to enjoy sustained growth, both domestically and on the international stage, we talked to Women in Football Director Jo Tongue about the importance of media coverage, consistent funding and the normalisation of women’s involvement in football – on and off the field.


How has the attitude towards women’s sport changed in the past decade?

“It has completely changed. The 2012 Olympics helped a lot because I think we saw women being successful beyond track and field. I actually grew up watching men’s football because the only women’s football I had access to was the FA Cup final, which was always on TV. That was it really. We had Sally Gunnell. We had athletes and a few tennis players growing up, but apart from that we didn’t have anyone to aspire to be. I think 2012 changed the landscape in that all these successful, strong, talented women were suddenly visible, and that included the GB football team.

“This year it feels like it has really gone mad and I don’t really know why. Whether it’s because we have become successful – our football team is ranked third in the world and won the SheBelieves Cup, the netballers winning the Commonwealth Gold last year, athletes like Dina Asher-Smith. It might be that, but then success generates press coverage.”


How much of that success is affected by the media coverage?

“If you don’t normalise women’s sport by writing about it as you would about men’s sport then people think it is alien. Unless you know it’s happening and unless you know why it is of interest, and you know about the characters, you won’t care for it.

“The Women’s World Cup is going to be amazing, but you’ve got to build up the characters before that. We all care about Phil Neville because we know him, so you’re already invested. But a lot of the female players can still walk down the street and not get noticed. That would never happen to a male England international.

“The only way we are going to be successful is if we continue to have successful sports people coming through. The only way you are going to be successful as a sports woman is if you have someone you aspire to be. The media have a responsibility to promote these players and athletes.

“The same goes for off the field roles. if you go to men’s football as a young woman and you see a woman sitting on the bench in a coaching capacity, it helps to normalise female involvement. Just as it would for young boys who are coached by a woman or seeing more female pundits on television.”


What is the most important thing for women’s football going forward?

“Being commercially viable. Top-level domestic women’s football is still bankrolled by the men’s clubs at a loss. It has not been commercialised properly and that is partly to do with media rights and because of gates.

“The Barclays sponsorship is welcome news and is a step in the right direction. The distribution of the Barclays money is still to be decided but will probably go by league position, which doesn’t help those clubs that will always be mid/ bottom of the table and don’t have large cash injections from the men’s teams.

“We lost Sheffield FC and Doncaster Bells from the Championship last summer for financial reasons, and I’m worried about the sustainability of teams like Birmingham and Reading who are funded by clubs in the Championship. These teams are not supported by clubs that can afford to write off millions each year. They need the sustained financial support that comes from sponsorship deals.

“The only way we can advance the game and improve standards is to put money into it. But potential sponsors must see that they are getting value and the only way is if they are seeing improvements in coverage, interest and quality. It is a two-fold thing. Whoever is running the game needs to put pressure on the broadcasters to show games at sensible times so that they then have an attractive package to give to sponsors.”


How important is the FAWSL to putting the England team into a good position before the World Cup?

“Crucial because the Women’s Super League players are now professional and training every day for the first time. This is the first year that every single Lioness that goes to the World Cup will be able to dedicate themselves to just one job. It is absolutely crucial for improving standards across players and coaches. You can’t go to the World Cup and expect success without professional players who are training every day.

“Clubs that are uniting their teams are incredibly valuable. Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham and City. They all train at the same training grounds as the men, giving them the same access to professional level facilities and staff as the men.

“Bringing everything under the same roof is also valuable in terms of standing. Manchester City had a very successful social media campaign that dropped gender and just became Man City, promoting all of their teams on their channels, I love that and there are a number of teams that are doing the same thing. Financial support, shared facilities and promotion across social media with all the key messaging treated in the same way that men are. It is helping to make women’s football normal in the eyes of the general public.”


Looking Forward

In an article for Harrod Sport, Open University sociology Professor Kath Woodward identified that traditionally masculine sports are starting to change. “Years ago, people said that women couldn’t box because ‘what if they cry or want to have babies’. But with the rise of stars like Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams, women are taken seriously in the sport, and the inclusion of boxing in the Olympics has generated serious commentary.”


Football is also making a considered effort to de-gender and truly become a sport for all. It has taken great strides in recent years, and with a World Cup to demonstrate how far the game has come, both on and off the field, many feel that Paris 2019 could be a watershed moment that signals the beginning of a new, sustainable era for the women’s game.

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