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If We Want Women’s Football to Have More Investment, More People Need to Watch It

Women’s football has become more and more popular in recent years. In spite of what sexist morons like Joey Barton might want you to believe, the game is just as worthy of your attention as the men’s side of the sport and female pundits are just as capable as their counterparts that have a penis.

The problem is, the game can’t really grow without an increase in investment and companies are unwilling to invest unless the game grows. It is the typical ‘chicken and egg’ argument, with one being necessary for the other and the other being necessary for the one. The problem is, how is the cycle broken in order to see the sport improve?

A Brief History of Women’s Football

womens football match 1924
Agence Rol. Agence photographique (commanditaire), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It might surprise some people to learn that there was a point when women’s football was just as popular as the men’s side of the game. During the formative years of the sport in the latter part of the 19th century into the early part of the 20th, women’s football saw just as many attendees as the men’s game did. In fact, there are records that suggest that women were playing casual football matches as early as the 15th century.

As the game grew, of course, so did the backlash from certain parts of society. During the First World War, the women’s side of the game became extremely popular, with almost every town having a women’s team.

On the 27th of December 1920, for example, 53,000 people turned up to Goodison Park in Liverpool in order to watch Dick Kerr Ladies defeat St Helens 4-0 in a friendly match for charity. When World War One came to an end, though, the success of the women’s game was seen as a threat to the men’s.

As a result, the Football Association introduced a countrywide ban on women’s football in 1921, effectively saying that women were banned from playing organised football on any professional pitches or with any facilities that the FA controlled. Lies were told to the press about the financial situation of the women’s game as well as their physical durability.

The Slow Growth of the Women’s Game

woman football player stretching on the pitch

In 1971 the ban was finally lifted. Although some women had obviously continued to play football in the intervening years, they didn’t do so in any sort of meaningful way whilst the men’s game went through an incredible progression.

Long-term damage had been done to women’s football, which it took decades to improve upon. It took until 2009 for the Football Association to introduce central contracts for women, meaning that it took more than 30 years from the lifting of the ban for women to even be able to make money from the sport. There was no professional league for women in England in 2018.

Thanks to the FA’s short-sighted and entirely sexist ban, the women’s game had all but ground to a halt in any sort of meaningful way. The result was that the growth of the sport of football for women was glacial in its progress. In spite of this, there remained and remains a strong desire for people to be able to watch women play football.

As soon as the ban was lifted in 1971, 90,000 people went to the Estadio Azteca in Mexico to watch Mexico defeat Argentina and then England in the Mundial. Yet still there was resistance from some quarters, which is why it took nearly 50 years for the game to grow in any meaningful way.

Looking at the Long-Term

womens world cup match 2015
IQRemix from Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If women’s football is to grow then it needs investment. That much is clear for all to see. In the eyes of Karen Carney, who was asked to chair an independent review of women’s football, it has the capacity to grow to be a billion-pound sport within ten years. In order for that to happen, though, it needs to receive investment now.

Both the elite and the grassroots levels of the game need to see wide-ranging reform take place, with the creation of a fully professional environment in the top-two levels of the game, which would include a minimum salary in the Women’s Super League as well as sufficient mental and physical healthcare.

There is an audience there, which was shown when the Lionesses won the European Championship in 2022 and 17.4 million tuned in to watch on the BBC. That made it the most-watched TV programme of the year up until that point, with another 5.9 million streaming the match on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport apps.

In addition, 87,192 people turned up to Wembley to see the match play out. It shows, quite clearly, that there is no objection to women playing football from the audiences that tune in to see them do it. Even when the Lionesses lost to Spain in the World Cup final, a peak of 14.8 million tuned in to see it happen.

Will Investment Come?

football fans colourfully dressed

Knowing that there are millions of people willing to watch women’s football at the highest level is one thing, but figuring out a way to encourage investment is something else entirely. Part of the issue for the women’s game is that the men’s side of the sport seems to be continuously growing.

From the expansion of the Champions League through to more and more nations being invited to take part in the likes of the World Cup and the European Championship, it feels as though there is a men’s football match being played at almost every time of day somewhere in the world. This means that sponsors already have football they could get involved in before turning to women’s football.

In the end, football supporters are tribal. Liverpool fans might be more focussed on the men’s team, but many will be keen to see the women’s team doing well. If matches are allowed to be played at Anfield, that will see even more people paying attention as it means that the might be able to attend the stadium for the first time.

That is just as true of the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. If the women’s game is going to grow and find the investment that it needs to take it to the next level, attaching itself to the coat tails of the men’s game might just be the way forward. Joey Barton might not like it, but it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.